Save the guacamole! This photo shows the damage caused to an avocado tree by the ambrosia beetle (AP photo / Thinkstock)
Save the guacamole!
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With the killers hiding in the trees, heat-sensing drones are launched into the air. When their whereabouts are narrowed, the dogs are sent in. When it comes to protecting the world's supply of guacamole, no weapon can be spared.

On subtropical farmland in South Florida, researchers are doing battle with a deadly fungus. It's called laurel wilt. It is spread by a tiny beetle and has the potential to decimate Florida's avocado crop. The hashtag they have adopted for their mission: #savetheguac.

"This is probably the biggest threat to the Florida avocado that's ever been seen," said Jonathan H. Crane. He is a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida.

Laurel wilt is spread by the ambrosia beetle. The insect is an invasive species from Asia. It first appeared in the U.S. in Georgia in 2002. Now it has spread around the Southeast, mostly in redbay laurel trees. Avocados are in the same laurel tree family. Once infected by the fungus, the tree can be dead within six weeks.

Researchers and farmers are fighting to halt the fungus before it advances to California. The avocado is king in that state.

Avocados are Florida's second-biggest fruit crop. Citrus is No. 1. The larger, smooth-skinned avocados in the Sunshine State differ from the smaller, rough-rined California Haas avocados. California produces nearly 90 percent of the nation's avocado crop and it's worth about $400 million annually, which is why it's essential to stop laurel wilt's spread.

Deep in Miami-Dade County's southern agricultural enclaves, researchers are testing methods to do just that. Florida avocados are harvested beginning in early June.

On a recent day, scientists converged on a ranch under a blistering sun. The researchers were from Florida International University and the University of Florida. They were there along with the owners of a drone company and a canine detection team.

Part of the challenge of fighting laurel wilt is that by the time a farmer sees evidence of the disease, it's too late to save the tree. That evidence comes in the form of thin, hair-like prongs sticking out from tree trunks and limbs. The prongs are really the sawdust residue left behind by the burrowing beetle. If farmers can catch the disease in its infancy, before symptoms emerge, there's hope of saving the tree with fungicide.

The first step is finding which part of the grove is infected. That's where the drone comes in. According to Ty Rozier, owner of Elevated Horizons, a Miami-based drone company, the vehicle carries a thermal digital imaging camera. It soars over the groves in lawnmower patterns.

Researchers analyze the images and videos to find the stressed trees. Then, they send in the dogs.

"It's almost like cancer detection," said Ken Furton. He is an FIU provost and professor of chemistry. "Multiple dogs have alerted on (infected) trees that show no signs of infection."

The dogs currently used are two Belgian Malinois and two shelter dogs.

Once the dogs key in on an infected tree, farmers can remove and burn it. Nearby trees are injected with fungicide. The hope is to save them or stave off the disease.

It's too costly to try to eradicate the ambrosia beetle, said Crane. The beetle works quickly. Sometimes the insects move 30 to 50 miles a day through redbay laurel trees. Those varieties are found in Texas and "from there it's not a stretch to California or Mexico," Crane said. It's impossible to stop in those wild trees. But farmers must try to contain the disease in the avocado crops.

He added: "You can see the potential ecologic and economic devastation."

Laurel wilt was first detected on the edge of Miami's western suburbs in 2011. The disease has killed swamp bay trees scattered across 330,000 acres of the Everglades. Hundreds of millions of redbay trees have succumbed across six Southeastern states since 2002.

Avocado trees in Florida have been felled as well. About a mile from where researchers were testing the drones and dogs, acres of sick avocado trees were spindly, brown and dead. One researcher said it was likely the farmer couldn't afford to rip up and burn the trees. Or to treat the healthier ones.

This two-pronged detection system of drones and dogs could be adapted to other crop diseases, such as citrus greening, Furton said.

A $148,000 state grant is funding the study involving the drones and dogs.

"Florida's warm climate makes our state a hotbed for invasive species and diseases," said Adam Putnam. He is the state's agriculture commissioner. "Florida's avocado industry has a $64 million economic impact in our state. And we will continue to aggressively protect our agriculture industry with cutting-edge research and technology."

Critical thinking challenge: If the ambrosia beetle attacks laurel trees, why are avocados at risk?

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COMMENTS (56)
  • Eric0221-YYCA
    5/05/2015 - 09:56 p.m.

    I think that this might be very bad for avocado trees to become infected by the ambrosia beetle to attack by eating through the tree bark, now that the ambrosia beetles are now the invasive species in Florida due to very warm weather in Florida. Well if there is an invasive species now living in Florida, I'm glad that California isn't really warm now.

