Hungry Hungry Beetles
Originally Appearing in "Hot Coffee" (Abstract 7)
Words by Karen Shishido // Images by Rae Okawa
Ninety years. It took 90 years for a tiny, destructive beetle discovered in Angola in 1920 to make its way to Kona. But once it arrived, it took mere months for the coffee borer beetle to wreak havoc on the Kona coffee industry, an industry estimated by the United States Department of Agriculture to be worth $11 billion in 2011.
Although adult beetles are the size of a sesame seed, the coffee borer beetle can wipe out 90 percent of a coffee crop. It is annually responsible for $500 million in damages to coffee crops around the globe.
The bad news: The coffee borer beetle is almost impossible to eradicate and likely in Hawaiʻi to stay.
The good news: Kona’s 750-farm strong coffee community—some of who are third and fourth generation farmers working the land—have united against this threat, which has not left a single farm unscathed.
It Could Have Been The End
Discovery of the coffee borer beetle (hypothenemus hampei) in Kona in the fall of 2010 quickly threw coffee growers and processors into a state of alarm. Suzanne Shriner, president of Lions Gate Farms in Captain Cook and member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association Pest Committee, recalls those bleak days.
“It was a total shock,” she said. “I don't think I can underestimate how many of us considered giving up our farms.”
The entire Kona coffee industry was at stake, an industry whose supply totaled 8 million pounds of beans. An intra-island quarantine on coffee plants, unroasted beans, and harvesting equipment has so far stopped the beetle from reaching growers on Oʻahu, Maui and Kauaʻi.
No one knows exactly how it arrived in Hawaiʻi—one theory is that green beans imported abroad to be mixed with Kona beans harbored the pest. But once established, it multiplies rapidly. The beetle’s penchant for reproduction makes feral cats look tame by comparison: a single female can result in 24 billion individuals over five months.
During growing season, when the green coffee cherries form, the female enters the cherry (which encircle the bean, its seed) and creates a cavity inside, where she lays up to 50 eggs. The larvae continue feeding on the coffee fruit and eventually on the bean itself (as the bean inside hardens with ripening).
The siblings mate (the homebody-ish, flightless male never leaves the coffee cherry during its lifetime), and after about a month the pregnant female emerges to find a new host to infest. The beetles’ damage can stunt the bean’s growth inside or can cause berries to fall prematurely; the bean itself can also get eaten away. The difficulty in getting at the beetle inside as well as its adaptable habits make the cycle hard to break. And here in the islands, the coffee borer beetle have no natural enemies.
Since the coffee borer beetle’s arrival, some farms have reported a 20-90 percent infestation rate in their crop, only discoverable after harvest during processing. All beetles are killed during the dry milling process and no danger is present to the consumer in the finished bean.
Shriner and many others have made big changes to the way they farm just to stay in business. Labor time has doubled in some cases, and farmers are working harder for lesser yields.
“It's going to change the face of our farmers…the added workload is very difficult,” she says. “I think you can figure at a minimum of 30 percent lower revenue on the average farm, between bean damage as well as added costs.”
Is the world’s beloved Kona coffee doomed?
The Big Island’s farmers have begun drawing on local scientific research and other coffee growing regions’ histories with coffee borer beetle.The information they’ve gathered has become ammunition against this tiny, powerful enemy.
Dr. Lisa Keith, a Hilo-based plant pathologist with the USDA, pairs her research with practical disease management strategies growers can use. She feels that while the beetle is a serious threat, it can be controlled with the right tools and practices.
“[The coffee borer beetle] was in all areas around the world where coffee is grown. Other countries have successfully dealt with CBB and have kept damage to a manageable level using an integrated approach,” says Keith.
Farmers have begun adopting new strategies, such as by stripping the coffee cherries from the trees and the ground as much as possible after harvest. A fungi, beauveria bassiana, is showing great promise as a biological control. Sprayed on coffee plants, it works by attacking and infecting CBB from the inside out, killing them within three to 10 days.
Legislators are assisting farmers, too. U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono helped secure $1 million in federal assistance from the USDA last year. This year, state legislators led by Rep. Nicole Lowen, whose district includes Kailua-Kona and Hōlualoa, introduced a bill that appropriates $500,000 to subsidize the cost of the costly beauveria pesticide for five years. The bill passed and was signed into law as Act 105 by Gov. Abercrombie in June.
And the containment and treatment strategies appear to be working. In a survey done in late 2013, 56 percent of farmers reported feeling that their coffee borer beetle damage was decreasing compared to the previous year. Shriner’s farm kept damage to under 5 percent in 2013. Technology will also play a role: According to Keith, efforts are underway to map affected areas with remote sensing technology.
Business will never go on as usual, but signs point to a recovery. Kona’s farmers are hardy and passionate about the coffee they grow. And no malicious malihini, even billions strong, can keep them down for long.