Hitchhiking Garden Pests

If you live in Los Angeles or Miami, you know the havoc exotic insect pests can cause on a garden. Both cities are major points of entry for international travelers, both are near important agricultural regions, and both have suffered from pest invasions in recent years. A prime example is the Mediterranean fruit fly in California in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the silverleaf whitefly caused considerable alarm throughout much of the Southwest, and recently in the Northeast, the Asian long-horned beetle has been attacking maples and other trees. But gardeners should also consider the gypsy moth, or Japanese beetle. Both are ″exotic″ pests whose presence we still deal with after many years.

The holiday season is an especially important time to avoid inadvertently importing new garden pests. If you travel, or if you plan to mail (or receive) fruits, foods, or plants from other countries, be sure to comply with plant-import regulations and customs regulations and inspections. Here's why.

According to a 1973 study, about 760 insects and 550 fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes pose an immediate and known threat to American gardens and farms. And those are the ones we know about!

How do these pests get here? In a variety of ways, but the most common are also the least visible: by hitching rides with fruit- or plant-carrying travelers, on the planes or ships themselves, or hiding inside packing material or even inside seeds. For instance, larvae of the Asian long-horned beetle were found inside the wood of packing crates from China.

Another likely scenario: Perhaps you pick up a mango in Manila and carry it on board for an in-flight snack on the long ride home. But you don't get to it during the flight. At home, one bite reveals it's wormy, and into the trash it goes. End of story? Not necessarily. A few of those worms might survive, and within a year or so, newspaper headlines about a major new pest infestation appear. Could just one traveler's orange have brought the Mediterranean fruit fly to California, causing an infestation that took three years and $100 million to eradicate? Some experts speculate that's exactly what happened.

Protection From Alien Invasion

Our first line of defense is composed of the 1,800 inspectors of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), stationed at international airports, seaports, border stations, and some post offices. Well trained to spot potential problems, the inspectors also rely on both high- and low-tech methods. They use X-ray machines to scan passenger baggage and mail for agricultural materials, and they also employ the "beagle brigade."

The USDA's beagle brigade consists of 62 canine teams at most major international airports. (These are friendly beagles, by the way, not the intimidating Doberman pinschers and German shepherds used to snare drug smugglers.) Perhaps you've met Taffy at the Los Angeles International Airport, or Abbott in Miami? If Taffy sniffs your baggage as you walk towards U.S. Customs and promptly assumes a "sit" position, her handler will ask you to open your bags. Inspectors will confiscate and destroy any contraband food: a Guatemalan mango or Peruvian fig, for instance. You could be fined up to $250, especially if you tried to hide your contraband. Nationally, APHIS fines some 3,000 international air passengers each month.

When arriving from another country, you must declare any meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, animals, or plant or animal products you have with you. Be forthright to avoid the fine, not to mention to avoid being the villain behind some new pest plague.

How to Import Plants and Foods

Always comply with U.S. Customs and APHIS regulations. Discourage friends and family from mailing foods from overseas unless the foods are properly inspected first. Don't smuggle foods or plants from other countries, and don't order or accept plants shipped directly from overseas. Obtain foreign material plants, fruitcakes, meats, dried flowers, and wreaths-only from domestic suppliers that have already taken the appropriate precautions.

Know Before You Go

Gardeners are especially likely to snatch a plant part and smuggle it home for propagation. To import plants, you can download an permit application from the APHIS Web site: www.aphis.usda.gov/ppq/permits/. Submit your request at least two months prior to travel.

Provide essential information about the plant species, whether the material includes plants or seeds, amounts, your destination, your return date, the port of entry, and your flight number. APHIS will determine whether you can bring in the items and, if you can, will provide you with an information packet that includes the conditions under which you may grow the plants in your garden. For example, some items may be subject to further inspection or quarantine for two years.

Several factors determine whether or not you can import plant material. These include crop species, country of origin, and prior import permission. The United States generally allows in seeds of many vegetable and ornamental crops without a permit.

APHIS won't issue a permit to bring in noxious weeds (all are listed in published regulations). Likewise, the agency usually won't allow you to return with cuttings of certain plants. These include fruit crops, grasses, potatoes, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, some woody ornamental shrubs, and shade trees. Many of these plants are restricted because of latent disease-bearing organisms or because of their country of origin.

Home gardeners cannot easily purchase seeds directly from foreign seed suppliers because they may not have met American regulatory requirements. Soil and some live materials-plants, cuttings, tubers, and bulbs-are also prohibited. Endangered species of cacti and orchids are subject to additional import requirements.

If you have access to the World Wide Web, you can find more information about pest exclusions at www.aphis.usda.gov/ppq/pestlist/.

For more about U.S. Customs regulations, see www.customs.gov/xp/cgov/toolbox/questions/.

Howard Waterworth is a plant pathologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland. For their help with this article, he thanks Robert Trumbell, Maryland Department of Agriculture, and Victor Harabin, APHIS.

Photography by Agricultural Research Service, USDA

Protection From Alien Invasion

Our first line of defense is composed of the 1,800 inspectors of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), stationed at international airports, seaports, border stations, and some post offices. Well trained to spot potential problems, the inspectors also rely on both high- and low-tech methods. They use X-ray machines to scan passenger baggage and mail for agricultural materials, and they also employ the "beagle brigade."

The USDA's beagle brigade consists of 62 canine teams at most major international airports. (These are friendly beagles, by the way, not the intimidating Doberman pinschers and German shepherds used to snare drug smugglers.) Perhaps you've met Taffy at the Los Angeles International Airport, or Abbott in Miami? If Taffy sniffs your baggage as you walk towards U.S. Customs and promptly assumes a "sit" position, her handler will ask you to open your bags. Inspectors will confiscate and destroy any contraband food: a Guatemalan mango or Peruvian fig, for instance. You could be fined up to $250, especially if you tried to hide your contraband. Nationally, APHIS fines some 3,000 international air passengers each month.

When arriving from another country, you must declare any meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, animals, or plant or animal products you have with you. Be forthright to avoid the fine, not to mention to avoid being the villain behind some new pest plague.

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