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Palm tree infestation: The facts and the fiction
Palm tree infestation: The facts and the fiction
The red palm weevil has finally reached Chania; five areas along the north west coast have confirmed as infected – Platanias, Voukolies, Kolymbari, Nea Kydonia and Chania itself. A casual stroll around town will take you past trees showing obvious signs of distress, many standing in a devastated state, others stripped of their leaves and capped with a net to prevent beetles escaping.
Though I am neither an agronomist nor an entomologist, recently I have had contact with scholars both from Greece and abroad, who are experts in these areas and who have provided the technical information on various aspects of the problem presented in this article.
My main reason for writing this article is to present these issues to ordinary people in the street, who have neither been adequately informed about the nature of this epidemic nor of the accepted means of dealing with it.
The most common and widely held misapprehensions
in relation to the subject seem to be:
1) The red palm weevil infestation is a recent Greek or Cretan phenomenon.
Infestation by the palm weevil started spreading from Asia and Melanesia in the 1980s. By 1985 it had reached the United Arab Emirates, in 1996 Iran, Egypt in
1992, Spain in 1994, Israel in 1999, Crete in 2005 and other areas of Greece in 2006. It is now a world-wide phenomenon.
Infestation is most commonly spread by imported plants. In the case of Greece, these palms came from Egypt.
2) It is easy to identify the symptoms and to know whether a tree is affected or not.
It is impossible to be absolutely sure that an imported tree has not been infested.
While it isn’t difficult to identify infested trees when they have been attacked by the beetle grubs (and thus probably past saving), it is difficult to ascertain the
presence of mature beetles prior to this stage. For some time, the tree will appear to be healthy, whilst it is being mined from within. The subsequent collapse of
the tree’s fronds into the characteristic umbrella shape is quite rapid. (See photographs)
3) Trees are only affected one metre from the crown downwards, which means that only this part need be cut down and destroyed.
The grubs move towards the interior of the palm making tunnels and large cavities. They can be found in any place within the palm, even in the very base of the
trunk amongst the roots.
4) Chemicals are available which can protect trees from infection at a reasonable financial cost and at little or no cost to the environment and human health,
especially in inhabited areas.
Despite all measures taken, no country, with the possible exception of Israel, has succeeded in
arresting more than temporarily the spread of the palm weevil. Despite spraying and injection of very
toxic insecticides, over 1000 trees have been killed in the Granada area of Spain and palms in the
south of Italy wiped out. So far more than 4000 trees have been destroyed in Crete.
Four insecticides used in Greece and elsewhere, though they have been have been banned from
agricultural use because of their high toxicity, have been given special approval by the Ministry of
Agriculture for use on palm trees They are expensive and the cost of application is high (e.g. 100
Euros for each tree 3 times a year).
One of the milder insecticides, in terms of toxicity, is Imidacloprid. But even this insecticide could
pollute groundwater and has been banned in several countries because of its toxicity to bees.
Though “therapies” are being offered by various individuals, the sad truth is that none of the
available insecticides used to treat infested trees offer any certainty of recovery.
5) Infested trees can be disposed of by burning or burying them at a reasonable financial cost and at
little or no cost to the environment.
Palms being very sappy, large trees, make burning a very difficult and expensive process, since
every part of the tree has to be destroyed. If they are buried, this has to be at a depth of over two
metres and if these trees have been sprayed there is the danger of them turning into chemical
“bombs”, polluting groundwater. Uncontrolled burning and burying in the fields is not allowed
according to national and European law.
The cost of disposing of an infested palm was estimated at 300 euros in 2007.
6) Municipalities and the public are well informed about the problem
If so why did the municipalities of Crete set about such “ambitious” (!) planting programmes? (500
palms planted in Heraklion for the Olympic Games – almost certainly the source of infestation there),
hundreds planted along the beach in Rethymnon (2008-2010), and along the coast of Souda. There
have also been disastrous attempts made to plant palms at Koum Kapi and Neachora.
Armed with all this compelling information, why are palms still being imported and used by
municipalities as the main species for landscaping works?
