Photo by Doug Caldwell, Collier Co. UF/IFAS ExtensionThe ficus whitefly made headlines in 2007 and 2008 as the tiny invasive pest left a trail of defoliated ficus trees and hedges across southeast Florida.
As summer gives way to fall in 2009, the whitefly has once again reared its head. This time, however, homeowners, lawn care operators and extension agents are better prepared for the challenge ahead. But saving those ficus trees and hedges from the devastating whitefly is still not going to be easy.
“There’s still an opportunity for it to spread further,” said Palm Beach County extension agent Bill Schall, who added that a sharp eye and preventive soil treatments are valuable tools for those hoping to avoid whitefly damage.
“It’s going to get worse each year,” said Chad Burkett, the Boca Raton, Fla.-based Southeast sales representative for ProSource One. “We’ve seen more damage this year than last year down south, and we’re seeing more damage up here as well. It got as far north as Fort Pierce last year and it will probably get that far north again this year.”
Although a cold winter appears to have delayed the whitefly’s return along the Atlantic Coast, it’s now back in a big way.
“It seems pretty widespread,” said Steve Teegarden, president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based As Promised Services. “It was kind of slow getting going this year but in the last couple months it has really accelerated. It seems like it strikes almost overnight. One day a hedge looks good and the next day you go back and it’s half what it used to be.”
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, meanwhile, the whitefly caused significant damage this summer to what Collier County commercial landscape horticulture extension educator Doug Caldwell calls “the ficus hedge capital of the world”—the exclusive Naples Port Royal neighborhood and its vicinity. Caldwell has reports of a dozen hotspots in the area where the whitefly’s arrival has become evident.
Defoliation of a double ficus hedgerow along Interstate 75 in Naples, Fla. The hedgerow used to provide a sound barrier for traffic, but, due to defoliation, does not anymore.
Photo by Doug Caldwell, Collier Co. UF/IFAS Extension“It’s been spreading—not as rapidly as I thought it would have, but it’s on the move and it’s something people need to be proactive about,” Caldwell said. “I keep getting calls about hotspots where defoliation is occurring. I’m recommending that they treat their ficus hedges and trees now. It may not be in their neighborhood yet, but I recommend they treat now.”
While a preventive soil treatment with a neonicotinoid insecticide is encouraged to help ward off the whitefly, most communities and homeowners don’t treat their ficus trees and shrubs until whitefly damage is evident. When time is of the essence, lawn care operators often recommend the soil or basal trunk spray treatment with fast-acting Safari Insecticide from Valent Professional Products. Compared to other neonicotinoids, the active ingredient in Safari is more rapidly absorbed into the plant’s vascular system and then transported to foliage where whiteflies feed.
“People use it because it gets into the plant faster than other neonicotinoids,” Burkett said. “Safari is the first thing we recommend because of the basal bark spray method of application. You go out and spray the trunk area and it works really well because it can get into the trunk really quick. Whereas competing products would take 6-8 weeks, Safari takes 7-10 days.”
Safari’s quick uptake and knockdown can be critical when ficus plants are already showing signs of whitefly infestation and damage, and especially in larger hedges or trees where it takes longer for insecticides to move throughout the plant.
“It’s the 9-1-1 of neonicotinoids,” said Jerid Wendling, Florida territory manager for Valent. “A lot of people are reactive instead of proactive, and that lends itself to Safari. The bigger the tree or hedge they have, the quicker they need activity.”
The homeowners and organizations having the most success controlling whitefly infestations are those who began treatments last year and have continued with a maintenance program this year, Teegarden said. But a sure sign that the whitefly is becoming a major issue once more can be found in the new wave of calls for help he’s been receiving in recent weeks.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve been getting more calls and new business from people who haven’t had it treated at all,” he said. “There’s a lot of complacency out there. A lot of people don’t see the activity on their own, so they don’t treat it. But the damage occurs so fast, they start to panic.”
One Boca Raton homeowner with extensive ficus screening on his property—close to 1,000 linear feet with ficus hedges 25-30 feet tall—enlisted Teegarden’s services in a proactive attempt to keep the whiteflies out. Teegarden treated that homeowner’s hedges with Safari last year and said the whitefly never showed its face.
“It’s a great product to be able to go in and sell because it’s got the fastest uptake and provides the best results to safeguard their investment,” Teegarden said. “That home was in an area where the community got hit really hard and the customer was horrified that his property would be exposed to the canal and the other side of the canal. We never saw the whitefly there.”
Teegarden’s greatest success to date in fending off the whitefly, however, came at Boca Raton’s Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club. With whitefly activity already documented in the area and a slight infestation in his hedges, golf course superintendent Charles Dayton hired Teegarden to treat his ficus trees and hedges.
“We came up with a program to spray the trunks of their trees with Safari, and the early test results and feedback was that they were getting a year’s control out of it,” Teegarden said. “We treated all the trees at the golf course a year ago and they’ve had no issues whatsoever.”
For those ficus owners who aren’t able to treat before signs of whitefly damage become evident, Burkett said Safari provides the best available emergency option.
“By the time most people see the leaves dropping, it’s almost too late. That means the ficus has already had three months of whitefly activity,” Burkett said. “In those cases, you’ve got to come in with a product like Safari that’s going to work real fast. Fortunately, it does.”