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News / Northwest

In the Lower Yakima Valley, state agriculture department seeks to wipe out Japanese beetles

By Questen Inghram, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: May 19, 2024, 5:09am

YAKIMA — Camilo Acosta opens up a freezer, revealing boxes of dozens and dozens of clear plastic bags full of beetles. Nearly 70,000 Japanese beetles, that is. The beetle morgue is in the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Grandview office, which is in the epicenter of Lower Yakima Valley eradication efforts.

Acosta is a pest biologist for the department, with the very specific title of Japanese beetle eradication coordinator. If it’s not clear, he’s out for beetle blood.

“They will eat your cilantro, your corn, your onions — whatever you grow in your yard, your garden,” he said.

But it’s not just being a garden pest that makes it a government target.

The Japanese beetle, a member of the scarab family, draws the ire of growers due to its fondness for economically important crops including grapes, hops and roses. Its irregular bite pattern decimates or “skeletonizes” the leaves of its victims, and it will also go after buds, flowers and fruits.

The WSDA’s approach to tackling Japanese beetles is three-pronged: trapping, spraying and quarantining. Right now, the department is focusing on spraying, while the beetle larvae are still in the soil.

The department began spraying April 1 on city and school properties in the Grandview area, while students were off for spring break.

“This is the largest treatment and trapping area there’s ever been,” he said.

The WSDA is now focusing of residential properties — which make up the majority of the some 11,300 properties in their main targeted zone, which stretches out from Grandview through Sunnyside and Mabton. A second zone includes Wapato. A third small area in Pasco is also being treated, after five beetles were found there last year. Altogether, more than 19,000 beetles were trapped last year.

Consent is being sought to treat yards for the pest, which often live in soil beneath turf.

The department uses Acelepryn, which is reported to be safe for humans and pets, though yards should be avoided until the area has dried. The chemical is used to kill unwanted grubs and caterpillars with little impact to birds, bees and fish, according to Syngenta, the manufacturing company.

Acosta said the department has received about 42% of spray consent forms back. He urges residents to fill out and return flyers they might have received, whether through the mail or left at their door. Consent can also be given at the WSDA website, agr.wa.gov.

“For the good of everyone, we want to get rid of the Japanese beetle,” Acosta said. “It directly impacts livelihoods.”

One group keenly aware of this fact is the Hop Growers of America, a nationwide trade group based in Yakima. Maggie Elliot is their science and communications director.

Hops have a very concentrated production. What is grown in the Yakima Valley makes up three-fourths of the U.S. supply and one-third of the global supply, Elliot said. Twenty percent of the acreage of hop growers are within the Japanese beetle quarantine.

“We do have plant protection tools,” Elliot said. But it will take more than just the insecticides that growers use to combat the beetle. “We need community help to solve this problem.”

It will not be an short battle.

“It’s a long-term project — we’re talking about five to 10 years,” Acosta said.