Butterflies spreading, could hit Florida


Published: Monday, January 8, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 11:02 p.m.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — An Asian butterfly known for ravaging the leaves of young citrus trees has spread from the Dominican Republic to other Caribbean islands and could soon strike fruit producers in Florida and South America, agriculture experts said.

The Papilo Demoleus butterfly was spotted in the Dominican Republic three years ago — the first recorded sighting in the Western Hemisphere, said Brian Farrell, a Harvard biology professor who led the field study that found it.

The insect, known also as the lime swallowtail, has since appeared in Jamaica and Puerto Rico. U.S. officials worried about Florida's $9 billion citrus industry have criticized the local government for not doing enough to control the pests.

U.S. officials worry the pest could be brought into the United States by a tourist, or smuggled into the country with illegally transported fruit. Known as a strong flier suited for island hopping in Asia, the butterfly might also manage the trip on its own.

"I don't think the (Dominican agriculture) ministry is doing anything. They don't see it as a problem," said Russell Duncan, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Santo Domingo.

The director of the Agriculture Ministry's fruit department, Damian Andujar, said there was no need for a widespread eradication campaign. "This isn't a big problem for us, it's under control," he said.

The butterflies, with red and yellow wing markings and bright blue eyespots, have such a taste for citrus leaves that they often strip trees of all but their branches.

A year after they were discovered in the Dominican Republic, an infestation destroyed more than 4,000 young trees owned by produce giant Grupo Rica — 3 percent of its nursery stock, said Felipe Mendez, a company official.

Caterpillars ate every leaf on many of the trees they attacked, Mendez said. Damage to the company's orchards in the country's south central region has since been contained by workers trained to pick leaves at the first sign of butterfly eggs.

"We realized we had a natural enemy," Mendez said.

Workers in Jamaica's St. Catherine region also have been trying to kill the caterpillars by hand. An aerial spraying campaign has not been attempted for fear of damaging nearby beekeepers' hives, Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke told the Jamaica Observer.

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