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Code orange: California citrus trees are under attack

Cecilia Aros/ Flickr Creative Commons

An emergency situation is becoming increasingly critical as efforts expand by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to control a bug that's threatening the more than $1 billion the state economy juices from the citrus industry.

Responsible for transmitting the deadly, incurable Huanglongbing disease to citrus-producing trees, the Asian Citrus Psyllid, though not inherently vengeful, is poised to carry out widespread destruction of the state's commercial citrus groves.

On Tuesday, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution supporting the state's efforts to stop the spread of the insect, the SB Sun reports. The resolution allows the county's agricultural commissioner to require treatment of citrus trees located within 400 meters from where an insect is found.

The discovery of even one sick tree in the region could potentially set off a devastating chain of events. Psyllids that feed on infected plant tissue will carry to healthy fruit trees a bacterium that causes Huanglongbing (HLB or "citrus greening") disease. The disease turns the leaves yellow, the fruit bitter, and kills the tree.

Said CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle, "It's a death sentence for a citrus tree...the only thing left to do with the trees is to cut them down and burn them, and that would be devastating to the citrus industry."

Officials strongly believe that diseased trees, "likely smuggled into the state by travelers," are already present in the region, and that it's just a matter of time until the psyllids find them. Earlier this year, officials implemented the ol' "swallow the spider to catch the fly" tactic to try and curb the bad bug outbreak.

Mark Hoddle, an entomologist and director of the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside, and his team are releasing parasitic wasps, Tamarixia radiata, in a combined agency effort to stop the Asian Citrus Psyllid population, infestation, migration to the Coachella Valley.

"The idea is that the parasites come out of the vials, then move along the tree looking for Asian Citrus Psyllids to attack ... and then from there the population will spread out to other properties and attack other psyllids," said Hoddle. 

Crews have treated with insecticide approximately 67,000 trees on residential properties in Los Angeles County in the last 18 months. Additional treatment is expected in Beaumont, Banning, Cabazon, Redlands, Highland, Grand Terrace, Mentone, Loma Linda and various cities across Riverside County.

The tree killing bugs were first detected in California in 2008.