A “cancerous” beetle which is attacking fig trees may have eradicated up to three quarters of local figs, according to farmers and agriculture department officials.

We are receiving reports it has spread as far south as Safi and Żurrieq

Members of the Farmers’ Association have warned that unless the pest is dealt with soon, figs may disappear from the local market altogether.

The fig tree borer, better known under the Maltese umbrella term susa, eats its way into the tree’s bark, feasting on the tree’s nutrient-rich sap to the point of starving the plant.

Fourth generation farmer Tommy Portelli, 68, walked around his Baħrija farm in disbelief as his once fig healthy trees turn to empty husks.

Picking one of the bitter “ghost fruit” which hang from his infected trees, Mr Portelli said, “These aren’t figs, they’re rubbish.”

Annual Maltese fig crops traditionally yield hundreds of thousands of kilos in early green figs (bajtar ta’ San Ġwann) and tens of thousands of kilos of dry purple figs (farkizzan) but fruit vendor John Zammit is expecting a bad harvest.

“The price of figs already went up last summer. I’m not even sure what price they’ll fetch this summer.”

The Plant Health Directorate monitors local plants and pests. It recently compiled a small pamphlet, instructing farmers on how to deal with infected trees.

Fiona Grech, who coordinates the directorate’s Monitoring and Control Department, has instructed farmers to prune all infected trees.

‘I won’t have enough figs for my family’

“If the tree is thoroughly infected it should be cut down and burnt to prevent further spreading,” she said.

Farmers have also been advised to treat infected trees with pesticides containing the active ingredient Etofentrox as well as any directorate-approved fungicide to help protect healthy trees from falling prey to the merciless pests.

“We are currently carrying out an extensive survey of affected trees, So far the situation does not appear to warrant any quarantine procedures,” Mrs Grech said. But Paul Debattista, an agriculture officer on an advisory visit to Mr Portelli’s terraced Baħrija farm, said: “Figs are in serious trouble, it started in the north of the island, but now we’re receiving reports that it has spread as far south as Safi and Żurrieq. This is definitely alarming.”

Little is known about the beetle’s origin but David Mifsud, a biologist and member of the Malta Entomology Society, believes the pests may have been introduced when members of the ficus tree family were first imported from south eastern Asia in the mid-1930s. He believes that the bug leaped from these related plants to the fig tree in recent years.

“Maltese roadsides are lined with the fig tree’s cousins, which would have been the likely original home of these pests. We first started hearing about them attacking fig trees a few years ago. This seems to be a classic example of a host-plant shift,” Dr Mifsud said.

Back on the Baħrija farm, Mr Portelli shakes his head in dismay as he tosses an infected fig aside.

“Many farmers had no crop to take to the farmer’s market last year. This summer I doubt I’ll even have enough figs to give to my family,” he said.

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