In a pickle…


POSTED: Saturday, April 10, 2010

Question: In the last two years, I have noticed that the Japanese cucumbers sold in all local grocery stores have worms in them. These are the slender cucumbers with thin, dark green skins.

You can easily tell which ones have worms by examining them very carefully. Those with worms will have a small hole or holes in the outer skin.

The worms are an opaque white, fat and about one-third of an inch long or shorter. They sometimes burrow inside the entire length of the cucumber, making the flesh inedible or very unappetizing.

I have had this happen to me several times.

Instead of salvaging the good part, I just discarded the cucumbers. Many of the damaged ones did not contain the actual worm. Could you please find out what new pest this is and also find out how backyard gardeners and local farmers can control this unidentified pest?

I also am very surprised that produce managers accept these worm-damaged cucumbers. It is not fair for consumers.

Answer: What you are describing are pickleworms. They were first noticed in Hawaii in 2003, quickly becoming a “;big problem”; for farmers growing not only cucumbers, but other cucurbits, such as melons and squashes, said Juliana Yalemar, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture.

Pickleworms (the larvae of moths) have long been established in Florida and other southeastern and Gulf states. Researchers suspect it came here via imported produce.

The first ones were discovered on Oahu and now can be found on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

The moths will lay their eggs on flowers and young leaves, Yalemar said.

“;When they hatch, the first youngsters will start feeding on young leaves. Then the older larvae will make holes and burrow into fruit and stems,”; Yalemar said. “;They'll feed in there until they're ready to pupate (the transitional stage before becoming an adult).”;

You'll often see only holes in the cucumbers, because as they mature, the burrowing worms will just drop to the ground and pupate, she said.

“;If the holes are small, then the larvae are still in the younger stage and it's possible the larvae are still inside,”; Yalemar said.

“;If you see big holes, that means the larvae dropped out.”;

She recommends consumers checking to make sure there are no holes—big or small—in cucumbers or other cucurbits before buying them.

Yalemar worked on the problem after the pickleworm was first discovered here, trying to determine if there were “;natural enemies out there”; in Hawaii.

Unfortunately, “;there wasn't much that was attacking it,”; she said.

However, she said the worms have been under control by use of “;chemicals”; (insecticides), and yours was the first complaint she's heard about since receiving one from a Maui resident about eight months ago.

She said you should bring the problem to the attention of the store and return any damaged cucumbers that you have bought.

Yalemar said it's difficult for farmers to control the pest via spraying because, “;most of the time, (they're) inside the plant.”;

So timing is everything. “;If they know when to spray, they will catch it, like when they first hatch.”;

She said University of Hawaii extension agents helped farmers to determine which chemicals worked.

“;For the longest time, we haven't heard any complaints because (farmers) were able to control it with chemicals,”; alternating products so that the worms don't get resistant to any one of them.

Yalemar said larger farmers in particular have learned how to keep the pickleworms under control, after suffering initial crop losses, and that any problems are “;flaring up among small farmers.”;

There's no danger of farmers losing their crops and the worms don't pose a health or safety issue, she said.

But although “;farmers are doing their best to keep it under control, they haven't eliminated (the pickleworms),”; Yalemar said. “;There's no way to eliminate the problem.”;

See 29s for more information.

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