Whitefly eggs are shown on foliage in a Belleair Shore resident’s yard in November.
BELLEAIR SHORE – A local invasion of whiteflies, a damaging insect pest, has greatly subsided in recent weeks. Residents and officials in the beach communities are seeing fewer evidences of their presence and less damage to the tropical foliage they target. But the relief is likely temporary, experts say.
Reports of “swarms of whiteflies” attacking palm trees, ornamentals and other plants in the area were common last fall. Infestations were especially severe in Indian Rocks Beach, where they mainly infected ficus trees, and in upscale Belleair Shore, where exotic palms were the main targets.
The insects are “extremely damaging” to plants and “capable of causing cataclysmic effects on the landscape,” according to horticultural reports. The seriousness of the pests encroachment locally caused the Pinellas County Extension Service to issue a Bulletin headlined “Whitefly Invasion” last July. The article said “the pests can reach very high populations and be extremely damaging.”
Extension Agent Jane Morse warned, “Whiteflies can seriously injure plants by sucking nutrients from the plant, causing wilting, yellowing, stunting, leaf drop, or even death.” The flies feed on a broad range of plants, including palms, woody ornamentals, or fruits.
While the whitefly invasion was a serious concern late last year, their presence has recently appeared greatly lessened.
Belleair Shore Commissioner Raymond Piscitelli, whose property had been one of those infested, said he was told by his sprayer after a recent control treatment that the whiteflies had “left the area.” The pest control firm gave no reason for the apparent departure.
Indian Rocks Beach resident Donna Valery, who in November said the ficus trees there had been infected “real bad,” recently reported the swarms of flies are gone, and said evidence of their presence has considerably subsided.
But Belleair Shore resident and whitefly victim Deborah Roseman cautioned the danger is likely not ended. Roseman, who hosts a weekly garden talk show (WTIS AM 1110, Saturday, 8:30 to 9 a.m.), agreed the whiteflies have not been as active recently, but said that is due more to the weather and the insects’ growth cycle.
“They are not as bad as they were, but they’re still around and very much a threat,” Roseman said. She warned that the whiteflies will likely be back in force as soon as conditions are right.
Morse agreed the pests are not eradicated. Nor will they likely ever be, she said.
Morse said the whiteflies are an exotic species that has flourished because they lack the biological controls here that exist in their native environment.
“Our hope is to keep the population suppressed to a tolerable level by using biological controls first, and as a last resort, pesticides,” Morse said, adding, “Mother Nature’s remedies work best.” She urged residents to continue their treatment for the pests. She recommends horticultural oils and sprays and insecticidal soaps.
Morse attributed the recent decrease in the whitefly’s presence mostly to the weather.
“Cold weather knocks them out,” she said. “When it warms up, they’ll be back.”