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A surveillance trap hangs amid apple trees as part of a monitoring effort for new pests in British Columbia. <b>(Courtesy Michelle Cook, Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release Program)</b>

A surveillance trap hangs amid apple trees as part of a monitoring effort for new pests in British Columbia. (Courtesy Michelle Cook, Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release Program)

Traps throughout Fred Steele’s orchard in Kelowna are the first line of defense against a horde of new pests that growers in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley face.

The traps have yet to capture an apple maggot fly or apple clearwing moth, but Steele isn’t resting easy.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” he said of the moth, first discovered in North America in the neighboring Similkameen Valley in 2005. “It’s everywhere around me, it just hasn’t got here yet. You want to make sure that you’re prepared for that situation and ready to go. You can’t afford to leave it.”

But if the pest is a major threat to Steele’s orchard, an 11-acre, family-run operation typical of the B.C. industry, knowing that the traps are backed up with expertise developed as part of the province’s fight against codling moth is reassuring.

Steele is president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association (BCFGA), which has contracted monitoring for apple clearwing moth to the Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release (SIR) program. The province established the program in 1990 to breed sterile insects to ensure unfruitful couplings among codling moths.

SIR is now the basis for a surveillance network and reporting protocols that promise to help B.C. growers manage new and emerging pests, including apple maggot, apple clearwing moth, and other threats.

Codling moth remains a focus both in apple orchards, where more than 90 percent of the acreage meets the target of less than 0.2 percent damage, and cherries, for which Japanese import requirements demand assurances that orchards are moth-free.

However, apple maggot, first detected in B.C. in 2006, was discovered on a single residential lot in West Kelowna last year and is now on the surveillance team’s watch list.

The fly isn’t yet established in the Okanagan, Similkameen and Creston valleys, and trapping verifies that a Canadian Food Inspection Agency quarantine on fruit entering the region is working.

The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture has granted the BCFGA funding to add 220 traps across the region, but because the association doesn’t have staff to undertake the trapping, they’ve contracted SIR to conduct surveillance. SIR works with Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff to ensure surveillance meets protocols developed by Howard Thistlewood, an entomologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and former coordinator of the SIR program.

SIR is also tracking apple clearwing moth, with mating disruption occurring in some areas, too. With funding through the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C., the BCFGA has contracted SIR to expand the project across the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

“The nice thing about SIR is it’s an integrated approach where conventional growers and organic growers and others can participate,” Steele said. “It’s area-wide with the protections and the teeth we need. … This may be the avenue to dealing with invasive pests.”

Discussions over the past decade have focused on the future direction of the program, which, as a creature of legislation, is limited to controlling codling moth. Residents in areas under its jurisdiction as well as orchardists fund the program through property levies and assessments, which must fund codling moth control.

However, the program is allowed to undertake new programs on a cost-recovery basis, and both the program board and industry have endorsed a broader mandate for the program to address emerging pests.

“The pest management reality is different than when the program was started in the early ’90s, but it doesn’t make us any less relevant,” said Melissa Tesche, acting general manager for the program. “Pests don’t respect property boundaries, … and so that’s really why I think SIR is being looked to. We’re the organization that has that body set up to take an areawide approach.”

To determine how growers feel the program should evolve to address new pests, the BCFGA contracted Kellie Garcia of Associated Environmental Consultants Inc. to conduct a series of workshops this spring. Consultations will continue through the summer via an online survey.

However, at least one species doesn’t lend itself to areawide management: spotted wing drosophila.

The fruit fly is a major pest of cherries and a top concern of growers, in large part because it’s difficult to control. There are simply too many alternative hosts, even if orchards are kept free of debris.

“There’s just not a good solution to it,” Tesche said. “I would never presume to say that we’re going to be able to come up with an areawide approach for spotted wing drosophila. I think people are looking for a silver bullet, and we certainly don’t have it.”

However, the mandate of SIR has given the program the teeth needed to address backyard trees and other noncommercial plantings, something that ensures effective pest control and benefits industry but is beyond the scope of most local governments.

Most municipalities simply don’t have the resources to manage pests, said Duane Ophus, a council member in West Kelowna who represents the Central Okanagan Regional District on the SIR board. SIR does, making it an ideal partner for municipalities, and in turn taxpayers, who — regardless of their knowledge of agriculture — stand to benefit.

“They don’t put that money in to support farmers, they put that money in to make the environment better,” Ophus said of ratepayers.

The environmental benefits are also important to Steele, who sees better monitoring and prompt control complementing the integrated pest management protocols adopted as broad-spectrum pesticides have been phased out.

“Without SIR I think we would be in a considerable amount of difficulty,” Steele said, arguing that new pests need to be detected early and addressed promptly.

“We have to be very vigilant about what is happening and spotting things in the orchard itself,” he said. “Once it’s there, you’ve got to deal with it quickly because chances are you’re not going to eradicate it, but you have to find something to control it.”

Peter Mitham is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.