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Bucket on Moonlight palm part of statewide weevil hunt

ENCINITAS — Near the overlook at Moonlight Beach, a white bucket sits suspended six feet off the ground on a palm tree.

While it seems out of place, state department of agriculture officials said that the makeshift-looking trap is an important piece in the statewide prevention and defense network set up against an insect that could devastate the state’s palm trees.

The state department of agriculture has set up 850 of these traps for the Red Palm weevil, a beetle that is native to Southeast Asia but has spread throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania and is widely considered the world’s most destructive insect palm pest. The 1 to 2 inch bug burrows through the crown of palm trees and, along with its larvae, weakens the palm’s trunk.

Five years ago, the first weevil ever discovered in the United States was found in Laguna Beach inside of a large dying Canary Island date palm. This triggered a statewide effort by state agriculture officials in connection with the UC Riverside Center for Invasive Species Research to contain the weevil and survey surrounding palms in hopes of thwarting the spread.

In a state synonymous with its (mostly) stately palm trees that has a $70 million ornamental palm and $30 million date industry, state officials said protecting the trees was a horticultural priority.

A Red Palm weevil is a 1 to 2 inch bug that burrows through the crown of palm trees and, along with its larvae, weakens the palm's trunk. Photo by Marco Petrotta
A Red Palm weevil is a 1 to 2 inch bug that burrows through the crown of palm trees and, along with its larvae, weakens the palm’s trunk. Photo by Marco Petrotta

Part of the effort included traps like the one at Moonlight Beach, which are filled with a mixture of water, diluted antifreeze and a pheromone that attracts the male weevil.

“They crawl up the side of the trap, fall into the liquid and are killed just by the drowning,” an official with the San Diego office of the state agricultural inspector said. “The antifreeze keeps the specimen fresh so that we can observe and ID it in the lab.”

The traps cost $20 to $25 per unit.

State officials said the traps are fashioned in a way that children or other animals will not come in contact with the antifreeze solution.

“The traps are placed at least six feet high and secured to the tree trunk,” said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the state commission. “Plus the trap has a lid, which is zip-tied to the trap and difficult to remove.”

So far, officials said, the traps and measures taken appear to be working, as no weevils have been found outside of the Laguna Beach palm.

“Hopefully, it stays that way,” Lyle said.

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