Teeny-tiny insects can cause big, big problems when they end up where they don’t belong. Invasive species like to hitchhike to California in packages of live plants, cut flowers and fresh produce. If non-native invasive pests become established in an area where natural predators are absent, they can cause millions of dollars’ worth of crop damage.
That’s where inspectors from the Sacramento County Ag Commissioner's Office
come in. Every year, inspectors at parcel delivery facilities find dozens of pests. They’ve found mealybugs on fruit, ants on imported cut flowers, insect eggs and boxwood scale insects on imported foliage, among others.
Although the United States Department of Agriculture inspects agricultural products at ports of entry, county Pest Exclusion inspectors look at packages shipped directly to Sacramento County from out of state or out of the country.
With the help of specially trained K-9 agriculture inspection dogs, they visit Fed Ex, UPS and US Postal Service centers to look at packages containing agricultural products.
Agricultural Inspectors focus on parcels from states and countries that have a history of harboring invasive pests in shipped plants and produce. These areas have something in common: warm temperatures, similar to many California growing regions. Bugs like heat.
If a shipment is suspicious, the contents are taken back to the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office to be cleared or quarantined.
“The point is not to delay shipping,” said Juli Jensen, Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioner. “The point is to protect county crops and ensure the health and safety of residents.”
“Invasive pests don’t get here by themselves,” said Jensen. “Somebody brings them here.”
Sometimes packages contain unusual items, like the box from New York marked “Live Fish” that contained piranha.
“It’s illegal to ship piranha into California,” Jensen noted.
The week before Valentine’s Day is the Ag Commissioner’s busiest time of the year.
This past Valentine’s Day, Senior Agriculture and Standards Inspector Laura McCready inspected many boxes of cut flowers and foliage, including a colorful bouquet of Alpinia ginger, pandanus, and heliconia (aka Lobster Claw or False Bird of Paradise) from Ecuador.
She noted black dots on some of the foliage that were the size of a pinhead, barely visible to the naked eye. The suspect foliage was put under the microscope and scrutinized. It was teeming with life: ants, mites and armored patches (called scale) filled with tiny, sap-sucking insects. The insects were “Q-rated,” meaning they do not have established populations within California and do have the potential to be a problem to the agricultural industry.
McCready removed the insects, verified that the package was no longer a threat, and sent the package back to the parcel service for delivery. It got to the recipient that day. Flowers delivered … pests stopped. Mission accomplished.
Pest exclusion is the first line of defense against exotic pests, but it’s just one of several programs administered by the Department of Agriculture/Sealer of Weights and Measures. For more info, visit their website