There’s more to the cherry harvest than tonnage and pickers.
There are insects, and along with the insects come scientists.
Sharp-eyed Tri-Citians may have spotted government entomologists in recent weeks gathering infested cherries from local backyards.
Their quarry: Cherry fruit flies. Their mission: Collect specimens to aid research to combat an insect that can inflict massive damage on an iconic Washington product.
Dr. Yee Wee, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agricultural research scientist, said researchers prowl for infested fruit during harvest time to fuel work when they return to the lab for the winter.
The cherry fruit fly is a major quarantine pest for Washington, the nation’s leading producer of sweet cherries. Cherries are a Top 10 crop for the state (after stalwarts such as apples, milk, cattle and potatoes).
The National Agricultural Statistics Service anticipates Washington growers will produce 255,000 tons of sweet cherries this year, a dramatic increase over the 209,000 tons harvested last year. The 2016 crop was valued at nearly $500 million.
Wee notes commercial orchards are well-managed and generally don’t have flies, hence the backyard search. Researchers remain vigilant to ensure Washington growers continue to meet the rules of the markets they serve. Many foreign markets have a zero tolerance for fruit flies.
The scientists follow the maturing fruit, starting in the Tri-City area where cherries ripen first, then moving up through the valley toward Yakima. Wee said it appears infestations are high this year. Winter conditions don’t seem to hurt the insects.
Though backyard trees provide much-needed specimens, homeowners in major growing areas are encouraged to get their cherry fix at produce stands and farmers markets.
The Benton and Franklin Horticultural Pest Boards and the Washington State Extensions encourage homeowners to consider the obligation to spray trees before deciding to plant them. Fruit flies are, well, fruitful and multiply.
“If insect pests are not controlled, they will infest nearly every fruit on the tree and they will spread from your tree to your neighbor’s tree or a commercial orchard. For those of us lucky enough to live in these fruit-producing areas, it is far easier and cheaper to drive to a local fruit stand or farmer’s market than deal with wormy fruit or handle pesticides,” they advise in a circular.
For more information about horticultural pests and backyard fruit trees, visit bit.ly/Backyardfruittrees