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In California, fruit flies are winning the war

UC DAVIS (US) — Despite more than 30 years of intervention and 300 state-sponsored eradication programs, tropical fruit flies have taken up permanent residence in California.

The findings have significant implications for how government agencies develop policies to successfully manage pests that pose a threat to the state’s $43.5 billion agricultural industry, researchers say.

“Despite due diligence, quick responses, and massive expenditures to prevent entry and establishment of these insects, virtually all of the fruit-fly species targeted by eradication projects have been reappearing in the same locations—several of them annually—and gradually spreading in the state,” says James Carey, professor of entomology at University of California, Davis.

“Regulatory policies as well as pest management and agricultural practices need to be revised to reflect the reality that these insects are here to stay. We need to develop long-term strategies to deal with these pests that are effective, safe for public and environmental health, and minimally burdensome to growers,” Carey says.

“Fortunately, the multiple small populations of fruit flies in the state and the long lag times in the growth of these populations will give policymakers and planners time to develop a robust, science-based response.”

Other US states and European nations with conditions equally hospitable to fruit flies, as well as similar patterns of international travel and detections of fruit flies in cargo at ports of entry, don’t have established fruit-fly populations.

“This combination of findings definitively rebuts the hypothesis that the multiple detections of many species of fruit flies in California each year are the result of repeated new introductions,” Carey says. “What we are detecting here are low-level, established populations.”

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Carey collaborated with lead author Nikos Papadopoulos, an entomologist at the University of Thessaly, Greece, and Richard Plant, a UC Davis professor emeritus of plant sciences and biological and agricultural engineering.

“These findings may have wider implications regarding management of fruit-fly invasions that may go well beyond California,” Papadopoulos says. “This unique dataset can provide many fundamental answers regarding many aspects of invasion biology and related global policy.”

“We’re very confident that our results indicate that at least five and possibly several more fruit-fly species are established in California,” says Plant, who provided mathematical modeling and statistical analysis for the study.

The researchers applied computerized data-mapping technology to analyze historical fruit-fly detection data. Using this analysis, they determined that besides the olive fly, which is confirmed as established, the Mediterranean, Mexican, oriental, melon, peach, and guava fruit flies are now also established in the state.

Fruit fly history

Tropical fruit flies, including the infamous Medfly,  have been a concern to California for nearly 60 years, with the first fruit fly discovered here in 1954. Since then, 11,386 individual flies, including adults and larvae representing 17 different fruit-fly species, have been detected in nearly all regions of the state.

Both adult and larval fruit flies pose a threat, with the larvae (maggots) actually burrowing into and damaging a wide range of fruits and vegetables.

Because of the state’s geographic location and climate, California is considered particularly vulnerable to introduction and establishment of tropical fruit-fly populations.

The pests were thought to be arriving either on cargo shipments or on infested fruits carried in by travelers from regions of the world where fruit flies were native or had become established.

State and federal agencies have for many years coordinated efforts to prevent the invasive fruit flies from establishing breeding populations in California and other vulnerable states.

Such activities include restricting commodity imports from regions with ongoing fruit-fly outbreaks, requiring post-harvest treatments for produce grown in areas with established fruit-fly populations, maintaining large-scale fruit-fly monitoring programs for early detection, and release of sterile fruit flies to slow or prevent reproduction of the invasive flies.

The potential costs associated with established fruit-fly populations are substantial. For example, a 1995 study estimated that a confirmed Medfly establishment alone in California would result in $493 million to $875 million in annual direct costs, and the imposition of a related embargo on shipping fruits and vegetables from the state would cause an additional loss of $564 million.

The state economy could lose $1.2 billion in gross revenue and more than 14,000 jobs, the earlier study suggested.

Self-sustaining pests

In the new published study, the researchers report that several lines of evidence now indicate that the fruit flies have become self-sustaining and thus established in California, including:

  • Abrupt initial appearance of fruit flies in the mid-1950s, followed by many repeat detections
  • Seasonality of fruit-fly appearances
  • Northward spread of fruit-fly detections in the state
  • Lack of new detections or introductions of fruit-fly species in most other at-risk regions of the United States and the Mediterranean
  • Multiple detections of several fruit-fly species in nearly the same California locations 20 to 50 years after they were first detected

“Collectively, the data suggest that, much like other invasive species, tropical fruit flies can be present in low numbers for decades,” Carey says. “This ‘lag time,’ which is such a hallmark of invasion biology, explains why California can be harboring very small, established populations of these pests with only periodic captures that reveal their presence.”

Two aspects of the fruit-fly invasions are advantageous for policymakers and planners: all detected fruit-fly species are extremely small and may continue to exist for years below detectable levels, and the fairly long lag times provide opportunities for developing new management protocols and programs.

What can be done?

An immediate assessment should be made of the economic impact of having each species established in the state, projecting the individual and collective effects of the fruit flies for all affected California fruit and vegetable crops, Carey says.

Government agencies might also increase fruit-fly monitoring, particularly in the Central Valley and California’s other agriculturally important areas; make contingency plans for future outbreaks; establish “fruit-fly-free” zones in the state to assure trading partners; and enable farmers to purchase crop insurance that would provide protection against losses due to fruit-fly crop damage or marketing restrictions.

In addition, California farmers and packers should consider the presence of established fruit-fly populations when developing their cropping plans and production strategies.

In the scientific arena, Carey recommends that genetic analyses be developed for all of the fruit-fly species identified in the state, to determine whether single or multiple invasions of each species are occurring and identify new strains that might be introduced in the future.

The study was supported by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and internal funding from the University of California, Davis, and the Cooperative Research Program at the University of Thessaly, Greece.

Source: UC Davis

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3 Comments

  1. Cruz Subia

    How many toxins deadly to other insects including the life sustaining bee, have been used to try and eradicate these fruit flies.!???

  2. Kenneth C Young

    This is a very interesting article on how much trouble the fruit fly can be not only on land but also in a persons home.

    Kenneth C Young

  3. Kenneth C Young

    Read your article on the fruit fly and can see how much trouble these insects can be as on land and also in one’s home.

    Kenneth C Young

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