Invasive insect threatening Suncoast trees

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Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013 5:44 pm | Updated: 1:12 pm, Wed Jul 31, 2013.

SARASOTA - Thousands of visitors aren't the only ones who love the iconic banyan trees at Selby Gardens in Sarasota, apparently an invasive species of fly does too.

The trees have been undergoing treatment to get rid of the bugs, but not before they caused some damage. And there's also a warning for homeowners to be on the lookout as well.

Believe it or not banyan trees are considered an invasive species, and are not native to the Suncoast. Ironically these trees have come under attack by another invasive species, one much smaller than the trees, and one that could destroy trees and plants in your backyard as well.

Marie Selby first planted these now-iconic banyan trees 70 years ago, and they've survived heat, hurricanes and the test of time. But several months ago they came under attack by a tiny little insect called a whitefly.

It was something that few had ever seen here before. "We would find this carpet of green leaves, and that's unusual," says Selby Garden's horticulture director Mike McLaughlin. He knew something was wrong, and that it was coming from a critter that didn't always call the Suncoast home. "Florida is constantly bombarded with new pests into the landscape, and each one we need to evaluate whether we treat or not."

And in order to save the trees from the whiteflies, McLaughlin did decide to treat, applying pesticides directly to the trees branches. “It worked quite well; we closed the area for a while to make sure nobody touched the trees while they were being treated."

The flies seem to be gone now and the trees fully recovered. But just because they're no longer at Selby Gardens, it doesn't mean they won't show up in your backyard.

"I would say maybe six months ago I started hearing about them, people bringing in palm fronds and samples of things that were infested," says Scott Mumper of Your Farm and Garden.

He says they're selling out of pesticides used to treat the flies, which can also attack palm trees. "The infestation is so thick and heavy, that if you don't do anything about it, it eventually can just suck the life out of the tree. It’s killing trees out there."

The treatment for the trees at Selby Gardens should last about a year, at which point they'll decide whether to treat again if the flies return.

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