Marking the species’ fourth unwanted appearance in Santa Barbara County since 2008, eight light brown apple moths were recently discovered in vegetation near the intersection of Cathedral Oaks and Glenn Annie roads in Goleta. An invasive insect native to Australia, light brown apple moths in caterpillar stage have no natural predators in the U.S. and are capable of munching away large swaths of plant life if their numbers are left unchecked. State and county officials, however, say they have a plan in place to squash the incursion and put trading partners – who do business with the nearby fruit, flower, and seed producers – at ease.
Guy Tingos, Santa Barbara’s Deputy Agricultural Commissioner, said the mature moths were found on October 27 and 28 in species-specific traps set countywide by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). When the moths were detected in years past, only one or two were captured. To find eight was surprising, Tingos said, and points strongly to the possibility that they hitched a ride in a shipment of plants. Light brown apple moths aren’t exactly discerning in their food choices, Tingos explained. They eat over 2,000 different kinds of plants, including trees and shrubs as well as fruits and vegetables.
The CDFA has deployed more traps to determine the exact location of “ground zero,” said Tingos, and will soon set up an official quarantine zone that puts restrictions on plant matter shipped in and out of the area. Avocado and lemon growers, for instance, will be asked to alter their picking strategies so no leaves – where moths lay their eggs – are included in produce bins. State officials will suggest the quarantine boundaries, using existing streets and natural features as much as possible, and run them by county staffers for final approval.
In the meantime, “We are acting as if the restrictions are already in place rather than risk having a commercial shipment rejected somewhere for not meeting the quarantine regulations,” stated Tingos in an email. Most of the area’s nurseries and farms have been contacted by his agency, he said, and the CDFA will call the rest.
To wipe out the moths already fluttering about in that area of Goleta, ag officials will put out hundreds of foot-long plastic twist-ties that are doused with female light brown apple moth pheromones. Saturating the air with the scent – normally released by female moths to help males locate them – sufficiently disrupts the insects’ mating habits to the point that they simply die off. The pheromone is undetectable by humans and harmless to vegetation. The proven eradication strategy will likely prevent the county from having to spray pesticides, Tingos explained.
Residents in the area are asked to not move fruits, vegetables, or plant material off their property – except in green waste bins – for the time being.