Red palm weevils make Calif. gardners see red

Palm trees are seen in Santa Barbara, Calif., May 8, 2009.
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LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. - Think of California and what do you see? Beaches, Hollywood and, of course, palm trees, right?

California is fighting off an invasion that is threatening one of the state's most enduring symbols, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports.

"Palms and California go hand in hand," Albert Keck said.

Keck should know. He makes his living off palms and is one of the biggest date growers in the state. That's why he concerned about the ravenous red palm weevil, the fair weather tree's gravest threat.

Native to Indonesia, it's now attacking palms around the world from South Asia to the Canary Islands. To get rid of the pest, Saudi Arabia had to chop down and chop up infested trees. They've never been seen in the U.S. until now, in two trees in Southern California's pastel and palm-draped Laguna Beach.

"This weevil definitely has the potential to infest and kill a lot of the palms we're looking at right here," Nick Nisson, an Orange County entomologist, said.

Just imagine if a palm-dotted landscape looked didn't have any trees. Losing their beauty is sad enough, but palms are big business in California, generating $100 million in landscaping and dates.

That's why Orange County's insect brigade is waging war. The front line: Scent-laden traps. To find the menace, contain it and snuff it out before the weather warms up and it starts to spread. So far they've found no others.

"We'll probably never know how this palm weevil got here," said Nisson. "I think the biggest fear would be that this is not ground zero, that it may be somewhere else undetected."

Mark Hoddle, an entomologist at the University of California Riverside, studies invasive insects. He calls red palm weevils especially nasty critters.

"They can fly about three to four miles in about a seven-day period," said Hoddle. "Essentially, they turn the inside of that palm trunk into almost like oatmeal, rancid oatmeal."

Hoddle recently went to Indonesia searching for clues to defeat the pest, the larvae and the adults.

"These things are nasty," he said in a video filmed during his time there.

He's hoping to learn how to wipe out the weevil before it can wipe out a California icon.