Practically overnight, a new and viciously destructive invasive pest has taken up residence on farms and in gardens all across Santa Barbara County. It is a small, shield-shaped member of the stink bug family known as the Bagrada Bug and, for the last two weeks, farmers from Lompoc to Oxnard have been finding the black, white, and orange insect all over everything from strawberries to kale, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. Even worse, the crop carnage is already well underway.
“We had no warning about this.” says Chris Thompson, a longtime area organic farmer and field manager for the Goleta-based Givens Farm. “I heard about it from a neighbor 12 days ago and the next morning I went out and found it immediately…It has already devastated a lot of my crops and I am not the only one.”
Native to northern Africa, the Bagrada (technically known as the Bagrada hilaris) turned up in the United States just four years ago, its first known appearance coming in Los Angeles in June of 2008. From there, the bug spread quickly to the east, causing various degrees of trouble in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys as well as parts of Arizona. And, while the pest was confirmed to be in Ventura County on a limited basis in 2011 and anecdotally spotted near Buellton late last winter, growers and assorted agriculture officials here in Santa Barbara County had no real reason for alarm – until now.
“We were well aware of the situations to our south and we were on the lookout,” explained Santa Barbara County Ag Commissioner’s Office Entomologist Brian Cabrera on Friday morning, “But they came in under the radar and have now started showing up in huge numbers.”
Recalling the sequence of events from the past two weeks, Cabrera says he received a phone message from a resident in Solvang late on Friday, September 7, who believed she had Bagrada bugs in her backyard garden. By Monday, Cabrera said he had multiple phone calls and emails reporting Bagrada bugs everywhere from a school garden on the Mesa to private residences in Mission Canyon.
“It was just all of a sudden but I still didn’t have an actual sample to confirm.” explained Cabrera. Turns out he wouldn’t have to wait for very long to get one. On his bike commute to work Tuesday morning, right alongside County Dump Road in a “scraggly patch of mustard plant,” Cabrera himself became an eye-witness to the invasion. “I took a closer look and sure enough, they were there.” Since then, reports of Bagrada infestations have continued to come in to both the Ag Commissioners Office and the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau headquarters from backyard growers as well as bigger operators like Thompson.
In fact, according to Surendra Dara, the strawberry and vegetable crop advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension, who monitors ag operations throughout the tri-county area, the bugs are now being reported as far north as San Luis Obispo County (Arroyo Grande to be exact) as well as to the south in a few of Oxnard’s strawberry fields.
The Bagrada – which has a tell-tale smell like its fellow stink-bug family members – does its damage by feeding on plants, typically young cole crops such as cabbage and cauliflower and broccoli. It sucks the juices from the bite and leaves a toxic sort of saliva at the scene of the crime that can cause the plant to die even after the bug has left. Further, even if the Bagrada’s sap-sucking ways aren’t fatal, they can cause extensive wilting and yellowing, and stunt the growth of their hosts.
Adding to their nastiness, says Cabrera, is the fact that Bagradas are capable of flying up wind to find new plants to feast on, and that they lay most of their eggs in the soil, thus making traditional predators worthless as possible controls. Unfortunately, explained Cabrera, very little is actually understood about the pest due to its relatively new presence in these parts, and thus effective non-toxic and even toxic controls are a big unknown. In fact, there is no registered pesticide for the Bagrada bug in California. “They are so new everyone is still trying to figure out what works on them,” Cabrera summed up.
Though he suspects that growers who already use various pesticides will soon be able to keep the new interlopers at bay, Cabrera reckons the “real problems” will be for organic growers and home gardeners who prefer not to use chemicals. “Eventually, I think we are probably going to have to look at some sort of biological control,” he concluded.
In the meantime, folks like Chris Thompson are working overtime to find a solution that works for them before their current round of crops is lost to the African invader. “Every organic farmer in the area that I have talked to has found these things. They came on so quick and so fast and so vast everyone is really just spinning out,” said Thompson late this week. Adding that he and others are already a few days into using at-home “jar tests,” which involves placing samples of the pest in a controlled environment and introducing various natural pesticides to try and find a counter-punch to the seemingly overnight invasion, Thompson remained optimistic, “The organic community is really rallying together and talking about what might work. We are all in this together.”