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Invasive Beetle Species in Hawaii Can Now Be Identified Faster With New Genetic Test

Researchers at the University of Hawaii have developed a new genetic-testing method for identifying the invasive coconut rhinoceros beetle, which promises to be much faster than existing physical identification methods. The new tool, reported in the Journal of Economic Entomology, could be a significant step toward keeping the species–a damaging pest to coconut palm trees that was first seen in Hawaii in 2013–from becoming widespread.

Coconut rhinoceros beetle and a similar species, oriental flower beetle, are nearly indistinguishable until they’ve grown to their later life stages, which makes early detection difficult. Currently, egg or larvae samples from the field had to be raised in a lab until their third life stage, which could take several weeks, before insect scientists could determine which species they were looking at.

However, a genetic testing method known as a multiplex polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay, can be used to identify the species with genetic material extracted from samples of the beetles’ eggs, larvae, or excrement. Researchers Shizu Watanabe, Ph.D., and Michael J. Melzer, Ph.D., of the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, at UH identified genetic markers in the beetles’ DNA that can be used for differentiation via the test. Once samples are received in the lab, the PCR assay can be conducted in just a few hours, Melzer says.

The new method will help “ensure that eradication efforts are being directed at coconut rhinoceros beetle and not oriental flower beetle. This assay will help to prevent any misidentification in the field,” Melzer says. “Such misidentifications might result in resources targeting oriental flower beetle, or worse, ignoring a coconut rhinoceros breeding site because the specimens discovered were identified as oriental flower beetle.”

“For species that require highly technical expertise for identification, molecular assays represent a reasonably straight-forward approach for identification, either as stand-alone assays or in parallel with morphological identification,” Watanabe and Melzer write in their article. “For pests of regulatory concern, rapid and accurate insect identification is essential, and molecular assays can address these needs.”

Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle Detected on Oahu

Another new invasive pest has been detected on Oahu, one that damages coconut trees and other palm plants. The Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle (CRB) was detected at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Dec. 23, 2013 during routine surveys conducted under a cooperative agreement between the University of Hawaii at Hilo and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Protection & Quarantine (USDA-PPQ). Samples of the suspect beetle were sent to the USDA entomology laboratory in Miami and confirmation of CRB, Oryctes rhinoceros (L.), was received on Jan. 3. 2014.

Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle

Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle

Coincidentally, the discovery of the CRB happened on the same day that Little Fire Ant (LFA) was discovered on hapuu (Hawaiian tree fern) at a garden shop on Maui and subsequently confirmed on Oahu. LFA had previously been established on Hawaii Island.

Since the discovery, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) and the USDA-PPQ have been working jointly with the military and the University of Hawaii (UH) to survey and conduct trapping activities in the Pearl Harbor – Hickam area to determine the extent of the infestation. So far, nine adult beetles have been trapped.

It is a major pest of palms in India, the Philippines, the Palaus, Fiji, Wallis, Nukunono, American and Western Samoa and Guam. It is not known exactly how the beetles arrived in Hawaii.

“The threat of the coconut rhinoceros beetle has been a growing concern in Hawaii since it turned up in Guam in 2007,” said Dr. Neil Reimer, administrator for HDOA’s Plant Industry Division. “We have initiated the strong, coordinated efforts among HDOA, USDA, UH and other partners that will be required to effectively manage this invasive pest.”

CRB is mainly a pest of coconut and oil palms, but may also attack other palm species. Adult CRB are dark brown in color and measure 1 ¼ to 2 ½ inches long. CRB larvae are white in color with a brown head. (Photos attached)

They damage palms by boring into the center of the crown where they injure young, growing tissue and feed on the sap. As they bore into the crown, they cut through developing leaves, causing damage to the fronds. V-shaped cuts in the fronds and holes through the midrib are visible as leaves mature and unfold.

CRB is native to the Asian tropics, but was accidentally introduced to western and central Pacific islands.

Natural enemies of CRB include pigs, rats, ants, and some beetles, which may attack CRB eggs, larvae, pupae and adults. They may also be killed by two diseases, a fungus and a virus; however, both are not known to occur in Hawaii.

Suspected CRB on coconut and palm plants on all islands should be reported to HDOA’s PEST HOTLINE – 643-PEST (7378). This is also a toll-free number for neighbor islands.