It’s one-eighth of an inch big, but it has the power to bring an entire agricultural community to its knees; and it’s been found in San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.
The Asian Citrus Psyllid has been found on three South County trees, two in San Juan Capistrano, one in San Clemente. The critter has the ability to infect citrus trees with a disease called huanglongbing, HLB, or citrus greening disease.
While the malady is not dangerous for humans, it is fatal for the trees. Because it spreads like wildfire, officials with the state Department of Food and Agriculture are concerned a backyard infestation could lead to the distruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of citrus groves across the state.
The University of Florida estimates that the disease has resulted in more than 6,600 lost jobs, $1.3 billion in lost revenue to growers and $3.6 billion in lost economic activity since it was discovered in Florida in 2005, according to a trade publication for the fresh produce industry.
So starting next week, residents who live within an 800-meter diameter around the three trees found with a single Asian Citrus Psyllid will receive a pink notice from the state, informing them state workers will soon be out to spray their citrus trees.
The notice will give a specific time for the treatment and asks residents to leave back gates open and pets inside, according to state officials who hosted an open house Thursday night at the San Juan Capistrano Community Center.
So far, only one tree in California, a lemon/pummelo tree in Hacienda Heights, has been discovered with the disease. But officials aren’t taking any chances.
In February, the state declared seven counties in Southern California under quarantine, which requires all nurseries selling citrus trees to treat them before any transaction, state officials said.
In addition, a 93-mile circle around Hacienda Heights is under an even more strict quarantine, where all citrus trees for sale must be destroyed or kept under fine-mesh, insect-resistant structures.
The local areas to be treated include the neighborhoods around San Juan Creek and the 1-5, near Junipero Serra and Rancho Viejo roads and the western end of Avenido Pico in San Clemente, according to maps on display Thursday night.
State workers say the insecticide contains over-the-counter chemicals found in commercially available products. The foliage will be sprayed with one solution, while the soil at the base of the trees will be softened and treated with another.
About two dozen residents stopped by to learn about the problem, most of them with beloved citrus trees at home they want to protect.
“I’m so happy, you don’t know how wonderful this is,” said Mimi Lane of San Clemente. Her husband was the gardener in the family, and with his passing, she couldn’t bear the thought of her four citrus trees, which he loved so much, falling to disease.
San Juan Capistrano resident John Perry touted his love for his Meyer lemon tree.
“There’s lemon-drop martinis, lemon pies, lemon chicken. You can’t beat it,” he said.
The spraying is necessary to save a whole sector of agriculture in California, he said. Otherwise, “it will run wild. You’ve got to nip it in the bud.”
Mike Bennett, deputy agricultural commissioner for Orange County, was also on hand Thursday night to meet with the public. He said the aphid-like insect was first spotted in Imperial and San Diego counties, likely brought in from Mexico.
A year ago, an Asian Citrus Psyllid was found in Santa Ana, he added. Both the state and county monitor area trees for infestations. The yellow traps are specifically trying to catch the Asian Citrus Psyllid.
“If it gets a foothold here, … there’s no stopping it,” Bennett said.