UF/IFAS entomologists give reason to celebrate rice in Florida

matthew vanweelden

Matthew VanWeelden at UF/IFAS Extension Palm Beach County — photo by Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

Rice, a global grain consumed by more than half the world’s population, totes unique versatility unlike other grains throughout history. Each country and culture has made the grain its own as center of the plate, a side and even as an ingredient in desserts.

It is no surprise that rice reserves a special spot as a staple celebrated first during National Rice Month followed by National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15.

Entomologists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are on the front lines of this small homegrown crop that has steadily increased in popularity as a rotation crop and for its environmental benefits. Continuous research on the crop’s dynamics serves as the stage for its sustainable growth in Florida while also fighting non-native and threatening insects.

“UF/IFAS entomologists are an important line of defense against invasive pests of rice,” said Julien Beuzelin, an assistant professor of entomology at UF/IFAS Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade. “Continued research and surveillance programs coupled with the support of rice producers who allow access to their fields and provide financial assistance is critical.”

An outcome of these programs is that rice producers learn about the pests threatening rice and can rapidly implement management practices if these pests are detected, thereby preventing population build-up and unmitigated yield loss.

Down in the Everglades

In Florida, rice is mainly grown in the Everglades Agricultural Area spanning Palm Beach and Hendry counties. While it does not currently dominate in production or export yet, growing rice in Florida does serve a vital role. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States is a steady supplier of rice in global markets and accounts for about 45% of annual U.S. sales. In 2017, the United States produced 178.2 million hundredweight, equivalent to 199.5 trillion pounds of rough rice. Florida had a small role in that.

“In Florida, rice is produced on approximately 25,000 acres of land in rotation with sugarcane and acts as an effective crop for best management practices in the EAA against soil erosion, nutrient depletion and insect pest harborages,” said Matthew VanWeelden, an agent at UF/IFAS Extension Palm Beach County. “The production trend has steadily increased since 2008 at a rate of approximately 1,537 acres per year.”

Not immune from pests

Still, the grain is not without its pests.

“Invasive insect pests represent a threat to Florida rice,” Beuzelin said. “For invasive pests, early detection is key because it prevents populations from multiplying and reaching devastating levels in the absence of management.”

These pests include the Mexican rice borer, which is a caterpillar that chews plant tissues within rice culms and delphacid planthoppers, small insects that feed on plant sap and transmit viruses, he said.

“Others include stink bugs, comprised of three species, which are the most economically important pests against the rice industry in Florida,” VanWeelden said. “These pests feed on the developing kernels, reducing yields.”

julien beuzelin

Julien Beuzelin, an assistant professor of entomology at UF/IFAS Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade — photo courtesy Division of Plant Industry

Many assessments, surveys and surveillance programs have been instituted over the last few years and continue, leading to pest management initiatives, educational programs, rice variety trial assessments and more as acreage of rice farming increases.

The Mexican rice borer is native to Mexico, establishing in Texas and Louisiana rice within the last 40 years. Studies in Louisiana showed that the pests cause as much as 30 percent yield loss if not managed properly.

The pest was first detected in central Florida in 2012 thanks to surveillance conducted by entomologists at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Plant Industry. Beuzelin and VanWeelden initiated a Mexican rice borer surveillance program in 2017, where they monitored 30 commercial sites during two growing seasons in the EAA.

Continued monitoring efforts by UF/IFAS entomologists indicate that while the pest has not established in the EAA, it deserves continued monitoring as it makes its way toward the Florida rice industry.

Numerous planthoppers are pests of rice worldwide, Beuzeli said. Some species already occur in Florida but have not caused problems. However, the establishment of invasive species such as the rice brown planthopper, small brown planthopper and white-backed planthopper would be game-changers.

Within the last year, VanWeelden, Beuzelin and Ron Cherry, professor of entomology, started an experiment to compare feeding behaviors among three stink bug species to determine if one species feeds more aggressively on rice than the other species. This information will provide growers with updated recommendations on when to manage each individual species, or if all species can be treated together as a complex.

With production steadily rising in the state, UF/IFAS faculty and Extension scientists annually update Rice Production in Florida: A Handbook which serves as a resource for Florida producers, researchers, and the general public covering rice variety trials, water management, nutrients, pest and disease management, and information on related to post-harvest processing.

The University of Florida contributed this article.