Pacific neighbors are fighting back against the coconut rhinoceros beetle, and there are lessons for Hawaii.

Vanuatu was trampled by twin cyclones in early March that tore roofs off buildings, severed communication lines, made running water undrinkable and cut electricity. 

When entomologist Mark Ero arrived days after the Category 4 cyclones, he was on the ground alongside humanitarian relief teams but his focus was on the dead vegetation carpeting Vanuatu’s main island.

“It looked completely different, just like a bushfire may have gone through and burned up all the vegetation,” Ero said in an interview. 

That detritus and fallen logs are ideal breeding habitat for the coconut rhinoceros beetle, a pest that already threatens the country’s coconut crops at the best of times.

Vanuatu government staff and SPC staff assess an artificial nesting site for coconut rhinoceros beetle, identified as a key ecological risk in the wake of two cyclones that hit the South Pacific nation in recent months. (Courtesy: SPC/2023)

Climate change’s direct impacts on humans are well accounted for in the Pacific but the residual effects of natural disasters create even more pathways for these invasive pests.

Ero was in the country post-cyclone leading a project team dedicated to the beetle, an effort of an intergovernmental organization called the Pacific Community. The strategy was to make the potential beetle breeding sites as inhospitable as possible and educate the public on how they could help contain the pest on the main island of Efate.

The government there ordered a temporary halt to shipments to other coconut-producing isles so the scarabs couldn’t hitch a ride.

Dried coconut, copra, and coconut oil exports From Vanuatu were worth nearly $9 million in 2021 alone, according to The Observatory of Economic Complexity and coconut plays a key role in the country’s food security.  

“As we say within the Pacific, the coconut is the ‘tree of life’ and virtually all parts of the coconut are utilized for something,” Ero said. “Impacts on coconuts will obviously impact people.”

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A Shared Burden

The horned beetle has spread across the Pacific since the turn of the 20th century, first aboard merchant vessels and warships and later aboard airplanes.

Now dug in across Micronesia its arrival in Guam came in 2007, but the U.S. Territory’s capacity to deal with the beetle is limited by a lack of resources.

A beetle trapped in Tekken gill netting, a technique developed by researchers in Guam and now used in Hawaii.
(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Despite funding issues, a number of projects are underway there to control the insect, including pesticides, detector dogs, traps and a nonpathogenic fungus that has been used on breeding sites.

The fungus called ​​metarhizium majus, has shown promise according to Guam Department of Agriculture, killing off between 20% and 50% of the treated beetles. It is yet to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency so currently it can only be used by approved research organizations.

Andrea Blas of Guam’s CRB Management Program says there’s no reason why the EPA would not approve the fungus for general use, other than that it would “cost millions” to go through the process. 

Money remains the persistent hurdle to containing or eradicating the insects and has been the case in Hawaii up until very recently.

“If we were where we are right now, with what we’ve got, we would have eradicated this insect back in 2013, 2014,” said Michael Melzer of the University of Hawaii Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle Response team. 

The dead trunks or “paint brush trees” with minimal foliage that are commonplace in Guam foreshadow what Hawaii could experience if it does not deal with the issue now, according to Melzer.

The University of Hawaii Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle Response team uses dogs to sniff out larvae in host sites, such as compost piles and mulch. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The risk created by dead vegetation from the cyclones in Vanuatu would be mitigated under a similar scenario on Oahu, thanks to the ability to incinerate green waste at scale in the island’s waste-to-energy facility.

Green waste management programs are set to get a boost from half of the $2 million allocated in the state budget to tackle the coconut rhinoceros beetle here.

The vulnerabilities of Hawaii’s other islands to the pest underscores the need for action, according to Darcy Oishi, acting manager of Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Plant Pest Control Branch.

The current green waste management plan on Oahu will be strengthened and a more aggressive approach will be taken to eradicate breeding sites, Oishi said.

Ports of entry will remain a focus, as well as continuing the quarantining and fumigating of green waste and mulch transferred to other islands that can potentially host the beetle.

“Probably 95% of the people on the islands do not know what CRB is. And if we’re not careful, they’re going to learn about it real quick,” Melzer said. 

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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