Spiraling whitefly joins threats to Naples coconut palms along with lethal yellowing

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Ian Orlikoff arrives at another residence on his route to treat coconut palm trees with oxytetracycline. He does this as a preventative practice to protect the trees from lethal yellowing disease. Orlikoff treats these palms four times a year to make sure the trees are protected from the deadly disease.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Ian Orlikoff arrives at another residence on his route to treat coconut palm trees with oxytetracycline. He does this as a preventative practice to protect the trees from lethal yellowing disease. Orlikoff treats these palms four times a year to make sure the trees are protected from the deadly disease.

— Little Harbour — a community nestled between Port Royal and Aqualane Shores — has for years thwarted two of the biggest threats to its coconut palms: Cold weather and lethal yellowing.

But a new pest, the rugose spiraling whitefly, began attacking its coconut palms and others in the county a few weeks ago, heightening arbortists' existing concerns that serious and expensive action will be needed to preserve the 3,300 iconic trees lining the streets of Naples.

"We've been losing more than 150 every year" to freeze and lethal yellowing, Naples Arborist Joe Boscaglia told the city's Community Services Advisory Board last month. "Whatever we come up with is going to be costly."

Alan Keller serves as the landscape chairman in Little Harbour and said the community is treating its trees with a soil injection to repel the whiteflies.

"They're quite large," he said. "In the right light, it kind of looks like you're looking up into a snow storm."

First spotted in Miami-Dade County in 2009, the pest appeared in Collier County in October. The bug feeds on and can kill plants, including coconut palms, or in other cases weaken their defenses to disease. But perhaps the biggest complaint is that they leave behind a sticky excrement that attracts a black mold and leaves unsightly deposits on cars, boat docks and sidewalks.

"Aesthetics are huge in Naples," said Doug Caldwell, a landscape entomologist with the Collier County Extension Office of the University of Florida. "You get a lot of sooty mold or honey dew or waxy stuff at a resort or on people's cars, and they're going to be upset."

Caldwell has noted concentrations of the newest whitefly in Marco Island around Tigertail Beach, and Dan Powell, district manager with the Davey Tree Co., has seen the flies as far north as Bonita Springs.

Powell said they're between the size of a gnat and a house fly and easily noticed because of their color.

The new rugose spiraling whitefly makes a unique spiraling pattern when it deposits its eggs on the undersides of leaves. Holly Glenn/UF/IFAS

The new rugose spiraling whitefly makes a unique spiraling pattern when it deposits its eggs on the undersides of leaves. Holly Glenn/UF/IFAS

The rugose spiraling whitefly arrived in Miami-Dade County in 2009. The infestation first spread south to Monroe and north to Palm Beach counties. Now, it has been found in Collier County.

"They're mutants, I tell you," he said. "And they could kill the tree if left unprotected for like a year. You can imagine how it would exhaust the palm's energy."

In Naples, freeze also has weakened coconut palms to lethal yellowing in the past.

Boscaglia has considered uprooting inland coconut palms in parts of the city where cold weather most affects them.

Naples used to inoculate city trees against lethal yellowing for $15 a tree annually, but costs grew as the disease spread and the city turned responsibility over to homeowners who had to pay for preventative treatment themselves. The trees also require some of the most upkeep. The city trims its coconuts annually and up to three times a year in some parts of town, Boscaglia said.

Dropping coconuts can damage cars and require cleanup.

But not everyone treats their palms, and without a consistent treatment plan, lethal yellowing spreads quickly. Once a tree is infected, there's no saving it, Boscaglia said. Recovering from freeze is possible but not likely, and city ordinances require that dead trees be cut down.

Boscaglia will present a range of options — including replanting some trees or removing them altogether — to the Community Services Advisory Board, which then will make recommendations to City Council as to how to proceed.

The city recently completed a Queen Palm replacement program, removing about 200 of the trees each year for four years and replacing them with various hardwood and palm trees at an annual cost of about $100,000. The Queen Palms had fallen prey to two types of fungus-related diseases.

Boscaglia hasn't given a formal presentation to the advisory board as to how or whether to address ongoing coconut palm issues.

"This community is very pro tree," he said. "They could tell me to keep planting coconuts. There may be overwhelming support for or against these options. We're going to give them all the avenues but our funding economies will dictate."

Mayor Bill Barnett said he'd hate to see the trees disappear in the future.

"Coconut palms are absolutely synonymous with the Naples image," he said.

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