Students Study Asian Citrus Psyllid

Students Study Asian Citrus Psyllid

May 2, 2016

Story provide by Cal Poly State University

A disease that can kill citrus trees, and the insect that carries it, have been affecting fruit production at Cal Poly State University in California.  But as Richard Gearhart reports, sometimes what looks like a devastating set back can actually be a great learning opportunity for students.

The citrus orchards at Cal Poly are under quarantine. Just less than a year ago, a tiny insect called an Asian Citrus Psyllid was found in the neighboring city of San Luis Obispo. While nothing has been found on the campus, the insect was close enough to put the university under quarantine.

“When the psyllid is found, " says Dr. Lauren Garner a fruit science professor, "quarantines zones are established so that we know we need to take certain treatment precautions if we are going to ship trees or fruit anywhere.”

Dr. Lauren Garner teaches fruit production at Cal Poly. She says the danger is not with the psyllid itself, but rather what it can carry with it.

“And the main problem," says Garner, "with this insect isn’t so much that is feeds on citrus plants, which it does, but that it’s also the vector or the carrier for a disease causing organism that results in a really devastating disease called Huanglongbing.”

While the Cal Poly trees remain pest and disease free, the discovery nearby means some changes for students.

“The primary way that this situation is effecting the Cal Poly orchard," says Garner, "is that the California Department of Food and Agriculture is interested in either trying to prevent HLB from getting into commercial groves or at least slow down its potential likelihood of getting into the groves. So they do it by trying to limit the movement of the psyllid itself.”

It’s an attempt to keep what happened in Florida, from happening in California.  The impact of HLB in Florida was estimated to top $4.5 billion in just the five years between 2006 and 2011.  It is the most serious disease a citrus tree can contract.  In as little as four or five years later, the tree withers into a brown skeleton and dies. There is no cure.

But Garner says what takes a toll on industry is actually good for students.  “As an instructor" says Garner, "these kinds of challenges are very useful for me in terms of teaching. I do wish it was something that the citrus industry didn’t have to deal with because there have been a lot of recent advances in research that’s related to HLB, but there still isn’t a cure. And because it’s so devastating in the citrus industry which is so large both in California and at Cal Poly, we are really hoping to contribute to limiting the spread of the psyllid.”

And with the current quarantine making it’s way to campus, the students are getting a hands on education on pest and disease control.

“Now we just inspect all of the fruit that people have picked," says Garner, "to make sure that no stems or leaves are in the bags that or being taken out or attached to the fruit so that we know IF we had a psyllid in the orchard, we wouldn’t be allowing it to be transported anywhere else.”


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