A new, invasive species of whitefly has been found in several areas of South Florida including Lee and Collier counties.
The new species, called Bondar’s nesting whitefly, was discovered on a ficus hedge two months ago in Fort Myers off McGregor Boulevard by Stephen Brown, the University of Florida extension entomologist for this area.
It also has since been found in Collier, Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
The new strain of whiteflies infests some species of ficus plants and turns their leaves sticky and stains them.
Horticulture experts said the pest won’t kill the infected plant but can expose it to further problems that could lead to death.
The pest can be identified by the appearance of white waxy blotches on top of ficus leaves.
Infested leaves eventually develop a coating of black sooty mold and the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf can be infested, which is unusual for whiteflies.
Brown collected the whiteflies from a ficus hedge here that was covered heavily in the wax and mold.
Jennifer Nelis, director of marketing and public relations for the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, said the ficus is one of the top 10 house plants in the United States.
Florida supplies the U.S. with 80 TO 85 percent of all house plants including those found in malls and homes, she said.
Greg Hodges, a bureau chief for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the new species has been determined as invasive.
The pest alone will not kill an infected tree or plant, Hodges said.
For example, he explained, a ficus will readily shed leaves but generally replaces them with new foliage.
However, he said, the problem is as the tree weakens, pressure — from other pests — continues to contribute to the decline of the host.
Other than the ficus, Hodges said Bondar’s nesting whitefly also targets some types of palms including coconut, as well as avocados, guava, some members of the citrus family, some types of hibiscus and the custard apple or sweetsop.
Hodges, who deals in entomology, nematology and plant pathology for the state, said he could not guess at the impact of the insect. “But it will be big.” he said.
In 2008, the last year available, cash receipts for Florida’s greenhouse and nursery products totaled $1.8 billion, according to industry estimates from the state Department of Agriculture.
Hodges said there is no mention in literature of this whitefly being a pest of economic significance.
“That being said, anytime a pest comes into a new environment it has the potential to be a pest of concern,” he said. “This is generally due to there being no natural enemies for the pest or due to a lag time for the natural enemies to take effect on controlling the pest.”
Some natural enemies have been found, including a species of parasitic wasp, Hodges said, that has not yet been identified.
He said research into the insect will begin.
A pest alert posted within the past week by the Florida Department of Agriculture said the whitefly is native to Brazil, but has been introduced in numerous locations around the world, including Hawaii around 2003.
Hodges said the pest likely came in on a live plant or plant materials.
This species of whitefly is the third nuisance strain of whitefly to recently hit South Florida.
It joins the Rugose spiraling whitefly found in 2009 and the ficus whitefly discovered in 2007.
The Rugose infests live oaks, mango, Brazilian pepper, gumbo limbo and black olive while the ficus species has never been reported on anything other than ficus plants.
Broward County Extension horticulture agent Michael Orfanedes said the flies cause no harm to humans, but it’s “one more nail in the coffin” for ficus.