A swarm of bagrada insects has taken up residence in the Santa Barbara area, affecting organic farms as well as home gardens in the area.

Though bagrada bugs originate in Senegal, Egypt and Zaire, they have spread to southern Asia and Europe as well as California and Arizona. Hundreds of thousands of Bagrada hilaris have been found in the county, essentially destroying the crops of many farmers from the Santa Ynez Valley to Carpinteria.

About five to seven millimeters in length, bagrada bugs can be mistaken for ladybugs but in fact have black bodies with white and orange markings.

Bagrada bugs mainly attack plants in the Brassicaceae family, which include crops like turnips, cabbage, broccoli, caulif lower and kale. The bugs are able to feed on foliage by inserting their needle-like mouths into plants, depleting them of their resources. The feeding cycle stunts plant growth, causing infected specimens to wilt and eventually die.

According to the Agricultural Production Report of Santa Barbara’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, the county’s top crops include cabbage, caulif lower and the county’s most profitable vegetable crop, broccoli.

The Pest Control Center estimates the bugs cause a 20 to 25 percent loss in cer- tain crop yields, though the damage is often more severe on pesticide-free organic farms and home gardens where bagrada bugs can destroy 45 to 50 percent of the expected yield.

Since the exposure of B. hilaris is relatively new in the United States, farmers are unsure how to treat the infestations.

— Staff Report