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Tiny Bugs, Major Mess : Insects: Aphids' sticky droppings are bugging Beverly Hills residents. One solution is to cut down the stately trees.

July 14, 1994|SUSAN STEINBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is something bugging the residents of Beverly Hills: an infestation of woolly aphids, pesky insects that are tiny in size but which have created a major mess.

The aphids hang out on tree leaves and drip their sticky excrement, euphemistically called "honeydew," on anything and everything below. The gooey stuff covers streets, sidewalks, cars and the soles of pedestrians' shoes. When tracked into homes it makes carpets sticky and dark with dirt.

"It's not fun to walk outside anymore," declared resident David Gingold. "They're eating away at the quality of life in Beverly Hills."

So serious is the problem, in fact, that the city is debating a plan to cut down aphid-friendly trees and replace them with trees that are inhospitable to the insects. Such an effort, however, would be sure to draw criticism, since it would mean doing away with stately elms and ash trees and planting replacements that would take years to reach similar size.

"Remember, you're taking out 60-year-old trees and putting in little stick trees. There would be virtually no shade," said Steve Miller, director of the Beverly Hills Recreation and Parks Department.

Aphids are nothing new. They make their presence felt every year in the spring and early summer. But this year, experts say, the aphid infestation has been particularly severe.

The hot weather, coupled with substantial growth of the insects' favorite trees--the Arizona ash and the American elm--has created an aphids' paradise. Portions of Los Angeles, including the Fairfax District and the area south of Beverly Hills, have reported similar problems.

Beverly Hills, however, is believed to have a particularly serious problem because it has such a high concentration of Arizona ash and American elm trees in a relatively small area, Miller said. More than 3,000 of those tree species line 26 residential streets, he added.

"We've received a few hundred calls about the aphids over the last month, mostly people complaining about the sticky honeydew," Miller said.

The woolly aphids are roughly the size of a pencil tip and can be identified by their white, fuzzy appearance. The insects live on the underside of leaves and suck the juices, or carbohydrates, from the new spring growth, Miller said.

Residents' angry telephone calls about the aphids peaked around Memorial Day weekend--probably because the insects despoiled decks and patio furniture set out for traditional barbecues.

Elected officials are feeling the heat.

"We know how terrible it is. (Councilman) Allan (Alexander) and I both live on blocks that are severely impacted," Mayor Vicki Reynolds said to a handful of residents who recently complained to the Beverly Hills City Council.

Alexander said he had received many calls from residents. "Their comments range from 'Tear out the trees' . . . with adjectives attached, to 'You haven't done enough trimming,' " he said.

Beverly Hills City Manager Mark Scott said the city has called arborists, entomologists and county agricultural experts in search of a way to control the aphids. But, unfortunately, the options appear to be limited, he said.

Spraying water or soap onto the underside of leaves brings only short-term relief, and citywide spraying of pesticides is no longer recommended because of concerns about the toxicity.

"No experts will even be part of (pesticide spraying)," Scott told the council.

Now, as in past years, the feeling is to let nature take its course--with a little help from the city. As part of an overall integrated pest management program, millions of lacewings, ladybugs and midges have been released into the areas of aphid infestation, pitting bug against bug.

The lacewings and the other "beneficial insects" eat the aphids and then, in turn, are eaten by birds. Releases of these insects were doubled in May to once a week.

"Experts are saying that what we're doing is all we can do. It is just so much worse this year," Scott said. "We just don't know when the beneficial insect program will get ahead of it."

At the recent council meeting, one resident suggested helicopters could drop water from the air to wash the trees, or else the fire department could use their high-pressure hoses to spray the trees from below.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. Gingold, who lives on a so-called aphid hot-spot street, dubbed the trees a public nuisance and demanded the city remove them immediately.

"We've put up with it for years, and now we need a long-term solution," he said. "It comes down to aesthetics of the street compared to quality of life."

Faced with the aphid problems and the overall declining health of ash and elm trees, city officials are likely to agree those species must be replaced, Miller said.

However, replacing the trees is not an easy, speedy--or cheap--solution. To buy about 3,000 trees of species that do not attract aphids would cost about $3 million, Miller has estimated.

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