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Entomologist presents history of vegetable pests

About the time Hugh Smith was a graduate student in entomology and nematology at the University of Florida, his academic department was housed on the top floor of McCarty Hall in Gainesville. Steinmetz Hall, the department’s current location, was a construction site. 

Now, about 30 years later, Smith is a vegetable entomologist for UF/IFAS, and Steinmetz houses the department on the southwest edge of the Gainesville campus.

Three decades later, many bugs have plagued Florida farmers. For example, the silverleaf whitefly had recently made its home in Florida. Among other pest issues, problems with thrips were confined primarily to western flower thrips in the Panhandle. Pepper weevils and diamondback moths could not be controlled effectively with insecticides.

“UF/IFAS entomologists responded to these and other threats by developing protocols to monitor and scout the insects, evaluate chemical, biological and behavioral approaches to managing the pests and by collaborating with plant breeders on the development of virus-resistant varieties when appropriate,” Smith said.

Despite scientific progress, 30 years later, the silverleaf whitefly transmits at least four economically devastating viruses to Florida’s high-value specialty crops, he said. Those viruses include tomato yellow leaf curl, yellow leaf curl, squash vein yellowing, cucurbit leaf crumple and cucurbit yellow stunting disorder.

Thrips species, including melon and chilli thrips, have made homes across the state. These thrips decrease yields in many fruit and vegetable crops, and some species transmit viruses, including tomato spotted wilt, groundnut ringspot virus and tomato chlorotic spot virus.

In addition to the silverleaf whitefly and the thrips species, pepper weevil has expanded its geographic range of crops it will harm, said Smith. 

Despite the spread of the harmful pests during the past three decades, Smith sees a bright future through the collaborative work of UF/IFAS faculty in their research and Extension efforts. Since pests and the viruses they spread are widely scattered, UF/IFAS stations its faculty in strategically located research and education centers across Florida.

Furthermore, UF/IFAS entomologists work well with those at the University of Georgia to manage whiteflies, pepper weevil and diamondback moth. They also collaborate with many partner agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Fort Pierce, where UF/IFAS and federal scientists study how to manage thrips and whiteflies in large areas.

“The UF/IFAS entomology department has hired several new, energetic faculty to work on the management of pests of vegetables, field crops, ornamentals and citrus,” Smith said. “Our best hope for addressing these problems lies in supporting our new scientists and strengthening our collaborations with regional partners.”

Source: University of Florida (Brad Buck) 

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