Gardening Articles: Care :: Pests & Problems

Hitchhiking Garden Pests

by Howard Waterworth

If you live in Los Angeles or Miami, you know the havoc exotic insect pests can cause on a garden. Both cities are major points of entry for international travelers, both are near important agricultural regions, and both have suffered from pest invasions in recent years. A prime example is the Mediterranean fruit fly in California in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the silverleaf whitefly caused considerable alarm throughout much of the Southwest, and recently in the Northeast, the Asian long-horned beetle has been attacking maples and other trees. But gardeners should also consider the gypsy moth, or Japanese beetle. Both are ″exotic″ pests whose presence we still deal with after many years.

The holiday season is an especially important time to avoid inadvertently importing new garden pests. If you travel, or if you plan to mail (or receive) fruits, foods, or plants from other countries, be sure to comply with plant-import regulations and customs regulations and inspections. Here's why.

According to a 1973 study, about 760 insects and 550 fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes pose an immediate and known threat to American gardens and farms. And those are the ones we know about!

How do these pests get here? In a variety of ways, but the most common are also the least visible: by hitching rides with fruit- or plant-carrying travelers, on the planes or ships themselves, or hiding inside packing material or even inside seeds. For instance, larvae of the Asian long-horned beetle were found inside the wood of packing crates from China.

Another likely scenario: Perhaps you pick up a mango in Manila and carry it on board for an in-flight snack on the long ride home. But you don't get to it during the flight. At home, one bite reveals it's wormy, and into the trash it goes. End of story? Not necessarily. A few of those worms might survive, and within a year or so, newspaper headlines about a major new pest infestation appear. Could just one traveler's orange have brought the Mediterranean fruit fly to California, causing an infestation that took three years and $100 million to eradicate? Some experts speculate that's exactly what happened.

Protection From Alien Invasion

Our first line of defense is composed of the 1,800 inspectors of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), stationed at international airports, seaports, border stations, and some post offices. Well trained to spot potential problems, the inspectors also rely on both high- and low-tech methods. They use X-ray machines to scan passenger baggage and mail for agricultural materials, and they also employ the "beagle brigade."

The USDA's beagle brigade consists of 62 canine teams at most major international airports. (These are friendly beagles, by the way, not the intimidating Doberman pinschers and German shepherds used to snare drug smugglers.) Perhaps you've met Taffy at the Los Angeles International Airport, or Abbott in Miami? If Taffy sniffs your baggage as you walk towards U.S. Customs and promptly assumes a "sit" position, her handler will ask you to open your bags. Inspectors will confiscate and destroy any contraband food: a Guatemalan mango or Peruvian fig, for instance. You could be fined up to $250, especially if you tried to hide your contraband. Nationally, APHIS fines some 3,000 international air passengers each month.

When arriving from another country, you must declare any meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, animals, or plant or animal products you have with you. Be forthright to avoid the fine, not to mention to avoid being the villain behind some new pest plague.

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