Australia’s sugar, pineapple, mango, and coconut oil industries are facing a major threat from a destructive pest beetle sitting on the nation’s doorstep.

The coconut rhinoceros beetle has bulldozed its way across the Pacific in just a few years and is now in Papua New Guinea, University of Queensland researcher Dr Kayvan Etebari warned.

“If it gets into Australia, coconut oil palms and many other palms found in the forest and in home gardens will be at risk,” Dr Etebari said.

“If it gets into Australia, coconut oil palms and many other palms found in the forest and in home gardens will be at risk,” Dr Etebari said.

It has been a year since another invasive pest, the fall armyworm, was first detected at Bamaga at the tip of far north Queensland and has since devoured crops across most states and territories.

Dr Etebari said the fall armyworm came down the island chain from PNG. 

“Last week it got into Tasmania,” he said.

The coconut rhinoceros beetle, a native of South-East Asia, has been in Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga for a century, but was successfully controlled by a virus for the past 50 years.

However, that biological control is now failing.

Stone’s throw away

Central Queensland horticulturalist Neil Fisher has been watching with growing concern the beetle’s rapid march from the South Pacific across to Guam and Hawaii to Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Solomon Islands.

“The move through Papua New Guinea has been quite swift and we’ve seen large-scale coconut plantations and oil palm plantations being destroyed,” he said.

“Our border security is the Torres Strait and it’s only a matter of kilometres, just a stone’s throw from Papua New Guinea into north Queensland.”

A coconut rhinoceros beetle with a number on its back perches on a blue-gloved finger.
The coconut rhinoceros beetle was stopped in its tracks by a virus introduced 50 years ago, and it stayed put — until now.(Supplied: Forest and Kim Starr)

Councillor Fisher, who is also the deputy mayor of the Rockhampton Regional Council, said it was a concern shared with council colleagues in Cairns.

“There are miles of coconut-lined beaches to the north of Cairns and to lose those would see erosion coming back. You could lose two or three kilometres of actual shoreline,” Cr Fisher said.

The beetle causes damage by boring into the plant’s stem and feeding on the sap, damaging the developing leaves.

The plant will then be defoliated and will die during a heavy infestation.

The beetle lays eggs in decaying matter and then moves on.

“We knew it was a risk, but it wasn’t until it got into large horticulture and agriculture areas in Hawaii that suddenly the red flags went up,” Cr Fisher said.

He said Hawaii had similar horticulture and plant culture to Australia.

On top of the obvious economic threat to the country’s $2 billion sugar industry and $53 million pineapple industry, Cr Fisher said the beetle could pose a threat to other plants.

“If it’s in pineapples, what about bromeliads? It’s an up-and-coming collector choice for gardeners. And if it can get into sugar cane, what is the risk to other canes and bamboos?” he said.

Cr Fisher said it was important to work with universities to find a new biological control to keep the insect at bay.

COVID-19 similarities 

Dr Etebari and his team at UQ are studying why the virus is no longer controlling the beetle and their findings would be critical to managing the pest if it got a foothold in Australia.

“The question is how do we stop it? And what’s gone wrong with the control that’s been effective for the past five decades?” Dr Etebari said.

The researchers discovered that there have been several new waves of beetle invasions, not one as previously thought, as well as different types of beetles.

They also found there were variations to the beetle virus which was originally sourced from Malaysia.

“It’s similar to how other scientists spot different strains of COVID-19. We are detecting variations in the beetle virus in the Pacific,” Dr Etebari said.

“In our case the problem is more complicated because there are different types of beetles and different strains of the beetle virus.”

Their next step was finding out how the virus variations behaved in the different beetles and how that could be used to control them.

Dr Etebari said it was important for Australia to help its Pacific neighbours to tackle the pest, not just for economic reasons, but also humanitarian.

“It’s a serious threat to livelihoods across the Pacific islands as the coconut tree provides essential resources like food, copra, building material, and the coastal protection for more than five million vulnerable people,” he said.

A Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment spokesperson said it was working with biosecurity counterparts in PNG and Solomon Islands to track and monitor the spread of the new beetle strain.

The department was also actively monitoring the spread of the beetle strains through PNG, particularly in the Western Province and PNG Treaty Village areas bordering Australia’s northern Torres Strait Islands. 

The spokesperson said the department was also supporting regional initiatives that were dealing with the coconut rhinoceros beetle.

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