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Piti Makuna’s days are numbered!

Thousands of parasitoids en route from US to destroy bug that’s destroying papaya, other trees

By Hassina Leelarathna reporting from Dubai

(May 15, Dubai, Sri Lnaka Guardian) Thousands of hungry parasitoids are enroute to Sri Lanka and will soon be devouring the mealy bugs (piti makuna) that are causing havoc to trees and plants in six provinces and have become a major headache to farmers and politicians alike.

A consignment of 10,000 parasitoids whose scientific name is "Pseudophycus,” reproduced under quarantine conditions at a lab in Puerto Rico, will reach Katunayake on Friday afternoon from where they will be whisked away by Agrarian Services officers to places where they can gorge on the piti makunas, lay eggs on them, and eventually destroy the dreadful bugs.

I say all this with some certainty as the parasitoids, all 10,000 of them, are right here with me, in six plastic vials inside a sealed white cardboard box held securely with a red cloth ribbon, at the Dubai airport as I await the flight to Colombo, the final leg of my trip from Los Angeles.

The main person behind this ‘odyssey of the bugs’ is the quiet and unassuming Sri Lankan Consul General in Los Angeles Mr. Ananda Wickremasinghe. Ever since, several weeks ago, he casually mentioned to me that he was trying to get a consignment of parasitoids couriered to Colombo, I have been hooked to the story, as any journalist would.

Mr. Wickremasinghe, who has a degree in agriculture and served in Sri Lanka’s Agricultural Development and Agrarian Services Ministry, stepped in to help his former colleagues who were desperately seeking the assistance of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to obtain the parasitoids.

As local media have reported, the voracious Paracoccus marginatus, AKA Papaya mealy bug, is devastating papaya, manioc, chili and brinjal (eggplant) cultivation in the Western, North Western, Sabaragamuwa and North Central provinces. With a taste for sap or latex milk, it has attacked a wide range of trees including, papaya, araliya (temple flowers), jackfruit, breadfruit, rambutan, as well as foliage plants and citrus trees that are mostly grown in home gardens. Scientists have even warned that araliya and papaya trees face extinction unless the rapid spread of the disease is immediately stalled.

But the potential danger to humans by methods such as aerial insecticide have led scientists to seek biological control as the preferred option.

The release of Pseudophycus parasitoids to control mealy bugs are known to have registered 99% success in the US and other countries, with no risk to humans, animals, or to any endangered species.

The consul general’s specialized knowledge was no doubt propitious. He soon established contact with Dr. Leyinska Wiscovitch, USDA’s State Plant Health Director in Puerto Rico who undertook to have the parasitoids ‘grown’ and delivered to Los Angeles in time for their flight to Colombo. The entire operation was gratis, on Uncle Sam’s tab.

But their transportation to a destination thousands of miles away was going to be tricky. Dr. Wiscovitch explained to the Consul General that these very tiny insects will undergo travel stress and may not survive beyond three days. Subjecting them to x-ray at airports will diminish their reproduction capabilities. Changes in temperatures, by opening and closing the box in which they would be packaged, or drastic/ sudden movements will increase mortality rate.

All of which not only eliminated courier services such as Fedex (which would take about 6 days), but also required a tightly coordinated trip, bypassing airport metal detectors and ensuring that the ‘babies’ would remain undisturbed until they reached their final destination.

There were a few false starts. After many emails and faxes, the initial LA-Taipei-Kuala Lumpur-Colombo route had to be abandoned at the last moment because the Consul General’s office failed to receive any response from Taipei authorities -- not surprising considering the absence of diplomatic relations.

The LA-Dubai-Colombo route, which totals a little less than 36 hours, was finally decided upon as the best option.

At LAX, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) played its role in helping save Sri Lanka’s endangered agriculture. TSA Coordination Center Supervisor Brent Goodwin was extremely cooperative, greeting me and Mr. Asoka Godavita (Commercial Attache) from the CG’s office with a broad smile, quite unusual for the TSA, the guys that make you remove your shoes and dig through even the most intimate items in your suitcase. Goodwin personally carried the cardboard box past the metal detectors, remarking that he was happy to be part of a venture where the ‘good guys would get the bad guys,’adding that he was somewhat saddened by the thought that in the end the good guys too would all be destroyed. (The Pseudophycus parasitoids only attack mealy bugs and their life cycle will naturally terminate with the extinction of the bugs.)

In Dubai, Mr. Amal Dassanayake, Sri Lanka’s Attache Protocol, was there to help the precious package once more dodge metal detectors.

Once they reach Colombo, some of the parasitoids will be taken to Kandy to be reproduced. Some will be ‘ceremonially released’ on Saturday by Agriculture Minister M. Sirisena at a public event in Polonnoruwa, others will be released in the more affected areas such as the Western Province.

What a journey for the tiny parasitoids that started their life cycle just a few days ago in a lab in Puerto Rico! It is an odyssey that attests to that wonderful, abstract thing we call ‘the human spirit,’ which has manifested itself in this case in unusual teamwork and cooperation among people who have never met before and whose paths have crossed only briefly.

It is also testament to another fact: right now, things may not be looking great in US-Sri Lankan relations, but at the level of bugs and men, things are going just fine.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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