KAU, Hawaii Island — For macadamia nut farmer Volanda Collins-Toribio, a dead branch on the floor of the macadamia orchard floor symbolizes the plight facing one of Hawaii’s iconic agricultural industries.
Collins-Toribio picks up the withered branch and points to a series of round stains the color of dried blood near the cracked, brittle base.
The wounds, she said, were were left behind by the syringe-like mandible of the macadamia felted coccid, an invasive insect from Australia that’s been decimating crops and reducing nut yields for more than a decade.
“These little buggers come in and suck the life out of all the trees,” Collins-Toribio said. “It’s hurting us a whole lot.”
Collins-Toribio has worked in macadamia for more than 30 years. She now manages nearly 1,400 acres of trees owned by the Edmund C. Olson Trust on Hawaii’s Big Island.
The trust is one of the state’s largest private landowners, and owns Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co., which boasts of using only island-grown nuts gathered from its own trees as well as those of 200 local farmers.
That puts Collins-Toribio on the front lines of the battle to save Hawaii’s macadamia nut industry, which produces one of the state’s most lucrative cash crops.
“These little buggers come in and suck the life out of all the trees.” — Volanda Collins-Toribio
The felted coccid has posed a threat to Hawaii’s macadamia nut industry since the insect was first discovered in 2005.
But unlike other invasives, such as the coffee berry borer, which was first discovered on the islands in 2010, those in the industry say it hasn’t received the same level of attention it deserves considering the damage it’s caused.
That could change in the coming months and years.
Congress is currently considering legislation, introduced by the state’s federal delegation, that would make more federal money available to combat the coccid in Hawaii.
The Macadamia Tree Health Initiative was included in the farm bill, a final version of which is still being debated between House and Senate conferees.
If approved, the initiative would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund grants for research and development of tools to fight the coccid. It would also allow for the creation of an area-wide pest management program for parts of the island that are at risk.
The state, too, is considering introducing a newly discovered wasp species to the islands to prey on the coccid and hopefully prevent its spread.
But even that has some in the industry, including Collins-Toribio, wary given Hawaii’s calamitous history with species introduction.
“Biological control is always risky business,” she said. “All you have to do is think about the mongoose.”
Hawaii’s sugar industry brought the mongoose to the islands in 1883 to help kill rats in the sugarcane fields. Unfortunately, the rats were nocturnal and the mongooses diurnal, which means predator and prey never came in contact.
Instead, the mongooses, which still roam the islands today, fed on the islands’ native birds driving them toward extinction.
The felted coccid can be hard to see without a magnifying glass, but up close a single individual can look like an oblong cotton ball.
As the coccid reproduces, millions can cover a single tree. At that point the bark begins to take on a white, scaly tone. Once the coccid begins to drain the tree of its sap, nut yields drop and the tree can be left to die.
“This is a tiny creature yet it can have a huge impact,” said Mark Wright, who’s an entomologist with the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Wright is a lead researcher in the state on the felted coccid and works closely with scientists on the Big Island and at the state Department of Agriculture to combat the pest before it further decimates the macadamia industry.
He said one of the challenges, however, has been a lack of visibility, both locally and at the federal level where securing research dollars is an integral part of fighting back.
The coffee berry borer, for instance, gets a lot of attention both because it’s a well-known pest that attacks a popular commodity and the industry has a cohesive lobbying effort.
State officials estimate that since the coccid first came on the scene in 2005 the Legislature has allocated about $400,000 to combatting the insect.
Efforts to combat the coffee berry borer, on the other hand, has received upwards of $3 million.
“Not everyone gets up in the morning and eats macadamia nuts for breakfast,” Wright said. “But almost everyone gets up in the morning and has their coffee.”
While Wright says any new federal funding is useful, he’s looking to the state Department of Agriculture’s efforts to bring an Australian wasp to the island to kill the coccid.
“The macadamia industry was slow to start asking for funding, help and assistance in the political arena.” — Darcy Oishi, Hawaii Department of Agriculture
A state entomologist recently discovered it during a trip to Australia where the felted coccid originated. He found a tiny wasp with translucent wings that uses its stinger to insert its eggs into the coccid. The wasp larvae then eat their way out, effectively killing their host.
“It’s kind of like that old movie ‘Alien’ where the alien bursts out of the guy’s chest,” Wright said.
Before the state can release a new species into the environment, it must go through a battery of tests to make sure it won’t prey on native flora and fauna.
Darcy Oishi, who heads the state’s biological control program, said that process has already been going on for the past four years.
He said it’s now ready to move into the next phase, which involves getting sign-off from the Hawaii Board of Agriculture and the USDA Plant and Health Inspection Service.
But there’s just one hang-up, he said. Because the wasp is a newly discovered species it first must receive an official name before the paperwork can be processed. Right now he simply refers to it by its generic genus name — Metaphicus.
“Unless we have a scientific name that identifies what insect we have we’re not allowed to proceed to the next step, which is release,” Oishi said. “I think that once we get this insect out there we’re in a good position to help this industry.”
Oishi said he expects it will take three more years before the coccid-killing wasp can be released onto the Big Island. And while seven years might seem like a long time, he said it’s actually fast when considering other attempts at biological control.
For example, when the state released a moth to eat an invasive fireweed that grows in pastureland and can sicken cattle and horses the pre-release study and regulatory process took 13 years.
“If you don’t bring in the predator are you going to let this introduced species kill off the trees?” — Dan Springer, Hawaii Macadamia Nut Association
As for why the state hasn’t been pushing harder with more resources on the felted coccid, the answer is simple, Oishi said: “Lobbying power.”
“The macadamia industry was slow to start asking for funding, help and assistance in the political arena,” Oishi said. “(And) the Legislature helps prioritize our work through the funding that that we receive.”
The stakes are high for macadamia nut farmers, who are now fetching high prices and seeing increased global demand for their products.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hawaii’s macadamia industry produced nearly 50 million pounds of nuts during the 2017-2018 season, which was worth an estimated $53.9 million.
While the dollar amount pales in comparison to the seed crop industry — with an estimated value of $121 million during the same period — it was enough to overtake coffee as the state’s most lucrative food crop. According to the USDA, coffee has a value of $43.8 million in 2017-2018.
Dan Springer, who’s the orchard manager for MacFarms of Hawaii, based in Captain Cook, said the felted coccid is just one of a long list of threats to his industry.
He said Hawaii’s market share has shrunk ever since Australia and South Africa began cultivating macadamia. Now the state is third in global production, and local companies are struggling to keep up with increased demand.
Springer also faces a shortage of farm labor. That’s particularly critical because his orchard is located on uneven, rocky volcanic soil that requires hand pickers rather than machines to harvest his nuts.
While the felted coccid hasn’t glommed on to his trees the way it has in other parts of the island — his most annoying pest is the feral pig — he said it might only be a matter of time.
“If we have a serious infestation we’re done,” Springer said.
As the new head of the Hawaii Macadamia Nut Association, Springer said it’s important for the industry to speak with a unified voice, especially at the Legislature.
He also admits he’s wary of introducing a new species to the islands. But Spring said it seems worth the risk, especially with the effort that’s gone into studying the coccid-killing wasp.
“If you don’t bring in the predator are you going to let this introduced species kill off the trees?” Springer asked. “No. The last choice should be to let the industry die.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.