Battle of the Bugs

Wasps from India, Egypt, Australia, and Taiwan, cultivated in Puerto Rico, are shipped to Davie to battle the mealybug.
Colby Katz

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."  

The destruction posed by the PHM isn't the kind likely to register in the minds of most South Floridians as an imminent bioterrorism threat. But to those who seek to protect the region's tropical flora, the PHM blight ranks as a serious concern. "There is a big impact," Shea insists, especially to the local nursery industry (much of which is located along the western border of Broward and Miami-Dade counties) and the business of exporting ornamental plants abroad. "When it was found here, " he adds, "countries threatened to stop importing plants from South Florida."

After colonizing a plant, mealybugs get down to tapping the stalks and branches of the plant and drinking the liquids within. At the same time, they inject toxic saliva, leaving the hibiscus looking stunted and sick. The pink females, soft squishy blobs about three millimeters long, look like tiny, frosted, cherry-flavored gumdrops. Males are the same size but can take to the skies on waxy wings. Once the pests get to work, they begin coating the hibiscus leaves with a white, cottony wax that makes them nearly invulnerable to spray-on chemicals.

How the PHM found its way to a residence in Miramar shortly before it was discovered by a concerned homeowner on June 13, 2002, remains a mystery. The most likely scenario involves an individual traveling somewhere in the Caribbean and unwittingly bringing the pest home on an article of clothing or an infected plant.

The good news is, less than two years later, it looks as if the PHM is feeling the hurt from the parasitic wasps. And the whole project has set the state back only $100,000. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates that 95 to 98 percent of the mealybugs have been put out of commission, though leaving millions wreaking havoc throughout the region. You won't find Burgos or Shea dancing on the deck of an aircraft carrier under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." The slogging, street-level cleanup operation continues. "It [the mealybug] will never be eradicated," Burgos says, "just controlled."

Burgos' little predators are harmless to humans, he stresses. "When I tell [homeowners] what I'm doing, they think, 'Oh, wow, wasps. I'm gonna get stung!'" he says laughing. But the combat-ready little wasps, about as tiny as gnats, don't bite or sting. Still, since inspectors and field supervisors drive the same vehicles used by the citrus canker patrols, it's common to encounter less-than-enthusiastic individuals as they survey for PHM. Burgos says he won't even enter unfenced backyards to inspect plants. "I don't want someone to pull a gun on me," he says.

Canvassing turf all the way up to Wellington and down to Homestead, Burgos puts about 100 miles a day on the van, looking for sickly hibiscus plants. But most of the attention is still focused within a 20-mile circle surrounding the Miramar outbreak. And on that front line, Burgos stealthily advances with his microbayonets.

Arborwood Circle in suburban Davie is home to cookie-cutter rows of stucco homes, with yards attractively landscaped with royal palms, traveler palms, coconut palms, bright-fuchsia bougainvillea, and all varieties of hibiscus. Noticing a thatch of barely blooming plants tucked between two houses, Burgos slows the Astrovan, turns on the blinkers, and parks it on the street. He enters information into his Palm Pilot (with its attached GPS antenna, his precise coordinates are never in doubt) and prepares to unleash some deadly wasp action.

Burgos opens the sliding door of the van and removes a plastic vial from the cooler. The 200 miniature wasps swarm about inside the vial, becoming more active as they sense their appointed task is near. While examining the infected tree, with bits of tell-tale white wax still clinging to it, Burgos expertly pops the cap off with a single flick of his thumb and places the wasp container, upside down, on the end of one diseased branch. As the wee beasties begin to swarm and explore their new digs, a jet descending through Davie's airspace blankets the subdivision with noise. But after it passes, the stillness is broken by the slightest hum, the sound of 400 tiny wings oscillating wildly.  

No one is at home, so Burgos places a neon-pink flier on the doorknob advising the residents about the PHM menace. By the time he returns to the side of the house, the vial of wasps is nearly empty.

A neighbor drives by slowly and shoots Burgos a suspicious look as he's spraying off his shoes again. Not long ago, Burgos was standing in someone's front yard in Miramar checking out a hibiscus bush when a neighbor slowly stalked him, worried that the inspector was a burglar casing properties in the area. "I guess he was just one of those concerned citizens," Burgos shrugs. And several months ago, while searching for mealybugs in Kendall, he knocked on a woman's door to ask if he could take a gander at her plants. "She wanted me off her property, " he recalls. "She said, 'You guys came over and cut down all the citrus trees in my backyard!' So I went down the street and released [the wasps] there. Of course, I didn't want to say anything."

Despite their tiny size, the wasps have more than a three-mile flight radius, he points out with an impish smile. "So they're gonna take care of her."

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