x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Eradication for evil palm weevil

Rather than trying to eradicate the pests with chemicals, a plan is hatched to lure them away from trees and into buckets.

The Ministry of Environment and Water is launching a national campaign to combat the scourge of palm weevils.
The Ministry of Environment and Water is launching a national campaign to combat the scourge of palm weevils.

DUBAI // Date farmers hate weevils. The tiny red insects do their destructive work in secret, burrowing into palm trunks and devouring a tree from within. Infestations go unnoticed until it is too late, when the weevils have hollowed out the trunk and the tree collapses of its own weight or is blown over by a breeze.

Weevils have infested five per cent of the country's 42 million date palm trees. Farmers, concerned that they would not be able to produce enough dates to meet demand, lobbied the Government for help. After intensive research, the Ministry of the Environment and Water has come up with a solution: using a carefully devised concoction that includes pheromones and date oil, that lures the pests away from the trees and into traps.

Under a Dh25 million (US$6.8m) programme, the ministry will distribute 30,000 weevil traps to date producers and landowners, and conduct workshops and an awareness campaign to educate farmers on how to detect infestations. The aim of the ministry's research was to find an effective and natural solution to the problem, one that did not involve using chemicals. The pheromones, mixed with date oil and tree chips, make the trap more attractive than the trees, from a weevil's perspective. The insects are lured into bucket-sized containers half-buried in the sand in date groves where they then drown in a small quantity of water. One trap can draw weevils from 100 trees.

"Our main objective was to find a solution that avoided use of chemicals to ensure that there would be no risks to human health," said Saeed Hassan al Baghan, the campaign organiser at the ministry. "We will work with municipalities to issue the traps and run a series of local workshops to educate local farmers in how to tackle infestations," he said. He noted the speed with which weevils can colonise an area, and the impact on the date industry. One red palm weevil can lay as many as 350 eggs, and one infested tree can spread to seven others within a year, said Dr Sami El Awad, the chief researcher in the Biological and Integrated Pests Management department of the Ministry of Environment and Water.

He said the aim of the programme was to minimise the impact of the pest, rather than trying to eradicate the species. "An eradication programme would require huge resources, so we are just looking to make its impact negligible," he said. The ministry will monitor affected trees and the size of the weevil population through the course of the campaign, which will run to 2011. Once it ends, farmers will be directed to take precautionary measures under the supervision of local ministry offices.

Three years of research went into determining the extent of the weevil problem, which plagues groves across the Middle East, Asia and South America, and finding a non-chemical solution to it. The traps have been used successfully in Egypt and Brazil. The red palm weevils are a non-native species thought to have arrived from Pakistan in the early 1980s. Previous efforts to control them have included using Labrador dogs to sniff out weevil colonies. Palms are also affected by the oryctes beetle, also known as the rhinoceros beetle. The ministry campaign will seek to combat them through the issue of tripod-mounted lights that attract the bugs and trap them.

tbrooks@thenational.ae