Florida medfly program base to shift to Bradenton area

John Renshaw looks at a map showing areas of Florida where sterile male medflies are air dropped to prevent the devastation of crops. 
 JAMES A. JONES JR./Bradenton Herald
John Renshaw looks at a map showing areas of Florida where sterile male medflies are air dropped to prevent the devastation of crops. JAMES A. JONES JR./Bradenton Herald

MANATEE -- In the not-too-distant future, home base for the fight against the Mediterranean fruit fly in Florida will shift to southern Manatee County.

Construction drawings were recently filed with Manatee County government for a 29,575-square-foot U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in the University Park of Commerce, just north of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

The facility will replace the converted ice cream plant that the USDA uses in northern Sarasota County, just off U.S. 301.

All of Central America is infested with the medfly, as it is commonly called, and the Dominican Republic has a growing medfly problem.

The medfly piggybacks on fruit and vegetable cargo bound for American ports, and in packages from infested regions, presenting a threat to hundreds of kinds of fruits and vegetables. Damage occurs when eggs are laid, and larvae hatch and begin feeding, turning the fruit into a decomposing mess.

"The possibility is always there that daily arrivals, domestic and private, could harbor a fruit fly," said John D. Renshaw, USDA sterile insect technology director.

The USDA fights the threat by releasing sterile male medflies from a twin-engine aircraft flying over affected areas. The male medflies, which have been stimulated with ginger oil, seek to mate with female medflies. The females then lay their eggs, but they will not hatch, ending their destructive life cycle.

Until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the sterile insect program operated out of MacDill Air Force Base, Renshaw said.

"That changed a lot of things at MacDill, and it so happened that this old ice cream facility was available," Renshaw said.

The sterile insect facility planned for Manatee County is a new prototype building specifically designed for its mission, said Roger Osborne, CEO of North Florida Government Properties, which is managing the project.

"It's one of the most interesting programs, and a real success that you never read about. We have been able to combat the fruit fly to protect citrus and vegetable crops. It's extremely cost-effective and eliminates the need to spray insecticides," Osborne said. "It's a real positive environmental success story."

The medflies are raised in Guatemala, gathered in the pupa or egg stage, and placed in a warm bath that kills the females. The remainder are all males. They are dyed red and radiated to sterilize them. Shipments are flown daily from Guatemala to SRQ, Osborne said.

At the correct temperature, the medfly will hatch, so they are kept in a chill room to hibernate until needed.

The Florida medfly program is one of only three in the United States. The others are in Texas and California.

Daily USDA flights from SRQ drop medflies on locations in Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties.

"Miami is our worst medfly area. We fly down there three days a week," Renshaw said.

Manatee-Sarasota last had a medfly outbreak in 2011, and there has never been a medfly found at Port Manatee, Renshaw said. A system of traps around Florida is used to monitor for the presence of medflies, and provide a guide for the release of sterile males.

"People come here from all over the world to see our facility. We are kind of proud of it," Renshaw said.

Worldwide, there are only about 50 similar facilities.

When the USDA moves into its new Manatee County facility, perhaps in 18 months to two years, it should have a staff of about 24 employees.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.