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Coffee Berry Borer
20 September 2010

Dorsal Side

An endemic species is one that is found in only one place.  An indigenous species is one that arrived in that place with no help from humans.  An indigenous species did not necessarily originate or evolve where it is and an endemic species is not necessarily indigenous.  In other words, nature gets around even without the help of humans.

An introduced species is one that, intentionally or otherwise, was introduced with the help of humans.  An invasive species is one that adversely affects the habitat.  Not all introduced species are invasive although some can be devastating.

In an isolated ecosystem like here in Hawaii, all these different definitions become quite important.  There are very few species indigenous to Hawaii, a surprising number of endemic species and an overwhelming number of introduced and invasive species.

Coffee is not indigenous to Hawaii.  It was introduced by Europeans approximately 300 years ago.  The first few plants didn't do so well until eventually coffee found its way to Kona where it thrives.  One of the many reasons coffee does so well here is the lack of natural pests.  Unfortunately, that may not last.

The coffee berry borer beetle (hypothenemus hampei) is the most harmful coffee pest worldwide.  If uncontrolled, it can destroy the entire coffee harvest of an area.  This tiny beetle, smaller than a sesame seed, bores into a growing coffee cherry to lay its eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae live inside the bean, eating it from the inside out as they grow.  Beans damaged this way are called floaters (because the tiny air pocket makes them float) and must be discarded.  Even a mild infestation from the berry borer can cause serious loss of crop.

Being in the middle of the ocean, Hawaii has escaped this pest until now.  The Hawaii Department of Agriculture recently announced that the coffee berry borer has been conclusively identified on several farms in Kona.  The extent of the infestation is still being investigated and what affects this will have on the production of Kona coffee is still unknown.  Here is a bulletin about the coffee berry borer.

Borer Even though it was only recently made official, it appears this pest has been here in Kona for some time now, possibly years.  If that's true, that's a good thing because it means the infestation may be slow and controllable rather than swift and devastating.  Other countries have always dealt with this pest and they still manage to grow coffee.  Hopefully we will be able to learn from them.

Of course as soon as the news was announced, the accusations started to fly.  The primary target is the large companies that import coffee from other countries to mix into their Kona Blends.  I am not a fan of Kona Blends as I feel that it is like selling a cheap imitation of the real thing.  Kona Blend packaging is often misleading and I don't like the idea of lying to the consumer.  However, I do not think the blenders can honestly be blamed for introducing the coffee berry borer.

The coffee berry borer infects live coffee cherry.  "The Coffee Berry Borer is not a stored product pest, it attacks immature cherry on the trees." (H.C. "Skip" Bittenbender, Ph.D.)  The berry borer does not live in hulled green beans, especially when dried to the state standards of 9 - 12.2% moisture.  Furthermore, all coffee imported to Hawaii must be fumigated and stored in certified facilities.  The USDA has done extensive research on green coffee imports and live berry borer are not found in properly dried beans.  Therefore, as much as we may not like imported coffee, it is not a likely source of the coffee berry borer.

In the process of checking my facts, I called the Hawaii Plant Quarantine division.  I talked about the issue for nearly an hour with one of the inspectors.  Coffee imported through official channels very rarely have any problems.  Besides, very little coffee is imported here to Kona.  Most of the imported coffee goes to the big blenders on Oahu, a totally separate island.  Oahu does not yet have the berry borer while Kona does.

The most likely source of the berry borer is a tourist, migrant farm worker or returning coffee farmer.  It is possible that someone could have purposely imported live cherry with the intention of planting their own coffee beans here in Kona.  More likely is that it happened years ago and was unintentional.  I have first hand seen unroasted coffee carried into the state by someone that just didn't know any better.  I can easily imagine an errant cherry or adult borer beetle getting caught in clothing, luggage or other equipment brought onto the plane.

The federal government funds the inspection of all travelers leaving the island to help prevent the spread of invasive species onto the mainland.  However there is no such funding for incoming travelers.  Imported coffee beans are treated and inspected but hand carried items are reported totally on the honor system.  If there is a weak spot in the import system, that would be it.

infected Whatever the source was, that is largely irrelevant now.  The coffee berry borer is here and we have to deal with it.  I hope that small coffee farms, larger coffee farms, mills, roasters and retailers can all work together.  When it comes to invasive pests, I feel more threatened by the small, poorly managed farms than I do from the large commercial farms.  It's difficult to keep my farm pest free when there are so many trees in the area that are uncared for.

Even if the large commercial companies were to blame, they stand to suffer from this problem just as much as I do and I need their help getting government funding to help combat the problem.  Personally, I am going to worry less about laying blame and more about educating all farmers so we can work together to control this pest.

There is hope.  Provado, already registered for coffee, is an insecticide that will kill the adult beetle as long as it hasn't already bored inside the cherry.  Insecticidal soap or other organic control methods are also possible.  Once inside the bean though, the beetle is protected because externally applied soaps and insecticides don't reach the coffee bean itself.

Holes For biological control, there are several parasites and other insects, including ants, that eat the berry borer beetle.  There is a predatory thrip (Karnyothrips flavipes) that crawls into the hole made by the borer beetle and feeds on the beetle's eggs and larvae.  The thrip then lays its own eggs which hatch into larvae and continue to develop inside the bored out bean.  In one test, up to 47% of beans initially infected by the berry borer were shown to have the predatory thrip emerge in the end.  Scientists determined this by extracting berry borer DNA from the tiny thrip bellies.  I don't know exactly how they accomplished that, I suppose they used powerful microscopes and tiny little scalpels.

Biological control can reduce the beetle population but not eliminate it.  If the thrips or any other predator could actually eat all the berry borers then they would have died from starvation long ago.  They will eat just enough to keep things in balance.  The result is a stabilized berry borer population which still means plenty of destroyed crop.

The natural balance was upset long ago when the jungle was first cut down to plant coffee.  Without an unnaturally large coffee harvest, no farmer would be able to stay in business.  As a farmer, any loss of production is unwelcome.  I want plenty of production but I also realize that the world needs balance so as long as the coffee berry borer population is stabilized, I can live with it.  Kona coffee farming may not be as easy as it once was but Kona coffee farming has never been easy.

I have inspected several farms myself and have always managed to find some damage, even if minor.  A similar pest is the twig borer which has caused major damage on Kona coffee farms for years now.  The little fire ant and coqui frogs are two other common pests in the area.  I've had minor problems with other pests but I have always managed to discover and control the problem before it got out of hand.

With active management, and maybe some education of other Kona coffee farmers, I hope to avoid any major problems with the coffee berry borer.  It's too bad it has finally arrived here in Kona.  In the grand scheme of things though, I can't say I blame the little guy for liking Kona coffee so much.


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