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City abuzz over fruit fly find

Someone in St. Petersburg went on a trip _ and we are all paying for it.

It could have been to Hawaii or the Far East, but whoever it was brought home a little hitchhiker:

Bactrocera dorsalis _ the oriental fruit fly.

One of the thumbtack-sized flies was found Tuesday in St. Petersburg's fashionable Allendale Terrace neighborhood. That single find caused the deployment of 10 specialists from the state Department of Agriculture, now driving through town setting traps and looking for more flies.

Though Florida has never had an infestation of oriental fruit flies, the discovery of a single bug is enough of a threat to Florida's multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry that specialists were called in from around the state Tuesday night and told to prepare for a 90-day siege in St. Petersburg.

A "command center" has been set up at the University of Florida in Gainesville to coordinate the search.

If just one more of the flies turns up in any of the 425 traps in the area, an infestation could be declared.

The search for more fruit flies will cost taxpayers $50,000 to $100,000. If another is found, the cost of eradication could run into the millions or more. In a worst-possible case, the fruit fly larvae could begin eating citrus, tomatoes, avocadoes and other Florida crops, causing other nations to refuse the import of fruit and vegetables from the state.

"It's quite serious," said Phyllis Habeck, spokeswoman for the Division of Plant Industry.

"Probably what happened is, someone brought back fruit from someplace with an infestation of these. Hawaii is having one now," she said. "They get home, they open the bag and say, "that fruit is no good, it's rotten.' Well, it's rotten because it's full of fruit fly larvae. When it's thrown in the garbage, one or more of the flies gets out."

The epicenter, as they say at the Department of Agriculture, is a calamondin tree at 41st Avenue and 11th Street N in St. Petersburg. In the branches of the seedy-lime tree (native to China) hangs a tent-shaped device called a Jackson Trap. It's one of about 20,000 around the state routinely monitored by agriculture inspectors for the presence of exotic pests.

A single male oriental fruit fly was found stuck in the trap's goo Tuesday by biological scientist Gary Steck.

Its discovery in the calamondin tree does not mean the fly came from a home directly around the trap. The flies can move more than a mile a day during their 30-day life span in Florida's summer heat.

Three more traps were placed in the tree after Tuesday's discovery. Thursday afternoon, it was environmental specialist Cindy Kamelhair's job to check them.

"We haven't found another one yet. Not as far as I know," she said. "That would really be serious. These can do a lot of damage."

Kamelhair, who normally works in Hillsborough County, is spending her days driving a pickup through St. Petersburg in search of flies. About 25 traps have been set in the 1-square mile around the epicenter.

Another 320 or so will be set in an 80-square mile area outside the immediate zone. Pinellas already had about 80 traps hung in trees around the county as part of the permanent detection program.

For the next 90 days (three life cycles of the fruit fly), Kamelhair and the others will check the traps every two or three days.

Should they find another oriental fruit fly, it would be the first-time in state history two had been discovered in the same area.

Tuesday's find, however, is the fourth time an oriental fruit fly has made its way to Florida. The first was in 1964, also in St. Petersburg; the next in 1969 in Miami; and in Fort Lauderdale last December. In each case, just one fly was found.

The cost of the search in Fort Lauderdale was about $50,000. An eradication program in Miami for the Mediterranean fruit fly cost $1.5-million in 1990, but no one knows what it might cost to wipe out the oriental fruit fly.

"Fortunately, there is a very effective eradication program known as "male annihilation technique.' Basically, we get rid of all the men," said Habeck. "We have a very good attractant that the males respond to and when mixed with a pesticide it will do the job. But it depends on the size of the outbreak."

Should another fly be found in a trap, the agriculture department would likely begin dotting a gooey mixture of methyl eugenol (the attractant) and a pesticide high on telephone poles and tree trunks throughout Pinellas County. The males would be attracted to the eugenol and would then die in the pesticide-laden dot.

If that didn't work, aerial spraying is an outside possibility, Habeck said.

In the meantime, Kamelhair and others will keep driving around, setting and checking traps. Despite the long odds against finding another fruit fly, the prospect keeps them interested, she said.

"I love my job," Kamelhair said. "And my kids are just crazy about this stuff."

_ Times researcher Beverly Bell contributed to this report.

Fly facts

Females lay about 1,500 eggs in their 30-day lives. The eggs are inserted by the female into fruits and vegetables, including grapefruits, mangoes and tomatoes. The eggs hatch in one to three days, and the larvae feed from the fruit or vegetable, causing it to rot.

The rotting fruit drops prematurely from trees, where the larvae then burrow into the ground. After 10 to 12 days the adults emerge from the ground. After eight to 12 days, they become sexually active.

In recent years, infestations of oriental fruit flies caused millions of dollars in damage to California crops, though there is no current infestation there. Hawaii currently is experiencing an infestation of the flies and is a possible source of the oriental fruit fly found in St. Petersburg.

There is nothing plant owners or farmers can do to protect their crops from the oriental fruit fly until specialists know the extent of any possible outbreak. In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture asks that residents refrain from touching the traps, which are hung in trees throughout the area.

Specialists with the Department of Agriculture will keep checking the traps in St. Petersburg for 90 days, which is about the life-span of three generations of the oriental fruit flies.