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  • Dougie

Xylella fastidiosa -- killer bug

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

It is Sunday in southern Italy. The town is quiet. The beaches not far from here will already be crammed (even this early in summer).

We're staying put at the Trullo. We sit in shade, eat at our leisure, drink coffee and tea, chat about everything and nothing before preparing for departure early on Tuesday morning.

At some point our talk turns to the threat confronting Steph's and Joe's olive trees. Borne by a Spittle Bug. A pathogen that goes by the name of Xylella fastidiosa.

The Spittle Bug that brought Xylella fastidiosa to Italy is a not-native parasite that has killed maybe 10 million olive trees in Puglia in the last decade. Ten million. Maybe more.

As far as anyone can work out, it appears that the destructive pathogen entered the European Union (through Italy) in 2008, carried by a bug on ornamental coffee plants imported from "the Americas". So, thank you once again Globalisation.

The Spittle Bug carrying the bacterium sucks sap from the trees. Xylella fastidiosa then enters the tree where it spreads and in the course of that spreading eliminates the tree's capability to draw and move water. Trees wither and die. Millions and millions of them.

The epicentre of the Spittle Bug crisis is Lecce, 70 kilometres from the Trullo we're sitting in now. Joe tells me the damage has kept mostly to the south side of the dual carriageway that links Brindisi with Taranto. But that's less than 10k from their home.

With only 90 trees to look after, Joe's and Steph's land is a tiny pin prick in the vast forest of olive trees across southern Italy. But that is not the point. My brother and sister-in-law love their smallholding, its grove of new and 'elder' trees, and the cherry, almond and plum trees they also tend. All are at risk.

There is no 'cure' or remedy. The bacterium may lie dormant or hidden for up to a year before trees starts to die. Leaves wither, bark changes colour, growth stops and there will be no new olives. There is no next harvest.

Wherever we go in the car the ravaged sections of a lovely land are never far from view.

All across the region trees die. The remains are burned, dug out, replaced with new saplings in an exercise of hope over expectation. Groves large and small -- private like here or vast and commercial -- are wiped out. Livelihoods lost. Relationships built over decades, perhaps even generations, between people and trees, people and land, transformed.

Joe and Steph believe their tiny patch of Earth has been spared. So far. But they do not know and cannot be certain. So, like every other grower (small and large) they take advice, they follow harm-reduction guidance and they look after their trees as well as anybody can.

For me -- for now -- it is this way I shall think of my new-found connection to Puglia: early morning, a breakfast table not yet set, and out beyond the Trullo an 'elder' tree -- planted one hundred years ago or thereabouts by who knows who?

Long let it live.

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