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Voracious tree-eating beetles invade Italy

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(Read caption) The palm weevil is destroying Italy’s palm trees.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Place your ear against the smooth trunk of a palm tree, and you may actually hear them. An army of voracious bugs is munching its way through Italy’s majestic palms, denuding some of the peninsula’s most fabled tourist resorts.

The relatively large red palm weevil (it’s between 3/4 and 2 inches long) is native to Asia but established a presence in the Middle East in the 1990s after arriving in shipments of infected palm trees.

From there it rapidly spread west into North Africa, devastating date plantations, before arriving in southern Italy about five years ago. In Sicily it has killed an estimated 13,000 palms and has pushed north, attacking trees in Campania and Rome, and all the way up to the famed Italian Riviera, near the border with France.

Conservationists are calling the weevil infestation a national emergency and say there is, as of yet, no proven way of combating the insect. Scientists have found they can capture the bugs using traps laced with pheromones, but deploying the devices is time-consuming and costly.

“It is often impossible to use chemicals because many palms are planted near beaches or in towns and cities,” says Pio Federico Roversi, a scientist at the Council of Agricultural Research in Florence.

The only guaranteed way of ensuring that palms do not become the bugs’ next meal is to chop them down. “The weevil gets right into the heart of the tree, so by the time the damage becomes apparent on the outside, it’s already too late,” says Valeria Francardi, an entomologist who is researching ways to fight the scourge.

Scientists have called for a plan and funding to address the problem. But with the government’s recent announcement of a $29 billion austerity package, including deep cuts to regional authorities’ budgets, the sound of millions of weevils tunneling through the country’s rustling palm trees is unlikely to be silenced anytime soon.

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