Maui farms brace for destructive coffee beetles to arrive

WAILUKU >>  Coffee growers on Maui are bracing for a destructive beetle to eventually make its way to the island.

The coffee berry borer has been wreaking havoc on the Big Island for years. The pest made its way to Oahu in December.

“I’ve been a farmer forever, and I know the reality of these kinds of things, so I expect that at some point it will show up here,” said MauiGrown Coffee President Kimo Falconer. “But we’re ready.”

Preventative measures include some farmers restricting access to their orchards, the Maui News reported Tuesday.

“We’ve had to put signs up trying to reduce the amount of people walking through our fields, but really they can just walk right up there, and maybe they were in Kona yesterday doing a farm tour, and there’s dirt on their shoes,” Falconer said.

Falconer said his farm checks traps regularly and has trimmed back trees that are close to roads.

Some farms that used to offer educational tours no longer do so, said Sydney Smith, president of the Maui Coffee Association and owner of Maliko Estate Coffee. “The beetle is so tiny it gets spread by people coming from the Big Island from dirt on their shoes or their clothes,” Smith said.

The tiny beetle bores into the coffee cherry, and its larvae feed on the coffee bean, reducing its yield and quality. Farmers may not discover them until after harvest.

It’s unknown how the beetle, native to Central Africa, arrived in Hawaii.

“We’re the last coffee growing region on Earth to finally get it,” Falconer said.

The state Department of Agriculture issued a quarantine order that requires a permit to transport unroasted coffee beans, coffee plants and plant parts, used coffee bags and coffee harvesting equipment from Hawaii Island to other islands that are not infested with the coffee berry borer.

The coffee berry borer can cause yield losses of 30 to 35 percent with 100 percent of berries infested at harvest time, according to the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Fungus holds clue to coffee blight

If one Big Island coffee grower is correct, the solution to the industry’s recent problem with the destructive coffee borer beetle might exist in the coffee plants’ own ecosystem.

The beetle was first detected on Big Island coffee farms this year, particularly in the dry South Kona area. Its spread has proved disastrous in some areas, costing farms as much as 75 percent of their usual yield.

Melanie Bondera of Kanalani Ohana Farm thinks the beetle is likely not new to the island and that the infestation might have been due to severe drought conditions that killed off a fungus — Beauvaria bassiana — that had been keeping the beetle in check for years.

Bondera said she got the idea from another farmer at a meeting last month and conducted a study of infected plants on the organic farm that she operates with her husband.

Examining scores of infested beans, Bondera found evidence of “white crystalline stuff” overflowing from beetle exit holes. When she cut the beans open, she found dead beetles stuck in the exit with the fungus growing out of their bodies.

Bondera, who holds a master’s degree in agriculture, speculates that the beetle has been in Hawaii for years but has been controlled by the presence of the fungus, which lives within the tissue of the coffee plant. She and other farmers think that when the drought hit, the fungus died off, allowing the beetles to do more damage.