By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Chances are good that East Hawaii’s newest arrival won’t be feeling much aloha from area residents.
Late last week, Hawaii Department of Agriculture officials said that the coffee berry borer, an invasive pest that has plagued isle coffee growers since it was first identified in South Kona in August 2010, has now made its way to a farm in the Hilo area.
The beetle, a native of Africa, has spread rapidly across the island, moving to coffee fields in North Kona, Ka‘u, and Kohala. As it spreads, it has accounted for precipitous drops in crop yields and coffee bean quality as it becomes established. Some farms in South Kona, the area hardest hit, have reported yield drops of as much as 40 percent, and scientists say that the pest has the potential to cut yields by as much as 80 or 90 percent.
Janelle Saneishi, a spokeswoman for the agriculture department, declined Monday to identify the name of the Hilo-area farm that found the bug infestation.
“Once we start naming individual farms, they (the owners) won’t report it (berry borer) to us. We want them to call us when they see something so we can handle it as soon a possible,” she said. “If you manage your fields well, you can survive the berry borer.”
Officials would only say that the berry borer was found on a farm located in the Amau‘u‘u area of Hilo, mauka of the area north of the “Singing Bridge.”
Patrick Conant, the Department of Agriculture’s entomologist for East Hawaii, said Monday that the discovery of the berry borer in Hilo still needed to be confirmed by the state taxonomist in Honolulu, who was waiting to receive a sample of the insect. But Conant said that step in this case was largely “a formality.”
“It’s in Hilo,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of this, and I’m sure.”
Now that the berry borer has been found in Hilo, he said, its spread to other East Hawaii farms will likely be accelerated.
“I hate to say it, but it can often be (spread) because of pickers,” he said. “They (the bugs) can be pretty mobile. It can hitch a ride on clothing, shoes, tires. It’s up to the growers to talk to them (pickers) and convince them to leave their stuff (equipment, clothing) with the other growers when they come to work. … This is a tough thing, and a lot of people have resigned themselves that they’re going to get it.”
While there is a quarantine in place to prevent the berry borer’s spread to other islands, experts say it is simply a matter of time before all growers on Hawaii Island will have to deal with the pest.
But, Conant said, East Hawaii growers may have it a bit easier, because of the relative sparsity of farms here, compared with West Hawaii.
“Kona is problematic because you have a lot of growers quite close together, and even if you’re doing your darnedest to control it, if your neighbor is doing nothing, you’re going to be in a bad way. There are people who don’t control it, and you’ve got wild coffee fields where they (berry borers) can go — all of those things produce coffee berry borer. They’re not strong fliers, but they can go a little ways,” Conant said.
“In Hilo, the farms are quite spread out. They’re fairly small and quite isolated. … I’m only aware of two or three in the area, but there could be more.”
The discovery of the berry borer leaves the Hamakua and Puna districts as the island’s only ones where the pest has not been found, and both are not big coffee growing areas, he said.
“To my knowledge, in Puna there’s less than 20 (farms) that have an acre or more, and in Hamakua I’d have to say the same thing,” Conant said.
Farmers in those areas that believe they may have an infestation of the coffee berry borer are asked to contact Conant at 974-4146.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture committed to spending $1 million to combat the berry borer on Hawaii Island. The money will fund the Area Wide Integrated Pest Management Program, based in Hilo, to continue ongoing efforts to educate farmers about preventing the spread of the pest, fund additional research into which pesticides might control the borer, create a plant sanitation program and to study the borer’s genome, to see how similar or different the insect is from other pests.
More information on how to control or delay berry borer infestations can be found online at http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/site/cbb.aspx or http://hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/ppc/coffee-berry-borer-information-page/.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.