A $150,000 grant was awarded today to UC Riverside and a Riverside-based biotech firm to bolster their work in developing pesticides capable of eradicating insects that are destroying palm trees in California and elsewhere.
The Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research’s disbursal will be invested in a joint enterprise by the UCR Center for Invasive Species Research and ISCA Technologies, which are seeking to create a pest control formula that’s effective in combating the South American palm weevil.
The weevils are considered a major threat to commercial date palms, as well as coconut palms, African oil palms, sago palms and California fan palms, according to the FFAR.
“This pest has the potential to be devastating to the American date industry,” said Sally Rockey, the nonprofit’s executive director. “The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is encouraged by the collaboration in this project to help mitigate damage from this emerging threat.”
The pests surfaced in San Diego County six years ago, originating from Tijuana, Mexico.
The roughly two-inch-long mature weevils bore holes in leaf bases within the crowns of palm trees, laying eggs and then sealing off the holes. The hatched weevil larvae then feed on trees’ tissue, causing rapid decay.
The creatures are also known to carry the red ring nematode parasite, which can infest palms, eventually killing them.
In addition to San Diego, weevils have shown up in Imperial County and Yuma, Arizona, according to Rockey.
Commercial date tree sales contribute nearly $100 million annually to the economies of Arizona and California, while decorative and potted palms translate to a $280 million annual business, according to the FFAR.
ISCA Technologies CEO Agenor Mafra-Neto said stopping the weevils’ spread will require the use of compounds called “semiochemicals.”
“We believe that this is the weevil’s Achilles heel,” he said. “We will create semiochemical formulations to monitor and control populations of this invasive species in an effective, economical and environmentally friendly manner.”
Pesticides will be mixed and tested in the laboratory. Once an effective concoction is developed, the chemicals will be pasted onto trees, attracting weevils, with the goal of eradicating them through exposure, Mafra-Neto said.
UCR, ISCA Technologies, the California Date Commission and the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association are kicking in matching funds, bringing the total project investment to $300,000, according to campus officials.