The discovery in Santa Ana of a tiny insect that typically carries a tree-killing disease has brought California's $1.6-billion citrus industry one step closer to an agricultural disaster, experts said.
State agricultural officials said Tuesday that they recently trapped five adult Asian citrus psyllids on a lemon tree at a home in Santa Ana. They have sent the insects off to a lab to see whether they are carrying the bacteria that causes citrus greening, a disease that has ravaged groves in Florida and wiped out much of the citrus industries in China, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Brazil.
Until now, the bugs had been found in San Diego and Imperial counties, but the nearest outbreaks of citrus greening itself are in Louisiana and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Test results are expected later this week or next week.
"Wherever the psyllid goes, the disease has followed. . . . Our only hope is to find the disease early and try to deal with it," said Ted Batkin, president of the Citrus Research Board in Visalia.
"Having it as far north as Santa Ana means that the pest could be anywhere in the entire Los Angeles basin. This is not good. We are not containing the pest," Batkin said.
Other experts also believe there is little chance that state and federal efforts to prevent the disease from reaching California will be successful.
"It is just a matter of time," said Beth Grafton-Cardwell, a UC Riverside entomologist based in the San Joaquin Valley. "Beating down the number of psyllids will help slow it but not stop it."
The bacterial disease, also called Huanglongbing, or HLB, ruins the taste of fruit and juice before killing the plants, experts said, and there is no known cure or method for ridding a region of the pathogen once it has struck. It's transmitted to healthy trees by the psyllid after the insect feeds on infected trees. It does not afflict humans.
Batkin said the industry -- and homeowners who have orange and lemon trees in their yards -- is in a race against time. He's hoping containment efforts will hold down the bug population and reduce damage from citrus greening until researchers devise a cure or develop disease-resistant plants.
"We need to find and remove any trees that may have been infected so that the psyllids can't use them as a reservoir to pick up the disease and spread it around the state like they did in Florida," Batkin said.
Most experts believe the first spotting of the disease will be on a backyard tree rather than a commercial orange grove. That's why they are urging homeowners to learn what to look for at www.californiacitrusthreat.org or by calling the California Department of Food and Agriculture hotline at (800) 491-1899.
About $50 million is earmarked for citrus greening research and containment efforts by the state and federal governments and the industry, officials estimate. Much of the research focuses on developing a disease-resistant tree.
But until there are breakthroughs, California's strategy is to hold down the number of psyllid colonies that settle in California, and then find and root out any infected trees quickly. This is a problem because the disease can lay dormant for years before a tree shows symptoms.
The task is made even more complicated by the recent discovery of six infected citrus trees on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Entomologists fear that psyllids will carry the disease across Mexico.
They could eventually connect with colonies in California and spread the disease throughout the state, said Grafton-Cardwell, who calls citrus greening a "grower's worst nightmare."
The California Department of Food and Agriculture is setting 100 traps per square mile in the Santa Ana neighborhood where the bugs were found and an additional 50 traps per square mile in an eight-square-mile area surrounding the site.
They are also using a device that's akin to a reverse leaf blower to go through the citrus trees in the neighborhood and see whether they can vacuum up any psyllids.
State officials are also considering starting a ground-based pesticide spraying program in the area, Batkin said.
The discovery of the psyllids in Santa Ana comes just a year after the insects jumped over the border from Mexico and established colonies first in San Diego County and later in Imperial County.
Named after its once large citrus crop, Orange County has less than 400 acres of orange and lemon groves left, according to the county agricultural commissioner's office. It trails far behind Fresno, Tulare, Kern and Ventura counties -- the state's largest producers -- in citrus orchards.
Despite the discovery of the bug, California has so far escaped the feared citrus greening disease. That's because the psyllids that have established colonies in Southern California have yet to come in contact with the disease that causes the trees to die.
Rancho Mission Viejo, the last big citrus grower in Orange County, said the insect has not been found in its 380 acres of orchards.
"We've been vigilant in setting traps for the insect since last year, increasing our trapping since March of this year," said Derek Knobel, ranch manager for the company. "To date, no Asian citrus psyllids have been found. We are finishing this year's pick right now. When we resume picking in the fall, we will follow all protocols including washing, cleaning and leaf removal on the packing line."
What inspectors fear is the Florida scenario, where the combination of a few infected trees and a large population of psyllids overwhelmed the state.
California had a close call last month when an inspection dog found a plastic bag of curry leaves that contained one dead adult psyllid and nine live juvenile insects, or nymphs, in a duffel bag from India at the FedEx depot in Fresno.
Tests subsequently found that the nymphs were infected with the disease. Inspectors believe they destroyed all of the insects but noted that if the psyllids had not been detected, they could have launched the infection in California.
It's no surprise that a new colony of psyllids popped up now, Batkin said.
The insect is dormant for much of the year but comes out in the fall, searching for tender new growth on citrus trees where it likes to lay its eggs, he said.
"This is when we see movement," Batkin said, "and we could see more populations pop up between now and December."