Friday Fellow: Cuban Laurel Thrips

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Last week I presented the magnificent Chinese banyan Ficus microcarpa. Today I’m bringing a little insect that loves it but is not loved in return, the Cuban laurel thrips, Gynaikothrips ficorum.

As its name suggests, the Cuban laurel thrips is a thrips, i.e., an insect of the order Thysanoptera. Adults of this species measure about 3 mm in length and have a black and elongate body and two pairs of thin wings that fold over the dorsum when at rest. Its mouth parts, as typical of thrips, are asymmetrical, with a reduced right mandible and a developed left mandible that it uses to cut the surface of plants in order to suck its juices. It is, therefore, a plant pest.

Adult Cuban laurel thrips in Hong Kong. Photo by iNaturalist user wklegend.*

The Cuban laurel thrips prefers to feed on juices of fig trees, such as the Chinese banyan from last week. It’s common name, though, is a reference to another fig species, Ficus retusa, commonly known as the Cuban laurel. Both fig trees, as well as the thrips itself, are native from Southeast Asia. Other, less common host plants include Citrus trees and orchids. They prefer to feed on young, tender leaves, and cause dark, usually purplish red dots, on the leaf’s surface. It is common for the leaf to curl and become hard, eventually dying prematurely. Although most infestations do not cause serious damage to the plant’s development, the curling of the leaves can reduce a plant’s ornamental value.

Ugly curled leaves caused by the thrips’ infestation in New Zealand. Photo by Stephen Thorpe.*

The reproduction of the Cuban laurel thrips is basically constant, so that several generations occur across one year. The adults take advantage of the curled leaves produced by their feeding behavior and use them as a protection to put their eggs. The immature stages, after hatching, remain inside the shelter provided by the curled leaf. They are transparent in the first two instars and then become light yellow. Only the last, adult stage, is black.

When you open the leaf, you can find a whole family. Here you can see the eggs (small white grains) and several immature specimens in different stages. Photo by James Bailey.*

Since the Cuban laurel thrips makes ornamental plants ugly, humans are always trying to find ways to kill them, especially by using pesticides or, sometimes, natural predators of the thrips. But the little insect can also fight back. When the thrips accidentally fall on people’s bodies, they tend to bite, most likely by accident, but this can end up causing a serious and annoying itch. That’s the price for messing with them.

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Denmark HA, Fasulo TR, Funderburk JE (2005) Cuban laurel thrips, Gynaikothrips ficorum (Marchal) (Insecta: Thysanoptera: Phlaeothripidae). DPI Entomology Circular 59

Paine TD (1992) Cuban Laurel Thrips (Thysanoptera: Phlaeothripidae) Biology in Southern California: Seasonal Abundance, Temperature Dependent Development, Leaf Suitability, and Predation. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 85(2): 164–172. doi: 10.1093/aesa/85.2.164

Piu G, Ceccio S, Garau MG, Melis S, Palomba A, Pautasso M, Pittau F, Ballero M (1992) Itchy dermatitis from Gynaikothrips ficorum March in a family group. Allergy 47(4): 441–442. doi: 10.1111/j.1398-9995.1992.tb02087.x

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*Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Filed under Entomology, Friday Fellow

2 responses to “Friday Fellow: Cuban Laurel Thrips

  1. Pingback: Friday Fellow: Cuban-Laurel-Thrips Mite | Earthling Nature

  2. Pingback: Tospovirus and thrips: an alliance that terrifies plants | Earthling Nature

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