Some bugs chew on leaves, others suck out a plant’s juices. The thrips parvispinus scratches the flesh and slurps, scratches and slurps, scratches and slurps. The nearly invisible invader from the Asian tropics was first noticed in Palm Beach County in 2022 by attentive landscapers on tony Palm Beach Island, watching their fragrant gardenias and showy rock trumpets desiccate on their stems.

In the rich agricultural soils that grow row crops and commercial ornamental plants, millions of dollars in damage was happening. Peppers were hit especially hard, showing signs of curling leaves, stippling, scabbing, and stunted growth when infected.

Growers went on high alert, so did the scientists. “The farmers didn’t know what was happening at first. It was a mystery, completely new to everyone,” said Anna Meszaros, the commercial vegetable production extension agent working with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Palm Beach County. “It caught us all off guard.”

A scramble ensued to find a fix before this winter’s growing season. Entomologists from UF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture joined forces, set up labs, and scoured garden centers for plants infected by the pesticide-resistant menace. It was a code red, a 10 on the threat scale.