Beetles from Israel Set Out to Protect Ethiopia’s Prickly Pear Cacti

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 9:00 AM

KKL-JNF already has experience of the battle against aphids of this kind, which have spread in Israel  in recent years.

Experts from KKL-JNF’s Afforestation Division have enlisted in a battle to save prickly pear cacti in Ethiopia from a serious aphid attack. KKL-JNF has experience of combating aphids on prickly pear plants, as a similar outbreak has taken place in Israel in recent years. The Israeli aphids are generally supposed to have arrived from Lebanon.

The cochineal aphid (Dactylopius coccus) was introduced into northern Ethiopia over a decade ago as a source of natural red dye. The breeding plan was abandoned, but the cactus-eating insect spread and began to sow destruction among the country’s prickly pears. By feeding on the juices of the cacti, the aphids caused them irreparable damage, and so deprived camels and other domestic livestock in Ethiopia’s Tigré region of an important source of grazing.

Northern Ethiopia suffered severe famine until about twenty years ago, and many thousands of people starved to death. Today the prickly pear cactus is an important component of nutritional security in the region, and during periods of drought this cactus functions as the “bottom of the barrel” for both human beings and livestock. At such times, people eat the prickly pear fruit, while the animals feed off the flesh of the plant. As the cactus regenerates, it can continue to provide food in times of severe shortage.

Because combating the aphid is so vital to nutritional security in the region, KKL-JNF Chief Forester David Brand has invested a great deal of effort in promoting cooperation designed to bring KKL-JNF’s professional help to Ethiopia.

KKL-JNF already has experience of the battle against aphids of this kind, which have spread in Israel, too, in recent years, after arriving, it is assumed, from Lebanon. Unfortunately, the variety found in Israel is much more aggressive than its Ethiopian relative and it has caused enormous damage to prickly pear cacti in the north of the country.

Director of the KKL-JNF Afforestation Division’s Forest Health and Protection Department Omer Golan was summoned to Ethiopia to help combat the aphid. He did not arrive there empty-handed, but came equipped with 600 wild Cryptolaemus montrouzieri beetles, relatives of the well-loved and familiar ladybird that are sometimes referred to in English as “mealybug destroyers.” As their name suggests, they are a commercial biological pest-control product. These particular beetles were collected in the Acco and Western Galilee region before being summarily dispatched on their mission to Ethiopia.

“This species of beetle, which originates in Australia, feeds on small insects and aphids and so reduces the number of pests,” explained Omer Golan. “As it causes no damage to beneficial insects, it is used as a biological pest-control agent in many parts of the world, including Israel.”

Omer Golan travelled to Ethiopia to help the local people establish a project for the mass breeding of these beetles, which will then be distributed far and wide to wipe out the invasive aphid. The visit also paved the way for a professional relationship based on pest control, the use of natural enemies and, later perhaps, cooperation on additional environmental issues.

Activities in Ethiopia are being coordinated by Dr. Kiros Meles of Mekelle University. A previous experiment in which he attempted to get rid of the troublesome aphids with the help of beetles donated by Holland proved unsuccessful, after the beetles refused to breed.

Omer Golan’s arrival kindled fresh hope in the hearts of the combatants in the aphid war. He advised his hosts on the creation of suitable habitats for breeding the beetles he had brought with him. Although the Ethiopian site does not possess a professional climate-controlled breeding facility, Golan is optimistic that the project will succeed.

“We’ve set up two metal breeding cages, each of which contains a shelf and poles from which prickly pear pads can be suspended,” he explained. “The cages have been covered with two layers of net, and about fifty beetles were placed in each one. The beetles have been presented with hundreds of young aphids on a bed of paper and we have placed additional aphids on the prickly pear pads. To our delight, we observed that the beetles were feeding hungrily off the pest. Now all that remains is to check their reproductive ability. At present we are rearing them in the laboratory, but a greenhouse equipped with net cages for the mass breeding of natural enemies is already in the final stages of construction.”

Together with staff from the local university, Omer Golan toured the affected region to see for himself how extensively the pests had spread. At the same time he reviewed the local environmental conditions, including those not directly related to aphids or prickly pear cacti. “People there appear to have acquired experience in rehabilitating areas that have suffered from overgrazing, but they require additional knowledge if they are to manage these areas in a sustainable and economically feasible manner: the northern Ethiopian tracts of batha (dwarf-shrub undergrowth) have to be improved to the point where they can provide grazing for sheep and cattle. These are issues on which KKL-JNF can definitely contribute,” he concluded.

Another matter that came up in conversation was the need to improve the nutritional security of the local villagers. “The introduction of suitable plants into the grazing area, like the successful integration of the prickly pear cacti, could help with this,” said Golan.

KKL-JNF representatives will continue to monitor events in Ethiopia, and the progress of the beetle-breeding program in particular. At the same time it will distribute members of the same beetle species at new sites in Israel to enable them to continue to breed here, too.

“I’m proud that we can place our expertise at the disposal of other countries,” said Omer Golan. “We’re not just helping to breed a natural enemy of pests – we’re also opening a new channel of cooperation. And, of course, I regard all collaborations of this kind as a wonderful opportunity to learn from the knowledge of others.”