New fruit fly could hurt Maine crop of wild blueberries
Maine’s wild-blueberry growers are monitoring their fields for a harmful new fruit fly that arrived in the U.S. five years ago and poses a threat to the state’s crop.
With the blueberry harvest kicking into gear this week, growers have been watching out for the tiny spotted-wing drosophila, a native of Asia that caught some growers off-guard when it first appeared in Maine’s blueberry fields last summer. Growers will learn how pervasive and widespread it is as the berries ripen in the coming weeks.
The fly poses a threat because it lays its eggs in soft fruit as it ripens, damaging the fruit and making it unfit for market.
“We’ve had different insects you’ve had to control, but we haven’t had one that does all its dirty work right when you’re about to harvest,” said Ed Flanagan, president and CEO of Jasper Wyman & Son, a wild-blueberry company based in Milbridge.
This is the time of year when mechanical harvesters and hand-pickers take to Maine’s 60,000 acres of wild-blueberry fields to harvest the sweet berries, 99 percent of which is sold as an ingredient for food products.
Wild blueberries are native to North America and grow naturally in Maine and eastern Canada, the only places that grow them for commercial sale. Wild blueberries are different from cultivated berries, which are larger, grow on high bushes and are commercially grown in about a dozen states and British Columbia.
This year’s harvest is projected to be about average at 86 million pounds or so, down from last year’s 91 million pounds, the second-largest crop on record.
The quality of this year’s crop appears to be good, and prices could be strong because the harvest in Quebec is expected to be down after frost and disease, said David Yarborough, blueberry specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
But it’s the spotted-wing drosophila that is the biggest concern for now. A native to China, the fly was accidentally introduced in California in 2008 and has spread across the country, damaging fruit crops in multiple states along the way.
For the past several weeks, Maine blueberry growers have hung thousands of fly traps on stakes or trees on the edges of their fields. The traps are nothing more than 16-ounce plastic cups filled with a sugar-and-yeast solution designed to attract and catch the flies to monitor their numbers.