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Camarillo Bugged by Tiny Visitors

Insects: Whiteflies have bombarded the city this summer, but cooler weather is giving residents--and plants--a respite.

September 07, 2002|SUZIE ST. JOHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a few days of cooler temperatures, a collective calm has settled over Camarillo.

No, it's not because kids have gone back to school. Rather, it's the result of a welcome respite from tiny winged creatures known as whiteflies.

"All summer long, it's been disgusting," said Christy Bowen, manager of the Bombay Outlet in Camarillo. "We usually do our shipments outside in the back, but we get covered in the whiteflies, so we have to come in.

"I've seen people running to get away from them, but nothing works," the Camarillo resident added. "It's gross."

Barely larger than a speck of dust but highly visible because of its color, the bug has bombarded the city for the past three months, thriving on the warm temperatures.

During the summer infestation, whitefly sagas have circulated around the city. The tales range from lizards getting fat off the flies to residents forced to use fly swatters to get in and out of their front doors.

While not new to California, whiteflies began appearing in the Camarillo area three years ago--and have settled in.

People in the plant industry can't explain why the fluttering moths inhabit some cities but not others. Even in Ventura County they are found mainly in Camarillo, with only a handful of sightings in Ventura and Oxnard. One factor, however, may be the drier air, as opposed to the dampness of the coastal cities.

With a life span of less than 5 days, whiteflies spend their time sucking juices from plants and laying eggs before dying. They reproduce quickly, maturing from egg to adult in as few as 16 days.

"It's hard to keep up with them because they multiply so fast," said Rob Bauer of the Plant Warehouse in Somis. "We know the season for them only lasts so long, so we just control it as best we can."

There are two ways whiteflies can harm plants: They suck liquids from a plant, which can cause the leaves to yellow, shrivel and drop prematurely. And adult whiteflies can transmit viruses from diseased plants to healthy ones.

While the National Weather Service in Oxnard is forecasting cool and cloudy weather for several days, area temperatures are expected to heat up afterward, meaning the resting whiteflies will again be swarming.

That news will not please city residents, who have tried everything from treating their plants with insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils, to blasting the whiteflies with water, to vacuuming the adults before they have a chance to lay eggs.

While many of those solutions will offer a temporary fix, Carl Brodock of Baron Bros. Nursery in Camarillo says the key is diligence.

"Plain old water works, you just have to make sure that you spray not only the tops of the leaves but underneath as well, because that's where the eggs live," said Brodock, the nursery's assistant manager. "I've had customers come in who are so frustrated. The city is definitely infested, and it's gotten progressively worse, with this year being the worst."

Although it may appear the flies are gone when fall and winter roll around, that isn't the case, Brodock said. Their eggs lay dormant during colder months, but the pests will be back next spring when temperatures rise again.

For now, he said, his best recommendation is to pinch off the most infested leaves and dispose of them in a securely tied trash bag, then use either water, soap or oil to treat the remaining leaves of the plant every five to seven days.

"The best time to do it is early morning, because the cooler night temperatures have left the whiteflies torpid," Brodock said.

And if all else fails, take Misty Cain's advice.

Said the Camarillo mother of two: "I try and avoid green areas and just stay inside."

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