Mexican Ladybugs Begin Save the Sabras Campaign

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

It is not by chance that the Mexican ladybugs might be the hero who will save the day

A new stage in the struggle to save Israel’s sabra (prickly pear) plants began this June when a ladybug that eats the cochineal scale insects that have been attacking plants in Northern Israel was especially imported from Mexico. Professor Tzvika Mendel, an entomologist from the Volkani Center, is leading the research, which is being conducted together with KKL-JNF.

The cochineal scale insect – a pest whose origin is in Mexico, entered Israel from Lebanon about three years ago, and since then has been spreading in the north. The concern is that this pest will also spread to the rest of the country and threaten all the sabra cactuses in Israel. Attempts to use various pesticides were not successful, and now the Mexican ladybugs are the last hope.

It is not by chance that the Mexican ladybugs might be the hero who will save the day. Despite the fact that the sabra cactus originated in Mexico, its fruit is seen as characterizing the Israeli personality – prickly on the outside but sweet within. KKL-JNF contacted its representatives in Mexico and got in touch with local experts. A number of alternatives were looked into, and the conclusion was to experiment with take the Mexican ladybug, which is of the genus Hyperaspis.

Towards the end of September, a few dozen ladybugs were brought to Israel after all the necessary permits were obtained. Dr. Alex Protsov from the Volcani Institute described the process: “The ladybugs were quarantined for a number of months in order to ascertain that they will only affect the scales rather than other species that exist in Israel. At the same time, we propagated them in order to have a sufficient quantity to disperse.”

The tests showed that the ladybugs only ate scales and nothing else, not even hummus or falafel. The new immigrants acclimated quickly into life in Israel, and today, the scientists have about 300 adult ladybugs and another 150 larva who will grow up to be hungry adult bugs.

At the present time, teams are going from village to village in the north and looking for places to disperse the ladybugs. This is how they arrived, for example, at Ronnie Vetner’s yard in Korazim. A big and impressive sabra cactus had been growing there for years, until it was attacked by the merciless scale. The magnificent plant is now drying up and dying.

Professor Tzvi Mandel inspected the plant, and sadly arrived at the conclusion that it was too late to save it. “There are too many scales, and by the time the ladybugs will multiply here the sabra will have already died.”

“This was a beautiful plant, we picked buckets full of sabras from it,” Vetner remembered better days. “It’s painful to see it die right in front of my eyes. It’s a shame that the ladybugs only arrived when it was too late, but at least they will save the other sabras in the village, and I can always plant a new one.”

The team proceeded to the next stop in Korazim – the house of Dr. Arik Palavski. Surprisingly enough, it turned out that Dr. Palavski is an ecologist in the Etymology Department of the Volcani Institute, but that didn’t impress the scale insects who decided to attack his yard.

“When I saw the scale insect on the cactus plant, it was self-evident to me that this is Tzvika’s field of research,” Dr. Palavski said. “In this instance, I was interested in the case both professionally and also personally. In the past, we ate the fruits of the sabra cactus, and it’s really sad to see it in this condition. Invasive species are part of life here, and it’s important to increase public awareness about the importance of this matter.”

The moment had arrived for the ladybugs to take the stage. Dr. Protsov pulled out a closed jar with a leaf of a diseased sabra plant and a number of ladybugs going for a walk on it. He carefully put the diseased leaf on the cactus and wished the ladybugs well in their new home. If they have lots of children and good appetites, the sabra cactus should recover in a few months from now.

The more the population of ladybugs takes root, the more they are expected to fly and spread to other localities and save additional sabras. This will create a balance between the scales and the ladybugs, and the sabra cactuses will continue to survive.

The next stop was the agricultural fields next to the village of Kahal. A long row of sabras was infected by the scales and was covered by what seemed to be a sort of white powder. Dr. Protsov once again took out his ladybug jar and send them on their way.

The researchers marked the plant in order to come back a few months later and check out its situation. A few weeks ago, they dispersed larva in other villages in the region, including Hukok, Inbar and Amirim, and when they returned, they were pleased to find that they had already begun developing into adults.

At the end of the summer, the researchers will come back to visit the ladybugs in order to monitor their development and to make certain that they’re continuing to propagate and eat lots and lots of scales so that the beloved sabras will be saved. The hope is that by next spring, the sabra cactuses will already be starting to show signs of recovery.