Battle of the Bugs

The blood runs pink as biowarfare is waged against insect pests

Every Tuesday, Frank Burgos receives a fresh shipment of cold wasps. Bred for bloodthirstiness in a Puerto Rico government laboratory, 4,000 of the insects are overnighted to the Davie office where Burgos reports for duty. He gently removes them from their temporary Styrofoam crypt and places them in a 48-quart, blue-and-white Coleman cooler, the kind favored by weekend picnickers. The small containers packed with little wasps need to stay cold until they're released. If not, the fragile warriors may wither and die, especially since Burgos spends the rest of the week taking them on reconnaissance missions in his state-issued vehicle. "So I try to keep the van as cool as possible," Burgos explains, "without freezing my butt off."

While the wasps are kept on blue ice, Burgos searches for signs of his charges' prey: a slumbering, insidiously slug-like pest called the pink hibiscus mealybug, whose mere presence can send shivers through South Florida homeowners and horticulturalists.

As a thick, early-morning fog starts to burn away from the pastures and parking lots of downtown Davie, Burgos, his van loaded with chilled wasps, heads west down Griffin Road toward the labyrinth of cul-de-sacs called Cooper City.

"I just drive like this," Burgos says, "and I look and I look and I look." He turns south into a newish development out past the Florida Turnpike. It's Burgos' first salvo of the day as part of Florida's statewide crackdown against the stubborn garden destroyer. Without field officers like Burgos and his team of parasites, the soft-bellied mealybugs could decimate South Florida's frost-fearing tropical hibiscus population, as well as a slew of Florida fruits (among others, avocado, fig, and mango), vegetables (asparagus, beets, cabbage, tomatoes), and other ornamental plants.

As residents stare at the slow-moving white Ford Astrovan festooned with stickers reading "State of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: Division of Plant Industry," Burgos knows exactly what they're thinking: Must be the citrus canker man, coming to chop down some trees.But Burgos isn't parking the van in front of the nondescript, two-story tract home to do any chopping. Instead, his attention is focused on a sprawling hibiscus bush in the property's front yard. Even before he walks up to it, he's scanning for signs of "bunchy top," a malady that makes the attractive ornamental considerably less so. "Hibiscus are always in bloom," he says, "and if they're not, you know something's wrong. The dead giveaway is an ugly-looking hibiscus."

This particular hibiscus, though, is shedding its distorted, gnarled clusters, and it appears to be in full bloom. This is good news for Burgos. It means his wasps, bred for one purpose only, have done their work already. When Burgos finds evidence that his critters have vanquished the dreaded pink hibiscus mealybug, he feels triumphant. "Not too many people can say this, but this job is fun," he enthuses.

The high point of Burgos' day is when he discovers that the parasitic wasps he's released have located rogue clusters of pink hibiscus mealybugs, poked holes in their pink, sticky little bodies, and deposited a load of wasp eggs.

Like the monster in the Alien movies, the wasps use the living host as an incubator until the baby wasps hatch and burst through the mealybugs' bodies, killing the bug and eliminating its chance to inflict more damage on South Florida's most ubiquitous ornamental plant. "They actually eat it from the inside out," Burgos says proudly. "When they're ready to emerge, they just pop a hole in the dead mealybug and fly out of there."

Burgos grabs the magnifying loop on a string around his neck and crouches close to the plant, searching for exploded mealybug carcasses. "I can see exit holes where the wasp actually emerges," he says, returning the loop against his Polo-shirted chest. "It's pretty neat." Before getting back in the van, he sprays the soles of his hiking boots with his bottle of 9X-1027 Insecticidal Soap. Can't be too careful around mealybugs.

Back in the Davie office of Florida's Division of Plant Industries, across from the South New River Canal and next to Griff's Western Wear, a laminated map on one wall illustrates the problem in war-room fashion. Titled The Pink Hibiscus Mealybug Situation, the map's multicolored push pins identify sites where the sap-sucking pest has been located and/or eradicated. The red pins, indicating an infected plant, are dwindling, meaning the tide is turning in the 18-month-long "Conquest of the Pink Hibiscus Mealybug."

"We knew it was coming," Scott Shea says sagely, like MacArthur ruminating on the Battle of the Pacific. "It was moving through the Caribbean. It wasn't if it was going to get here; it was a question of when." Shea, a plant and apiary inspector for the division, is Burgos' supervisor. While Burgos works in the field, covering private residences, Shea is in charge of policing commercial growers and nurseries. He remembers the summer of 2002, when the PHM infestation was discovered in a new development off Miramar Parkway. From that initial backyard ground zero, the pest swept through north Miami-Dade, Miramar, Pembroke Pines, and Cooper City. All mealybugs suck -- juices from plants, that is -- but the PHM is particularly nasty where suckage is concerned. "It has a tremendous host range, so it can infect a wide variety of materials," Shea explains. "Other mealybugs can come and move on. This one comes, destroys, and moves on."

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