  • luisl-Goo
    5/06/2015 - 08:44 a.m.

    How to save the guacamole. The text states that This is probably the biggest threat to the Florida avocado that's ever been seen," said Jonathan H. Crane. He is a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida. The text also states that the insect is an invasive species from Asia. The evidence from the text illustrates that "Florida's warm climate makes our state a hotbed for invasive species and diseases," said Adam Putnam.

  • taylorb-Che
    5/06/2015 - 01:46 p.m.

    I've never tried guacamole, or avocados. I don't think i would like it at all, but people put it on their subs or crackers. I just never wanted to try it, I might would when i get older but not right now.

  • Karena-OBr
    5/06/2015 - 01:48 p.m.

    The avocados are at risk because once the trees get infected, it'll be dead in six weeks. Farmers have to remove and burn the tree that's infected, so nearby trees won't get infected. The farmers are also trying to fight the fungus, so it doesn't reach California. They don't want the fungus to reach California because it says the avocado is king in that state. I didn't know that ambrosia beetles can go through 30-50 miles of laurel trees in one day. Avocado trees are in danger because they are also a member of the laurel family, and those beetles find them mighty tasty!

  • RachelAnnel-OBr
    5/06/2015 - 01:51 p.m.

    Avocado trees are at risk because the ambrosia beetles are attacking laurel trees. The text states that avocado trees and laurel trees are in the same tree family. Ambrosia beetles are attacking avocado trees. When they infect a tree, the tree could die in six weeks. When a tree gets infected, farmers need to burn the tree so that nearby trees don't get infected. I wonder why the ambrosia beetles only attack laurel trees.

  • jonathond-Ewi
    5/06/2015 - 03:41 p.m.

    There where provably bad and people didn't like it how it look. They didn't get a lot of water on the avocados.ants ware eating theme.

  • ss117-Sch
    5/06/2015 - 05:25 p.m.

    In response to "Save The Guacamole!," I agree that they should use drones and dogs to save Florida's guacamole. One reason I agree is that guacamole tastes so good, although some people don't like it. Another reason is that the idea of having both dogs and drones will definitely get a lot of sponsors and publicity; some people might say that it is a little overkill, but I think it is necessary. It says in the article "Florida's avocado industry has a $64 million economic impact in our state" this means that if the avocados get destroyed, a lot of people will lose their jobs. A third reason is that it is under attack by an invasive species. Some people might say "so what?" this means that if it is stopped, an invasive species will not be in Florida anymore. Even though it looks kind of overkill, I think
    they are doing the right thing.

  • as317-Sch
    5/06/2015 - 08:59 p.m.

    In response to "Save the Guacamole!" I agree that we should try to stop the ambrosia beetle from destroying avocado trees. One reason I agree is that a lot of people like avocados and if not eat it anyway because it is rich with nutrients. Even though you may not like it, that doesn't mean that the people who do like avocados should lose them. Another reason is that California could lose a lot of money if it's avocado trees are destroyed. It says in the article, "California produces nearly 90 percent of the nation's avocado crop and it's worth about $400 million annually..." This means that it is very important to stop the ambrosia beetle before it reaches California. A third reason is that in addition to California losing money, Florida loses $64 million. In total, our nation might lose more than $464 million dollars! If you find that avocados could be replaced with any other fruit or vegetable, you may be right. But our nation still gains a lot of money from exporting avocados, and if this beetle kills all the avocado trees, we'd lose about $500 million. Even though avocados aren't the greatest tasting fruits, I think it is defintely necessary to #savetheguac.

  • Chloe310
    5/07/2015 - 02:24 a.m.

    The delicious chip dip is at stake! All of it is caused by the small ambrosia beetle. They cause the laurel wilt, which grows on laurel trees. Avocados are grown from the same trees that these ambrosia pests like to attack. The answer is simple! We could try and cause the beetle to go extinct, right? Wrong. "It's too costly to try to eradicate the ambrosia beetle," said Jonathan H. Crane, a tropical fruit specialist. "The beetle works quickly. Sometimes the insects move 30 to 50 miles a day through redbay laurel trees." These trees are a different species found in Texas. The scientists cannot move fast enough and keep up with the beetle. They will just have to try and contain the disease in avocado trees. Hopefully, this disease doesn't spread to California, where there is a large avocado production.

  • DevarioC-Kut
    5/07/2015 - 08:18 a.m.

    I don't even like guacamole. To me the taste of guacamole is awful. I'm not a concerned abut not having avocados. However, I am concerned about invasive species and what they are doing to the environment. The amount of money that is being lost from these beetles has a big impact the state and it's country.

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