It is only in the last week that the transport of palms within affected areas of the municipality of
Chania been banned. This action can be compared to shutting the stable door after the horse has
7) Decisions taken when launching new public or municipal landscape studies and related works
seriously consider this problem in conjunction with vital issues concerning local biodiversity
Crete offers many attractions to tourists. These attractions do not require the presence of imported
palms, which not only cause the palm weevil to spread, but also destroys the unique character of
the island. However, developers and resorts have opted for the use of imported,
mature trees – some as much as eight metres high. These palms provide a ‘quick fix’ to instantly transform even dull areas into exotic and glamorous aspirational holiday destinations.
It is rare to find that local biodiversity has been taken into account. Even rarer to find that Cretan plants and trees have been given priority over imported species despite the fact that the equivalent native trees could have been purchased at a much more competitive rare and without the destructive threats posed by imported varities.
8) The public is well informed about the amount of money spent by the municipalities for planting new palm trees, for their chemical treatment on a regular basis
and for the waste management of infested palm trees and has agreed this spending, despite the problems posed by the palm weevil and by current financial
The trade in palm trees is massively lucrative, involving not only those involved in growing, shipping and planting them, but also by those offering various
expensive “treatments” as well as those involved in disposing of infested trees.
A large palm tree can cost between 3000 and 5000 Euro. The municipality of Heraklion bought 500 palms at 3.000 Euros each. After two years, the palms were
destroyed; the municipality paid 300 Euros per palm to remove them…and then planted new ones!
Only when the cost of purchase, removal, treatment and waste management are taken into consideration can one appreciate the true price that the public paying
in terms of taxes and the potential threats to human health.
9) The public sector is well aware of the problem and controls the further import, growth and use of palms by municipalities and the public sector, hotels, private
enterprises and individual consumers
Apparently, G.A.T.T. officially forbids the import of trees and the E.U. has issued a guide on quarantine measures. Individual countries have also attempted to
close their borders to imports but to little effect. Nevertheless, go online and search “Palm trees Egypt” .They are still being offered for sale by many companies,
without any mention of quarantine or indeed any other restrictions.
10) The public sector is well aware of the extensive and uncontrolled use of toxic agrochemicals and of the waste management of the infested trees and
controls all these activities regarding public health and the environment.
The truth is that these decisions are being taken by officials who may not be well-informed in these areas and who are only as good as their advisors. And it
may be that, in some cases, their advisors include those involved in the broader “palm-trees business”.
When so much is at risk financially, it is only too obvious that some authorities will take short term solutions, ignoring the long term effect of spraying on human
Multi-national chemical companies exert a great deal of power and influence in order to persuade the public that their products are both safe and effective.When
the effects of these treatments are assessed at some point in the future, who will take responsibility?
All the findings agree about one thing; the need for clear, coordinated action across the island. To this end, a Scientific Committee has been appointed in Heraklion (2010). The recommendations of this Committee are as follows:-
1. « Immediate and compulsory destruction with safe means (cutting and burying) within 24 hours or earlier of the palms that present macroscopic symptoms»
Why then have badly infected palm trees been left untouched for weeks in various places around town (e.g. Odos Venizelou, Kladissos – see photos) and the cut leaves of some infected tall palms just been dumped by the roadside?
Who exactly is in charge of carrying out the “destruction by safe means” guideline? Private companies? And if so, are these companies licensed to handle hazardous waste? And who decides if a particular tree-solid waste is hazardous? Who pays for all this? And who ensures that it is carried out according to European and national legislation?
2. “The municipalities must have emergency plans for places in their areas to bury the infected trees»
Ças this advice been acted on? Have plans been made according to the European/national legislation? Which public organization approves and supervises them?
While the committee report mentions certain undefined “measures” to protect the Cretan landscape, it fails to deal specifically with chemical treatment - though it is the main measure applied by municipalities and private enterprises and individuals at the moment, the banning of imports and fresh planting and measures to assure proper waste management. It also fails to mention the need for a campaign to inform the public, municipalities and tourists about the very practical matters, such as what steps are to be taken to deal with affected trees, as well as the cost, not just in monetary terms but to the environment, human health, biodiversity and the natural landscape of Crete.
You may be aware of the increasing threat to the native palm groves of Crete at Preveli and Vai. We have confirmation that the Red Palm Weevil has reached Vai in the last few weeks and so the need for action is imperative.
In Lassithi we are trying to record all suspect trees - the Forestry Department will inspect them wherever possible.
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