Thousands of tiny wasps will soon be unleashed in Hawaii as part of a collaborative effort to fend off one of coffee’s most persistent biological foes: the coffee berry borer (CBB).
The microscopic wasps, named Phymastichus coffea, have been proven to be effective in killing coffee berry borer populations in parts of Latin America.
Now, with participation from coffee farmers and numerous research and government agencies, the wasps are being bred for release on coffee-growing areas of Hawaii’s Big Island, and potential releases in Maui and Oahu.
“This biological control agent has the potential to make significant positive economic impacts in the Hawaii coffee industry and offers an environmentally safe way to manage CBB,” Mark Wright, a professor of Entomology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said in an announcement from the school’s College of Tropical Agriculture. “The Hawaii coffee industry is economically and culturally significant, and we hope that this work will improve the lives of many people associated with the industry.”
The P. coffea wasp originally comes from coffee’s genetic birth continent, Africa, where it has served as a natural foe to coffee berry borers. CBB disease is known to kill large swaths of coffee crops when left untreated, and it has spread to all of the world’s major coffee-producing countries. CBB disease was first recorded in Hawaii in 2010, and efforts to halt the spread have been ongoing.
In 2018, live shipments of the coffee wasps were shipped to Hawaii from Colombia under quarantine for research. Researchers at the University of Hawaii set out to determine whether the non-native wasps might have unintended consequences, particularly killing other insects, if set free.
“We tested on 43 inactive and beneficial species, and confirmed that P. coffea doesn’t attack any native species of insects,” Wright said in the most recent announcement. “It has also shown potential parasitoid activity against the Tropical Nut Borer, a pest of macadamia nuts.”
Researchers from the university alongside scientists at the USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) are preparing to deploy the first wave of wasps in the coming months.
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