x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Resident weevil: a bug that won't die

Two years after the Ministry of Environment and Water launched its campaign against red palm weevils, the problem is persisting.

Since the 1980s, the weevil has destroyed 5 per cent of the UAE’s 42 million date palm trees.
Since the 1980s, the weevil has destroyed 5 per cent of the UAE’s 42 million date palm trees.

ABU DHABI // Despite ever more desperate government efforts to rid the UAE of the scourge of red palm weevils, farmers are still allowing the bugs to win.

The insect, native to Africa and India, was first reported in the Gulf in the mid-1980s. Since then, it has infested some 5 per cent of the UAE's 42 million date palm trees - and more than 10 per cent in Al Gharbia.

Not only are many farmers over-irrigating their trees, creating the ideal climate for the insects to lay their eggs, some are failing to prune them and neglecting the traps that could help solve the problem, according to the Farmers Services Centre (FSC), a government body.

"The lack of collaboration from farmers constitutes the biggest challenge for the campaign," said Saeed Hassan Al Bagham, the head of the animal and plant section of the Ministry of Environment and Water.

Poor upkeep of palm branches allows the bugs to climb up and get into the centre of the trunk. Once there, weevils gnaw out the heart of the tree, ruining its ability to move nutrients from the ground to dates above and eventually causing the tree to collapse.

The FSC's solution is a bucket filled with a concoction of pheromones and date oil, to lure the pests away from the trees and into traps.

One pheromone trap covers 100 trees, and if used properly catches 60 to 70 per cent of an infestation.

Some 30,000 pheromone traps and 360,000 pheromone nets have been distributed across the country in the last year alone, and the ministry has launched a Dh25m programme to combat the weevil. It is also testing eight fungicides at two farms in Fujairah.

"We help our farmers by giving them pheromone traps, maintenance for palm trees and we have specialist labourers to protect the trees," said Saeed Ali Saeed, the ministry's head of plant health. "The problem is worse than one can imagine."

The ministry has spent years researching alternatives to pesticides, which often fail to reach the bugs where they live. Despite expert opinion that it is an outdated method, it has persisted with its tests of injecting aluminium phosphate into a drilled hole in the tree.

"We're trying to reduce the problem as much as we can because it's very dangerous for our palm trees," said Mr Saeed. "We provided farmers across the UAE with a lot of traps to catch them, we give them pesticides to reduce the infection and we try to use biological control with fungus and nematodes."

The battle against the bugs is being waged in Ras Al Khaimah, too. Since January, the ministry set up 9,494 pheromone traps and 1,000 light traps in 800,000 palm trees across nearly 4,000 farms, as well as residential areas, public parks and streets. So far this year, the effort has killed more than 100,000 weevils in 3,600 infected trees.

Eight teams of three inspectors in RAK ensure the traps are replaced regularly, removing dead insects at least once a month and treating any other potential diseases in the trees.

Mr Bagham said 596 trees were severely infected and had to be removed. Almost 9,000 trees were spray treated in 41 farms across Ras Al Khaimah and the ministry found 367 abandoned farms - the real obstacle to healthy palm trees.

"Those are the ones prone to infestations," said Mr Bagham.

Mr Saeed urged any farmer with a weevil problem to contact the ministry's call centre on 800 3050.

cmalek@thenational.ae