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Chester County Press

Harrogate meeting yields possible solutions to fly infestation

05/24/2016 12:22PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

On Feb. 16, Les Clarke, the president of the Harrrogate North Condominium Association, stood before the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors and asked them for assistance in helping to eradicate the infestation of the phorid fly in the retirement community in Landenberg. The first sign of the flies were detected six years ago, and has now spread to about one-third of the community's 124 homes.
New Garden Township Manager Tony Scheivert told the residents that evening that help would soon be on the way. With the assistance of State Sen. Andy Dinniman, the cavalry bugle horn that was heard last Thurday afternoon at the Harrogate Clubhouse was in the form of experts, arriving to assess the damage and come up with potential long-term solutions.
Along with Dinniman, the nearly two-hour meeting was attended by a half dozen Harrogate residents;  Dr. David Beyer of the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Penn State; Michael Zuk, an agricultural resource conservationist with the Chester County Conservation District; and Eric Toedter, an employee with Kaolin Mushroom Farms and a representative with the American Mushroom Institute.
At one-eighth of an inch long, the phorid fly breeds in, and feeds on, moist and decaying organic matter, as well as in unsanitary areas, and it is widely known throughout entomology as a carrier of disease-causing bacteria. The reproductive potential of the phorid fly female is tremendous, as evidenced by the fact that a female can deposit 40 eggs in a 12-hour period, and more than 500 eggs during her lifetime. They can be found in roadside drains, near rotting vegetables and fruit, in damp compost piles, sewage-contaminated soil, and in landscape material such as mulch.
They have become the main nuisance in an otherwise peaceful neighborhood. A survey circulated throughout the community earlier in the year discovered that 107 homes in Harrogate are experiencing infestation to varying degrees – low, moderate and high – and that 41 of those homes are experiencing a “high” rate of infestation. Residents have reported that flies have been found in toilet tanks, in refrigerators, beds and closets, and several have to vacuum dead flies throughout their home on a daily or near-daily basis.
Very little has improved, said the residents who attended the meeting.
“I don't know how they're getting there, and I don't know what to do, except that I feel like I want to move,” said Barbara Runkle. “I just can't deal with it anymore.”
“By October, when the sun starts hitting the house, the roof is swarming with them,” said resident Lou Taylor, who first reported the problem back in 2010. “I had a pest control guy come out, who sprayed our roof. It gave us relief for about 24 hours.
“The front door is worse than the upstairs bathroom," he added. "If I spray insect spray on the door both inside and outside, they leave me alone for the day. If I don't do that, they're there, in large numbers.”
Clarke said that the homeowners association has met with township officials, as well as with pest control professionals, who conducted a tour of the development, and suspected that the fly is breeding in or near stormwater basin facilities, which remain, for the most part, very moist. The plan of the association is to explore methods of eliminating the degree of water in these basins.
Clarke said that there has been two pesticide treatments in those areas.
"We've got four or five homes that have seen evidence of these things at this time of the year, but our expectations are that they'll ramp up as the weather warms up, and then by August and September, we'll see a bunch," Clarke said.
While the phorid fly infestation in Harrogate North is upsetting a few dozen residents in the development, the meeting raised the issue that there may be bigger stakes at play in the eradication of the insect; namely, to provide assistance to the mushroom industry, an institution that contributes millions of dollars to the local economy.
Toedter said that the insect has been a nagging presence at Kaolin Mushrooms, and is attracted to moss, naturally-made still water pools, and composting facilities, a problem, he said, that is not just confined to Pennsylvania.
"The phorid flies have a presence at mushroom facilities in California, Mexico, Texas and Delaware," he said. "If you're going to grow mushrooms, you're going to have mushroom pests, just like when you grow grow corn, you're going to have corn pests. As soon as you have mushroom substrate, you're going to have them."
He said that while the pesticide Kaolin is using in its compost that has shown degree of effectiveness -- as has the use of black flourescent bulbs and sticky paper -- the steps being taken are a small victory at best.
"We don't have the capacity to develop formulations to adhere chemicals to," he said. "We've been reaching out to pest control industries, but as big as the mushroom business is in the county, we measure our crop in square feet, and not in acres, so these pesticide companies look at this and say that it's not a lot of profit to be made by giving (the mushroom industry) a product. There could be one claim against them, and they could lose everything. It's been really challenging to approach them and say that we have a problem here." 
Right now, possible long-term solutions are being studied at Penn State, but in the short-term, Beyer said the study needs more money in order to find more answers.
Beyer said that Penn State has a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the USDA to study mushroom flies and diseases. As a means to try to control their population, Beyer and his colleagues have succeeded in breeding phorid flies in labs for testing, but the project's funding ends next year.
“We're hoping to find money to keep the study going, because we're going to need additional funding to continue to screen products,” he said. “It's really a matter of finding the right product at the right time, because these flies are small and sneaky, and they build up resistance very quickly. We have to find products in order to give the flies less of a chance to be resistant to what we're using.”
Beyer told Dinniman that Penn State is the only entity currently doing extensive research on the phorid fly, but with no assurance of another grant, the study is appealing to the Mushroom Institute to fund a technician, in order to continue maintaining and studying the insect in the lab.
"My task is to ask the legislative delegation to work to make sure that some funding is provided, because we're not going to solve this unless we can maintain a colony, in order to find this out," Dinniman said. "I want to try to help by trying to figure out if we can get some research dollars for this. What is it that you need? Does 'X' amount of funds exponentially improve your ability to come up with a solution?"
"The answer to your question is that the more hands you can put on a project, the faster you're going to get results," Beyer told Dinniman. "If you can fund a graduate student, a post-doc and a technician in these labs, they're going to work on projects that will get some answers. When that dries up next year, we hope to have enough money to have enough money to keep a colony going and hire a technician, but if we have (more assistance), they'll get things done faster.
"I would say that the mushroom industry feels that this phorid fly problem is the number one priority, in their minds," Beyer said.
"Now I have the argument," said Dinniman, who offered to put together a research package through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the American Mushroom Institute, in order to obtain funding. "We're going to try to insist that research be done."
Dinniman said that the endgame of solving the phorid fly problem in the mushroom industry is directly connected to fixing it in neighborhoods like Harrogate North.
"As agriculture meets the increasing suburban population, often it becomes a name game," he said. "In this case, both the residents and the mushroom industry are working together. The answer is until the research is done, we're not going to be able to solve the problem."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com .






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