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Pink Hibiscus Mealybug

An infected plant.

The Department of Agriculture is working to contain and eradicate the pink hibiscus mealybug (PHM), a serious plant pest that has been discovered in George Town.

"For 12 years, the DoA has been on alert and monitoring the spread of PHM throughout the region," said Chief Agricultural and Veterinary Officer Dr Alfred Benjamin. "The aim, of course, was to keep the pest from Cayman's shores.

"However, late afternoon yesterday (Wednesday, 21 June), the Florida Department of Agriculture's laboratory confirmed that samples taken on Monday from the suspect area was positive for PHM."

The initial survey indicates that several properties within a quarter-mile radius have been affected. However, the department's surveillance efforts are continuing in order to determine the true extent of the infested area, Dr Benjamin said. The department is working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture in managing the PHM.

Once the presence of the pest was confirmed, department staff immediately launched its plan, developed in 1996 when PHM became a regional threat, to combat the pest. The plan has been periodically updated, Dr Benjamin noted, which allowed it to be placed in action quickly.

The integrated pest management (IPM) plan includes four areas of control: cultural, classical biological, chemical, and legal. DoA's Assistant Director Adrian Estwick explained the categories.

"With cultural control, the department will focus on removing and destroying heavily invested plants; classical biological control refers to importing and releasing natural enemies of the PHM," he said.

"Chemical control involves the responsible use of pesticides in specific cases, mostly nurseries, to work toward zero tolerance for PHM. Lastly, legal controls could include quarantines of nurseries and garden centres if they become infected, as well as the implementation of laws governing within, as well as inter-island, movement of plants," Mr Estwick said.

PHM infests more than 250 agricultural and horticultural plant species. Some of the plants that can be affected include hibiscus; mahoe; sorrel; mango; sweet and sour sop; avocado, citrus, guava, tomato and peppers.

The pest feeds on plant sap and also releases toxic substances that may injure or slowly kill the plant. While PHM have no effect on humans and animals, they can hitchhike on them and be carried away to infest plants in other areas. Wind and ants are other agents that can spread PHM.

In the mid-1990s, PHM caused economic losses in excess of $3.5 million a year in Grenada and $125 million a year in Trinidad and Tobago, according to US Department of Agriculture reports.

Cayman's public is therefore asked to pay particular attention to plants on their properties, as well as those in public places, by looking for white, cotton-like masses on the plants.

"If these are seen, do not attempt to cut or otherwise destroy the plants, as this would increase the risk of spreading the pest," Dr Benjamin emphasised.

"Instead, call the Department of Agriculture on 947-3090 and report your findings. By tomorrow, (Friday, 23 June), the public can also contact the department using its hotline, 1-800-534-BUGS (2847)."

Is it PHM? Look for:

  • crinkled or twisted leaves and shoots;
  • white, cotton-like masses on stems and trunks of plants;
  • presence of ants, a sticky secretion, and black, sooty mould; and
  • eventual death of plants.

For further information contact: Angela Piercy