Best of Sicily
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Can a bug change a landscape? It can if it destroys a plant species. The red palm weevil
(the photo shown here was taken in Palermo
by a member of our staff) is an Asian beetle which arrived in Sicily via
Egypt two years ago - probably in a shipment of infected plants - and is
devouring the island's date palms by boring large networks of tiny tunnels
into the trunks. Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, which Italians call the
punteruolo rosso, had already caused the destruction of over thirteen
thousand date palms in Sicily by August 2009, and there's no end to the
massacre in sight. The bug has invaded mainland Italy, killing trees as
far north as Genoa, and has recently landed in Spain. The global impact
of its migration is serious; it has even been discovered in the Caribbean.
The challenge posed by such "invading species" is that once they move beyond their
native habitats they leave behind the natural predators which keep their
populations down back home. In a new environment they can literally eat
whatever they please until they have destroyed their new food source and,
in the case of date and coconut palms, an edible human food as well. One
unwelcome species that comes to mind, referred to in the press as "Fishzilla," is the toothy, hungry south-east
Asian snakehead fish (channa argus) that in American waters consumes all kinds of edible
fish, altering the native populations of entire lakes and rivers and occasionally
How extensive will the beetle damage be? For the moment, there seems
to be no effective pesticide available to combat these pests. Certain palm
tree varieties, though a small minority of those cultivated in Sicily, are
immune to the weevils. Prominent among these is the American palm of the genus
Washingtonia popular in Mexico and California (washingtonia filifera and washingtonia robusta). Introduced into
Sicily about a century ago, it has a very high, slender trunk and fan-like
branches clumped around a nucleus. It grows much taller and faster than the traditional
date palm and has a completely different profile, but this may be the price
to pay for the loss of the thick-trunked date palms.
As a safety measure, roadside trees are being cut down to forestall possible
collapses onto cars or people due to trunk damage from the bugs.
Though date palms were grown in southern Italy for brief periods during
the ancient Roman era, their most extensive
cultivation, on large plantations, took place in Sicily during the Arab period. By around 1300 they were considered an
ornamental tree, so the fruit was not harvested and dates are found in very
few traditional Sicilian recipes. Despite the presence of dates falling
to the ground beneath the trees in public gardens, most Sicilians are unaware
that the trees so evident here are, in fact, date palms. Most of the dates
sold in Sicily are imported from northern Africa, especially Tunisia. That
may change as Tunisia's date palms are destroyed by the hungry weevils.
It isn't altogether inappropriate to ascribe human virtues and vices
to certain insects. The mantis, cricket and ladybug are all considred virtuous.
The red palm weevil is just plain evil!
About the Author: Vincenzo Mormino has written about wildlife and nature for Best of Sicily and hard-copy publications.