From The PB Daily News
Whiteflies descend on Palm Beach, destroying ficus hedges
A cluster of fig, or ficus, whiteflies are caught in a spider web on a ficus hedge.
This ficus hedge off North Lake Way is sparse Wednesday after being occupied by the fig whiteflies.
Scores of tiny white bugs have descended upon Palm Beach, devouring hedges and other plants in town while leaving behind a sticky mess.
Palm Beach, like much of southeast Florida, has struggled this spring and summer with an explosion of whiteflies.
A relatively cold winter and dry conditions appear to have aggravated the whitefly nuisance this year, Bill Schall, commercial horticulture agent at the Palm Beach County/University of Florida agriculture extension office, said Wednesday.
“It may be that the drought has had an effect because stressed plants may be more susceptible to insects and plant diseases,” he said.
There are mainly three species of whitefly attacking ficus hedges and other plant life in Palm Beach. Two are the ficus whitefly and silverleaf whitefly.
The third and newer strain is the rugose spiraling whitefly, which was found in Miami-Dade County in 2009 and has recently arrived in Palm Beach County. Among the larger species of whitefly, it sucks up plant juices through its needle-like mouth. It covers vegetation with a layer of white, fluffy wax and with its excrement, called honeydew. Adults lay their eggs in a spiral pattern on the underside of leaves.
“They really make a mess if the populations are high,” Schall said. “They don’t necessarily kill everything, but plants start to decline and do poorly and, at some point, they can die.”
All three species can be treated with a pesticide applied to the soil at the roots of affected plants. But it doesn’t always work. The poison tends to dry up and lose its effectiveness if there isn’t enough water, Schall said. Another problem is that people sometimes apply less then the recommended amount of the poison.
Whiteflies only live about 30 days, but they breed quickly.
With South Florida in store for another hot summer, the infestation may get worse before it gets better. Researchers are at work identifying natural predators, including several species of beetle, Schall said.
Scott Lewis, owner and manager of Scott Lewis’ Garden and Trimming, said he is seeing a 40-50 percent increase over last year in visible damage to hedges caused by whiteflies.
“One issue is, you may eradicate yours, but your neighbor may have them and he may be gone for the summer,” Lewis said. “That’s been an interesting challenge.”
Hedges and plants that are infested over a period of months would likely sustain severe damage or be destroyed, Schall said.
The rugose spiraling whitefly appears to be especially drawn to the ficus benjamina, also known as the weeping ficus, Lewis said.
The easiest way to tell if your plants have been infested is to shake a limb or run your hand across the leaves, and the gnat-sized whiteflies will immediately show if they are present, he said.
Town Councilman William Diamond said he has lost part of the hedge on his Wells Road property to whitefly infestation. He spent $300 on a treatment to protect his half-acre lot, and was told he will need another treatment in three months, he said.
“It can be devastating,” he said.