Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension agent, squints over a small, yellow rectangle sticky trap.
To save money, the traps have been cut in half, but that isn’t why Bodrey is squinting.
He is squinting past the wasps and mosquitoes looking for one particular pest, the Asian Citrus Psyllid.
He focuses on a few small dots which seem to trouble him.
“These may be a psyllid but I won’t know until I take a look with a microscope, and then I probably still won’t know,” Bodrey said.
The difficulty in identifying the Asian Citrus Psyllid is based on its minute size, only 4-mm when fully grown, roughly the size of four grains of salt and the fact that it looks very similar to any other small flying insect.
So, to clarify his findings, Bodrey sends his samples to Xavier Martini, an entomologist at the North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy.
The clarification is needed in order to map the spread of the Asian Citrus Psyllid, in order to slow the spread of Huanglongbing (HLB), more commonly known in the United States as citrus greening, which the small insect carries.
The disease, caused by the bacteria Candidatus Liberibacter, was first found in southern China in 1919 and spread throughout Southeast Asia.
In June 1998, the first Asian Citrus Psyllid was found in Florida and in August 2005 citrus greening was confirmed in Miami-Dade County.
It is believed that the insect hitched a ride in the belly of a container ship, but the insect quickly spread, hitching rides on nursery trees shipped throughout the state and on fruit as it made its way to the market.
According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), citrus greening has led to a 75 percent decrease in Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry, and can now be found in the citrus groves of California and Texas.
In reaction, the state and federal governments have passed stringent rules and regulations on the citrus industry regarding the transportation of fruit and the trees from which they are harvested from.
While there is a set of rules that basically quarantines the state’s citrus crop, those rules do not apply to what are known as “dooryard” or personal citrus trees, which make up the majority of the Panhandle’s trees.
Long thought immune from the disease because of colder winter temperatures, Florida’s Panhandle has recently seen positive cases of citrus greening in Carrabelle and Apalachicola, along with positive finds of Asian Citrus Psyllids in Bay County.
While Bodrey explained that not all Psyllids carry the bacteria, like those found in Bay County, he was concerned with weather patterns that may lead to a higher chance of the insect spreading.
“We haven’t really had a winter in awhile,” Bodrey said. “So there are thoughts that it could make it here if things continue on this path.”
To track the movement of the insect, Bodrey has laid out a series of sticky traps on dooryard citrus trees in the southern half of Gulf County to collect samples and to share that information with interested parties throughout the state.
He was initially inspecting traps on a monthly basis, but due to recent concerns, Bodrey has bumped up to weekly checks.
On his inspection last week, Bodrey found a confirmed case of a Psyllid in Gulf County.
Bodrey will now take leaf samples to send to a lab to test for greening, and is hopeful that the Gulf County cases will mirror the Bay County example.
While state researchers are trying to find ways to lessen or slow down the impact of citrus greening, no definitive answers have been found in what Bodrey calls a “head-scratcher.”
According to Bodrey, once a tree is infected with the bacteria, there is little to no hope for its survival.
“That’s really all she wrote,” Bodrey said
Bodrey explained that once a tree is infected the leaves will become discolored, which can be confused with simple nutrient deficiency, fruit production will drop, and eventually the fruit will become asymmetrical, two-toned, and will lose its sweetness.
According to Bodrey, the psyllids prefer sweeter citrus species like mandarin and juice oranges, but will infect any citrus trees.
While noting he has recently put in a few citrus trees at his own home, Bodrey said that many extension agents around the state are recommending that people wanting to get into the fruit crop industry should do so with peaches or blueberries.