ORLANDO, Fla. —
The brown-and-yellow fly is barely a quarter-inch long — smaller than a fingernail. You would likely just flick it off if it landed on you.
But the guava fruit fly is important enough to alarm state and federal agriculture inspectors because of its devastating appetite for a variety of fruits and vegetables in Florida.
It even raises eyebrows at the Department of Homeland Security, which monitors who and what comes through our nation’s borders through U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
This little bug is a terrorist.
Last month, a state agriculture inspector discovered a guava fruit fly in a trap on a tangerine tree in Gotha. Since then, inspectors have launched a large-scale assault across Central Florida against the insect, setting out 439 traps within an 81-square-mile area surrounding the tree, stretching as far west as Lake County and east to Orlando International Airport.
Guava fruit flies, which are most commonly found in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, would be a major threat to a large part of Florida’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry. The fly lays its eggs in fruit. Maggots then develop, and when the fruit drops to the ground, the larvae transform into new flies. The flies have used citrus, papayas, tomatoes, peaches, apples, pomegranates and, obviously, guavas as hosts.
“It could cause enormous economic harm” to the state’s agriculture industry, said Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Once it becomes established, it becomes a huge problem.”
Feiber added that the fly may develop an interest for other kinds of citrus or other vegetables.
“You don’t know how they’re going to behave in a new country or environment,” Feiber said. “There are so many unknowns. That’s why we’re taking this so seriously.”
The Aug. 23 discovery was only the sixth time that a guava fruit fly was found in Florida since 1991, including one in Apopka and another in Oviedo in 2001.
State inspectors have breathed a sigh of relief because as of Friday, no other guava fruit flies had been found since they started the trapping program.
Still, the guava fruit fly — tinier than a housefly and not harmful to people — is not considered as serious a threat as the Mediterranean fruit fly, or Medfly, which can damage a wider array of crops.
In 1997, a Medfly outbreak in the Tampa area spread to several other counties, including Lake and northwest Orange, and it took more than a year to bring it under control.
It is likely the guava fruit fly snared in Gotha made it into the state either by latching onto a plant or fruit or by hatching from eggs brought into the country by an unknowing traveler.
This summer, the state and U.S. agriculture departments and Homeland Security launched a “Don’t Pack a Pest” campaign that encourages travelers entering Florida to declare agriculture items in an effort to prevent pesky or harmful critters from invading the state.
“So many times, travelers might have an orange or a fruit in their baggage, and they get to their destination and it had an egg on it,” Feiber said. “It’s really important to educate travelers.”
It’s likely the fly found on the tangerine tree flew into the area from elsewhere, according to state agriculture inspectors. Even so, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently visited the west Orange County community to ask property owners if they had previously traveled abroad or shopped at local food markets.
“Early detection is our best line of defense against these highly destructive pests,” Feiber said.
Resident Cynthia Logsdon, who owns the tangerine tree, said she wasn’t even aware that a guava fruit fly was found on her property until the inspector visited her home. State officials said “it is very unlikely” the fly originated from her property. Neither Logsdon nor anyone from her family traveled out of the country recently, she said.
“It used to be a wonderful tree, but it hasn’t produced much fruit for a while,” she said. “It’s really half-dead.”
The guava fruit fly is only the latest worry Florida growers and farmers have to contend with, on top of citrus greening, canker and other harmful pests and diseases.
“Our borders are so porous, and you can’t check everyone, and obviously some slip through,” said Nick Faryna of Faryna Grove Care Harvesting, which manages about 1,800 acres of citrus in north Lake County. “It’s not malicious on anyone’s part. … But it’s a long list of problems that we can’t completely control or eradicate.”