KONA, Hawaii (KHON2) — The invasive two-lined spittlebug is threatening the Big Island cattle industry and experts do not know how to get rid of it.
Cattle is the third most important commodity produced in Hawaii, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The new, alien insect — no larger than the size of a pinky fingernail — has experts concerned for the future of the cattle and grazing industry.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service land management specialist Carolyn Wong Auweloa said the bug was first discovered in 2016.
“A rancher noticed that their grasses weren’t doing so good. They were losing some of their grass or grass was dying,” Auweloa explained. “She caught the bug and brought it into the university’s extension office and the entomologist there identified it as the two-lined spittlebug.”
The insect is a small leaf-hopper, black in color with two orange stripes on its back and reddish-black legs. Experts think the bug probably got to Hawaii from the mainland in potted plants.
The tiny pest is causing big problems by wreaking havoc on the Big Island; The bug has damaged roughly 35,000 acres of pastureland per year.
“It’s completely transforming the landscapes,” Auweloa said. “We confirmed the pest was impacting about 175,000 acres in West Hawaii.”
Its population explodes during the summer and she said it can easily be seen hopping in Kona’s grazing grasses.
“Kikuya and pangola grasses are very, very important to our livestock industry,” Auweloa explained. “About 70% of the cattle industry in Hawaii relies on kikuyu grass to some degree, and all of the upcountry areas of Maui and Waimea and Kohala, those beautiful green rolling hills that everyone loves, those are all kikuyu grass.”
The cattle industry is essential to Hawaii’s economy and brings in more than $68 million every year.
The bug is already forcing ranchers to cull their cattle.
“In the last year, we probably downsized our herd by 15% and in the future I will keep having to downsize,” explained Sara Moore, who works at Kealia Ranch in Kona.
“We’re all farmers. We’re grass farmers. You don’t have the grass, you can’t sustain the animals to produce. And that’s what we do, we turn grass into beef,” Moore said
The bug has only been found in Western Hawaii so far, but Auweloa said it could destroy the heart of Hawaii’s cattle industry once it reaches Waimea.
“I’ve seen some of the most beautiful well-managed pastures, so healthy and thriving. And within a year, after this bug gets there, their grasses are all dead, and the weeds have taken over,” Auweloa explained.
She said the estimated loss in production is roughly $133 an acre and preliminary estimates for recovery are around $500 an acre, plus years of time and effort.
No one knows how to eradicate the bug yet.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to go away, we have to figure out how to live with it,” Auweloa said. “We don’t want to spray a bunch of chemicals on the pasture that our cattle are grazing on. The researchers are focusing more on what kind of grasses can withstand the spittlebug that are suitable to our environment.”
The plan is to find plants resistant to the pest that are still suitable for grazing. That is not as simple as it sounds.
“The amount of labor required, because we don’t have pastures that are accessible by any kind of machinery, is daunting,” Moore said. “It’s daunting and kind of depressing, because the alternatives that are there, they aren’t practical.”
The invasive pest could have a much broader impact.
“It’s not just the agricultural industry,” she warned. “This is going to affect recreationists. This is affecting conservationists. This is going to change our watersheds. We don’t even know yet the full effect that this new pest is going to have.”
Auweloa hopes the challenges they are facing now will bring about positive change, particularly with the way the state monitors and prevents invasive species from entering the state.
“If we can learn anything from the two-lined spittlebug, I would hope that it would help us to understand just how vulnerable we are to new invasive species,” Auweloa said. “If we, if our state, we can just take our biosecurity really, as seriously as we need to take it, we might prevent the next awful thing from getting here.”