Date Palms Across Israel Fall Prey to Beetle Infestation

Infested city palm trees at risk of falling, thus posing danger to pedestrians; Israel's agriculture minister calls for public awareness.

Date palms in cities throughout Israel have fallen prey to a beetle that eats away at the tree trunk and could cause them to fall over this summer, endangering pedestrians, the Agriculture Ministry has warned. The ministry called on the public to inform municipal authorities if they see trees that appear diseased so they can be treated before it is too late.

"The awareness of the public can help discern early signs of disease to prevent trees from falling in cities," Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir said.

In recent years, date palms have become infested with the insect, known as the red palm weevil, which is brown, 3.5 centimeters long and has a long snout. An invasive species, it first began to spread in Israel in 2009 in date palm groves in the Jordan Valley, as well as among ornamental palms in cities.

One tree fell after infestation at the entrance to a mall in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Bialik and others have fallen on the Akhziv beach and at Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk on the northern Mediterranean coast.

The Agriculture Ministry has recently taken steps to locate the affected trees. "We have set up traps containing a hormone that attracts the beetle," said Shimon Biton of the ministry's plant protection service.

The findings in the traps indicate that the red palm weevil has spread to many cities in the north, including Acre, Nahariya, Kiryat Shmona, Kiryat Tivon and Haifa, as well as to the Hula Valley and the vicinity of Hadera. In the south they have been found in communities near the Gaza Strip and in Gadera and Rehovot. It is only a matter of time until they hit trees in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and southward, the experts say.

The beetle lays a few hundred eggs in the trunks and the larvae that hatch eat away at the tree until it tries up and falls. An untreated tree can reach the point of no return within three months of infestation, and the beetles fly from tree to tree. "They are active mainly in the summer and so we expect that in the coming months there is a danger that many trees will fall," Biton said.

The beetle infestation in the Jordan Valley damaged the trees but did not fell them. But then they moved to other species of date palm - some of which fell after the infestation, especially ornamental palms - boring right into the base of the tree, Biton said.

Agriculture Ministry experts say early signs of infestation are when the crown of an affected palm leans sideways and looks dry, and the leaves hang down like a closed umbrella.

Once a tree is diagnosed, it can be treated by spraying the crown. Several cities have already done so. "If treatment is applied when the first signs are visible, the tree has a 70 to 80 percent chance of survival," Biton said.

Shimon Biton