Parasitic Wasps May Be Solution to Citrus Greening Disease

Citrus plants throughout the United States, especially in Florida, have suffered from the citrus greening disease. Fortunately, researchers in Arizona have discovered that tiny parasitic wasps could be the solution to this problem.

arizona wasp nesting areasCitrus greening is a serious and devastating plant disease. The disease, which is also known as huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease, is carried by Asian citrus psyllids, small insects that feed on citrus trees. Psyllids are about an eighth of an inch long and have brown mottled wings, and many of them carry the bacteria that causes citrus greening.

Those that do carry the bacteria infect the trees they feed on, and when other psyllids feed on an infected tree, they pick up the bacteria and spread it to more trees. There is no known cure for infected trees, and most die within a few years of becoming infected. A common symptom of citrus greening is partially green fruit, fruit that tastes salty or bitter, and yellow veins in the tree’s leaves.

Out of all the states that grow citrus trees, Florida has suffered the most from citrus greening. Asian citrus psyllids first arrived in 1998, and the first signs of citrus greening appeared in 2005. Since the disease’s first appearance, it has destroyed 90,000 acres of trees in Florida, including lemon, orange, and grapefruit trees. The disease has spread to Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Psyllids have also migrated to California, occupying almost 50,000 square miles in the Southern part of the state. Inspectors have only found one instance of citrus greening in California, though, on a tree that was illegally imported. They also occupy some parts of Arizona, but no instances of citrus greening have been found.

After witnessing the devastating effects of the disease in the Southeast, researchers and growers in Arizona and California have been desperately trying to find the solution to this problem. They have discovered that a species of parasitic wasp, the Tamarixia radiata, may be the answer. The wasps, which are imported from Pakistan, are less than a millimeter long and are shipped in small vials in a cooler.

Tamarixia wasps attack the Asian citrus psyllids and lay eggs in their bodies. When the eggs hatch, the new wasps kill the psyllids as they exit. There are citrus quarantines in seven counties in western Arizona, and researchers hope that by using these wasps, they can eliminate all the psyllids in these areas.

Tamarixia wasps in AZMost of the research and experimentation has taken place in Yuma County. So far, all the trees used for experimentation with the wasps have been in residential areas. The hot summers in Arizona limit the number of Asian citrus psyllids in the state, but bugs can still reproduce in the cooler months. The researchers hope that the Tamarixia wasps will remain in Arizona until the psyllids have been completely eliminated.

Some researchers fear that the wasps will not be a foolproof solution. David Morgan, an entomologist working for the California Department of Agriculture, claims that the wasps cannot be the only method used to control the disease. Other researchers are looking into genetically modifying citrus plants that are more resistant to the disease or breeding Asian citrus psyllids that can’t carry the disease. However, the wasps have been very effective so far at reducing the psyllid population.

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