Drones lead the battle of coconut rhinoceros beetles in Hawaii

Hawaii may seem like a tropical paradise to many, but its climate and location make it vulnerable to some fast-growing and destructive invasive pests – a reality authorities are now facing as they deploy drones to combat a species of rhinoceros beetle that ravages the emblematic coconut palms of the archipelago. .

Led by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, drones are flying to perform targeted spraying of coconut trees showing signs of rhinoceros beetle infestation. The non-native pest has no natural predators on the islands and has therefore gone unchecked as it eats a range of plants to death – including betel nut, Pandanus palms, banana, pineapple and sugar cane. Given the economic and simply aesthetic damage inflicted on some of the islands’ characteristic flora, the authorities decided to deploy drones firing insecticides as the insect’s designated enemy.

Growing up to nearly 2.5 inches long, the horned pest resembles a mini-Styracosaurus and is capable of the kind of flight that rightly scares people away when armored creatures strike them in the dark. The coconut rhinoceros beetle uses its horns to latch on to its botanical prey – usually coconuts and palms, but other plants will do so in a pinch – and begins to force its way through the fronds or the leaves to reach the meristem or living nucleus of the plant. Unless discovered and eliminated, the pest will devour the life of its host.

To prevent this from happening, state officials relied on the work of researchers at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa who are testing drones to detect and neutralize coconut rhinoceros beetles in targeted trees.

Although insects can also be identified at the base of attacked trees or damage to fronds, drones have enabled pilots to discover the exact location of rhinoceros beetles high in coconut and palm trees, and to undertake spraying targeted to kill them.

Following a recent trial of the aerial technique at the Hawaii Country Club in Oahu, professor of molecular biosciences and bioengineering Dan Jenkins said using drones to combat the parasite was found to be much more effective. than previous methods of trapping or injecting insecticide into the attacked plants.

“Most of the trees were defoliated enough that we really applied straight into the crown,” said Jenkins, who returned a few days later to see the results. What he found was a large and growing number of dead coconut rhinoceros beetles every day, indicating the increased effectiveness of drones spraying insecticides directly when the creatures were active.

“One observation is that virtually all of the beetles we found were at the base of trees with no other vegetation or long grass at the base, so I think we killed at least double what we could find” , added Jenkins. .

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Data collected from ongoing monitoring of treated trees on the golf course will allow Jenkins and his team to further assess the success of the deployment of drones against coconut rhinos and create models of how the technique can be used on a larger scale in Hawaii.

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