ON A RECENT DAY, RICK TAPIA PLANNED TO treat more than 50 trees on a Sanibel Island property for rugose spiraling whiteflies. In addition to spraying for flies, he used a longerterm treatment that calls for soaking the soil around tree roots with a solution. Besides his quiet extermination efforts there was very little else happening on Waters Edge Lane, which runs along the Gulf of Mexico. The breezy, overcast noon hour could have lulled a baby to sleep.
Uniformed in a light blue Larue Pest Management Inc. button-down shirt, Mr. Tapia wore a breathing mask, thick rubber gloves, and a backpack-operated, gas-powered blower to mist a solution up into trees or shrubs. Alternately, he sprayed the trees with a pistol connected by a long rubber hose to a tank of solution in his truck. Locating an infested patch of foliage marked by the white and black substances associated with spiraling whiteflies, he aimed and sprayed.
Some pest control companies in Southwest Florida say they’ve been flooded with complaints about the fly, which first appeared here around the end of last year. Mr. Tapia planned to visit three other properties to fight the flies on Thursday, Sept. 13, a nowroutine part of his daily rounds.
“I guess it’s good for business, but it’s a challenge,” said Keith Ruebeling, president of Larue Pest Management Inc. a Lehigh Acres-based company that makes house calls throughout the region. “Once it hit, this thing just took off like crazy. I’ve never seen anything explode like this.”
Insects’ unsightly trail
Doug Caldwell is helping keep track of the flies. He holds a doctorate in landscape entomology and is the commercial landscape extension agent for the University of Florida Collier County Extension Service. The flies likely came from Central America via the Port of Miami, he explained. They first appeared in the United States in Miami- Dade County in 2009 and made their way to the west coast of Florida by late 2011, nesting in the southernmost areas and along the coast first before spreading north. The Florida Keys and Marco Island were two of the heaviest-hit spots before the flies spread north, reportedly to as far as Sarasota County, although there are fewer instances of complaint there.
New bugs pop up in Southwest Florida with some regularity, said Ric Trader, owner of Ants, a pest control company in Port Charlotte. Spiraling whiteflies are following a pattern he’s seen from other insects. Ficus whiteflies are another type that showed up earlier and have since been controlled. Unlike spiraling whiteflies, they can kill a ficus tree. (There are more than 75 types of whitefly found in Florida.)
Roughly 90 local plants and trees play host to spiraling whiteflies. The small white insects don’t sting or pose a health risk and the rugose spiraling version of the whitefly isn’t especially deadly to trees, at least not quickly or directly. The fuss is about the mess they leave behind. When they lay eggs, they discharge a cottony protective covering in spiral paths (hence “spiraling”). They also leave behind their waste, a sticky white substance called honeydew. Those collect on the undersides of leaves or fronds.
“It almost looks hairy when it gets really full on there,” said John Dyches, owner of Premier Pest Management in Naples.
The whitefly droppings end up falling off the bottoms of leaves and onto other leaves, patios, mailboxes, decks and pool enclosures. Dirt and dust cling to the droppings and other bugs feed on it, leaving behind their own waste. All that creates a black, crumbly, organic layer of gunk called sooty mold. To fully clean it off requires powerwashing or scrubbing. You can scrape your fingernail through the sooty mold on a leaf. On some heavily effected trees, one side of a leaf is coated black and the other dusted white.
“It’s more of a nuisance pest, especially in a resort town where they don’t like all the stuff that comes out of the insect,” Dr. Caldwell said.
Because spiraling whiteflies are new to the area, natural predators have yet to develop a taste for them, he explained. That may mean that this initial outbreak will be one of the worst Southwest Floridians can expect.
“You get the new pest and there’s no bad bug to suppress it and it goes wild,” Dr. Caldwell said. “It takes two or three years until the predators and parasites catch up.”
Meanwhile, some people are paying big bucks to have their patios, boats and other surfaces power cleaned after white fly infestations, Mr. Tapia of Larue has observed. Treatment can run from $25- 50 per tree for homeowners. The city of Marco Island set aside $25,000 to pay for treatment to get rid of the pests. That included injecting trees directly in the trunk with a solution that spreads into the leaves and kills the flies or their hatchlings when they use their proboscis to feed on it. The city has spent about $17,000 so far.
“I would say (the presence of rugose spiraling whiteflies on Marco Island) was noted a good 18 months ago, and really, it’s everywhere,” said biologist Nancy Ritche, an environmental specialist for the city. “First it was just on a few species of trees like gumbo limbos, now it has really just jumped to vegetation nearby.”
In fact, it was first called the gumbo limbo spiraling whitefly since it often nested in that tree. Homeowners, however, have probably called it a lot worse. ¦