Hunting for psyllids in Echo Park

It's the stuff professional bug trappers dream of.

As he peered at the first fly trap of the day, Ignacio Velazquez spotted his mottled foe, wriggling frantically under the magnifying lens.

"I think I actually found one," said the 13-year veteran of the state's Department of Food and Agriculture, a hint of caution in his voice. "At this point, we'd call it a suspect."

With 10,000 traps set statewide and about 200 trappers on the prowl, it was a needle-in-a-haystack discovery for Velazquez, an agriculture technician hunting for crop-destroying psyllids in the fruit-tree-lush neighborhood of Echo Park.

The tiny Asian bug -- which can carry a tree-killing disease that poses a threat to California's $1.6-billion citrus industry -- is the latest enemy in the battle against crop pests. It has devastated groves in Florida and eradicated much of the citrus production in China, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Brazil.

Findings this year in San Diego, Santa Ana and, most recently, Echo Park have officials on high alert, though none of the bugs found so far carried the disease that causes citrus greening, which ruins the taste of fruit before killing the plants.

Despite today's technology, detecting the psyllids still comes down to a yellow cardboard fly trap lined with a sticky substance.

Although sex scents and feeding wells are effective at luring other well-known pests (including the Medfly and the Mexican fruit fly), the psyllids are more attracted to the cardboard traps' yellow color, which mimics new leaves.

Bracing for 95-degree weather, Velazquez hit the streets in dark shades and a khaki shirt, his state-issued Chevy Silverado stocked with a grid listing trap locations and colorful fliers that ask in bright letters: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS REALLY TINY BUG?

Since a trapper discovered a psyllid in Echo Park last week, the area has been blanketed with sticky traps -- 100 per square mile from where the bug was found and 50 more per square mile in an eight-square-mile area surrounding the original detection site. They hang inconspicuously off lemon, orange, tangerine and calamondin trees, often attracting a mix of dust, gnats, flying ants and ladybugs.

About a dozen trappers, including a few on loan from Fresno, circle Velazquez's area inspecting each trap with magnifying glasses and keen eyes. So far, about $1 million in state money and $5 million in federal funds has gone toward combating the psyllid, with $50 million earmarked in total. Allowing the infestation to get a foothold in California could imperil the citrus industry.

Most days, Velazquez sees more action from dogs, bees, suspicious property owners or even snakes than from invasive bugs. So it was a triumph tracking down what may be his first psyllid.

"My name will probably go in the newsletter and the guys will say 'good job,' " said Velazquez proudly.

He took his catch, slipped it inside two plastic bags, closed them tightly and placed them on the floor of the back of his truck. If all goes well, the bug will be airborne en route to a Sacramento laboratory before the end of the day.

If it turns out to be a psyllid, trappers will return and treat the home and neighboring residences with two insecticides.

State officials may start a ground-based pesticide spraying program in some areas, but not before informing the public. During the 1990s, a campaign to eradicate the Medfly by spraying malathion from helicopters triggered complaints and angry demonstrations.

Residents at most homes have welcomed the trappers' efforts. As Velazquez pulled up to his fourth trap of the day -- nestled in a lemon tree -- property owner Andres Castillo looked on in anticipation from a nearby rosebush, as if waiting for a diagnosis.

"So," the 58-year-old said. "Am I infected?"

"No, you're OK," Velazquez told him.

Castillo offered to chop down his tree, if necessary, but Velazquez told him:

"Hopefully, it won't come down to that."


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