KANAHA - Using a net, Mach Fukada swept over grasses and plants in a wetland area off a parking lot at Kanaha Beach Park last week.
He was looking for a green-and-yellow-colored insect called the banded cucumber beetle that he found by accident before he lost his job as Maui County's state entomologist in 2009. He has since been rehired.
After a few swooshes of the net through the plants, Fukada took out a clear plastic bag and emptied the critters that he collected into the bag.
Mach Fukada, state entomologist for Maui County, uses a net to try and capture banded cucumber beetles in a wetland area adjacent to a parking lot at Kanaha Beach Park last week. Fukada is back on the job after he was laid off because of budget shortfalls in 2009.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
A banded cucumber beetle sits on a plant near Kanaha Beach Park.
State Department of Agriculture photo
A closer view of the bugs with a penny as reference is shown.
State Department of Agriculture photo
It was a success, because among the grasshoppers and other insects was the banded cucumber beetle, which Fukada says probably came from South or Central America.
He suspects that just like the tourists jump off the planes at nearby Kahului Airport, the bugs hop off "to come to the beach" as well.
The beetles' larvae feed on roots of plants such as sweet potatoes and corn. Adults feed on plants such as beans, peppers, eggplant, cotton and okra, Fukada said.
After collecting his specimens, Fukada said that he was going to buy some broccoli for the bugs to feed on, then take them to his Kahului lab to study.
Last week, Fukada was picking up from where he left off three years ago.
In 2009, he and other state workers were laid off because of a budget shortfall. In the state Department of Agriculture's Plant Pest Control Branch, where Fukada is based, the branch saw about 40 percent of its staff cut.
But Fukada's position was labeled a "priority" and the first to be restored by the DOA's Plant Pest Control Branch, because the department needed someone on the ground to respond to reports of invasive species, to work on control programs, to survey for plant pests and diseases as well as for other pest control work, said Janelle Saneishi, public information officer for the department.
She said that Fukada's position was restored by the Legislature in fiscal 2010, and after finding money for the job and solving other issues such as developing new criteria for the position, Fukada was able to get back to work in March.
During Fukada's absence, entomologists from the Big Island and Oahu traveled to Maui periodically "to do only the most critical work," Saneishi said.
Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, is pleased with Fukada's return.
"We are very thankful that an entomologist has been assigned back to Maui," Watanabe said. "Having an entomologist on island means rapid diagnosis can be possible when new pests are suspected. Insects multiply rapidly, and the capacity to diagnose the risk can mean control, or infestations beyond control."
In addition to his bug duties, Fukada now has to work on chemical and mechanical control of weeds and other pests. The position that handled those duties was cut and has not been restored.
Since being back in the department for about a month, Fukada said that he has collected and sent for testing the invasive fireweed that cattle ranchers are wrestling with. The plant is toxic to cattle and other livestock.
He also is studying the problem with a mealybug that is attacking proteas and giving the usually strong and hearty plant a shorter shelf life.
As for the banded cucumber beetle, Fukada said that he's only seen it on Maui in that spot at Kanaha and on the University of Hawaii Maui College campus, where he taught after being laid off; he continues to teach there. He's also heard that the beetles have been spotted along Hansen Road.
So far, Fukada says that he hasn't seen any damage to crops from the beetle on Maui but continues to investigate to make sure the bug has not fully established itself here. He also suspects that this type of beetle would have a hard time establishing itself Upcountry because of the cooler climate, as compared to Kanaha and Central and South America.
He said that other members of the genus Diabrotica have established in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Southern California. He added that the pest has even taken hold as far north as South Carolina. Fukada said that these types of insects that live in North America may need the change in seasons to get established, something that Maui doesn't have.
The 42-year-old from Kula, who has a Bachelor of Science in agriculture from the University of Hawaii at Hilo and a master's degree in entomology from UH-Manoa, said a reason he chose the entomology field was for its job stability.
"I always thought there were going to be job security, as there would always be a new pest coming in. And it still happens," he said.
But a large factor in his going back to his state job is to help others and to share information. He said that while he has had other agriculture-related jobs, this one allows him to help the state and its people.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com