Right now, Scotch Ridge Berry Farm’s late-season blueberries can be found at local farmers markets. Last year at this time, they could only be found rotting beneath the berry bushes.
“We walked away from our late blueberry crop. The fruit fly was in there and we wouldn’t take a chance on picking it,” recalled Charles Holub, owner of the Duanesburg farm.
The insect he spoke of isn’t a run-of-the-mill fruit fly. Unlike its relatives that lay eggs on rotting or past-ripe fruit, this tiny, winged pest targets fresh fruit, inserting its eggs beneath the skin, often before harvest. The larvae that hatch eat the fruit from the inside out.
“When you pick [the fruit] and put it in a cooler, it’s pretty much dormant until you take it out of the cooler and then sell it. There’s always the potential for somebody getting it home and setting it on the counter and little white worms come crawling out of each piece of fruit,” Holub explained.
Holub’s farm, along with many others in the Capital Region, has been hit hard by the tiny, havoc-wreaking fly, known as the spotted wing drosophila. It caused close to $5 million in losses for local growers in 2012, but proactive control measures are curbing its impact, said Laura McDermott, regional agricultural specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension. The organization monitors the insect using special traps and advises farmers about how to protect their crops.
“I must admit that it’s probably one of the most frustrating insect pests that we have. It can complete its entire life cycle in days if the conditions are right,” McDermott said.
A native of Asia, the invasive species was discovered in California in 2008 and by 2013 had been reported in most of the continental U.S. It has a number of hosts, but is most often attracted to soft, late-season fruit like raspberries and blueberries.
Farmers are seeing less of the pest this growing season, thanks to proactive measures, McDermott said. Last winter’s harsh weather and recent cool nights could also be credited with slowing its spread, she speculated.
Holub farms using organic practices. To keep his berry crop free of the fruit fly, he sprays the bushes with a naturally occurring bacteria much more frequently than he did in the past.
“The cost is breathtaking,” he said.
But the practice has paid off. He hasn’t seen any sign of the pest this year.
Growers who traditionally avoided spraying pesticides on their late soft fruit crops have changed their ways in order to combat the insect.
“We used to be proud to be able to say our blueberries and raspberries weren’t sprayed and now we view that as inevitable,” said John Hand, owner of Hand Melon Farm in Greenwich.
Hand started using conventional pesticide last year after hearing complaints from customers about berries sprouting white larvae. He said the cost of spraying the fruit hasn’t had a serious economic impact and has not prompted him to raise berry prices.
“The spotted wing drosophila are relatively easy to kill, so the materials used are very low toxicity,” he noted.
Hand monitors the presence of the fruit fly with traps provided by Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Checked weekly by CCE representatives, the traps have been in use in the region for two years and can now be found at one or two farms in each of the 16 counties McDermott oversees.
The traps are set up at Bowman Orchards in Rexford, but so far, none of the destructive flies has been detected there, said farmer Kevin Bowman.
“We know they’re coming, because [invasive species] always do, but so far, so good,” he said.