Palm-Killing Weevil Poses Threat to Southern California Region

Palm trees are an iconic image in Southern California but there is a new threat that could kill them off.

The South American palm weevil, found in Central America and parts of Mexico, has established itself in San Diego County.

Members of the region's agricultural industries gathered Wednesday at a symposium in Bonita, California to discuss the threat.

The insect damages the crown of palm trees, killing them within months.

In May, surveyors found dead palms in Tijuana, Mexico. When they walked across the U.S.-Mexico border into San Ysidro they saw evidence of the weevil there as well.

“Basically we were following a trail of dead palm trees all the way up to the Chula Vista area,” said UC Riverside entomologist Mark Hoddle.

This is a real threat to the region’s ornamental and palm industry, according to Ha Dang, San Diego County Agriculture Commissioner.

The industry generated $1.1 billion in San Diego County in 2014, she said, and the chance of the weevil moving north could be devastating.

“The palm is an iconic symbol of the Southern California lifestyle,” Dang said.

Orange County palm grower W.D. Young has palm trees in developments all across the U.S. including the entrance to Disneyland and the Luxor in Las Vegas, NV.

Duane Young has been in the business for almost 50 years and he’s never seen anything quite like this.

About 30 years ago, the palm tree industry faced a virus attacking Canary Island palms.

“That was a somewhat simple solution,” Young said of a sanitizing process that stopped the disease. “But these insects can move up to 10 miles and are much more of a challenge.”

If a quarantine becomes necessary, it could bring a halt to his business in other states.

“If we can stop it from moving into the rest of California, then we can prevent an awful lot of headaches,” Young said.

Albert Keck, president of Hadley Date Gardens in Thermal, California agrees. He’d like to see action taken now to protect his industry which is not only a large employer in California but generates an estimated $100 million in annual revenue.

“It’s certainly a threat to our industry and I’d like to see it eradicated in San Diego County,” Keck said.

The weevil’s preferred host seems to be the Canary Island date palm but the Phoenix dactylifera is susceptible. That’s the preferred growing date palm in the Coachella Valley.

“If it gets into the interior valleys where the fruits growing, it could be devastating to the industries there,” Keck said.

Not to mention the cost.

“Mature palms are 10 to 20 years in the making so it’s a big investment,” he said.

Hoddle hopes state and federal agricultural experts will begin the process of trapping for the weevil in Southern California so researchers can track it.

"Hopefully through a combination of trapping, pesticide use, monitoring, and removal of infected palms we can contain the pest and hopefully slow down significantly its spread into new areas," Hoddle said.

In the meantime, the University of California and the San Diego Agriculture Commission need the public’s help.

They’re asking people to upload photos of palms they think may have fallen victim to the weevil.

Click here to report infested palms.

UC Riverside entomologist Mark Hoddle describes what a palm tree that’s been infested by the South American palm weevil will look like so owners can identify them and report them to his research project.
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