The bacteria are making a bad problem even worse. The type of sweet potato whitefly they infect, called B biotype, was already a major problem for farmers, on every continent where crops are grown.
Don't let the name fool you - the B biotype whitefly doesn't just dine on sweet potatoes. And that's just the problem. It eats more than 600 types of plant, so it never goes hungry.
"Here in Arizona, it probably starts out on weeds in the spring, and then moves on to melons, and when melons are done, it moves in big numbers onto cotton and feeds on that all summer long," Hunter said. "In the fall, it moves on to vegetables, and so it just keeps going."
"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when this new biotype arrived in the Southwest, the population just exploded," Hunter said. "Sometimes you could see clouds of whiteflies in the air, gumming up windshields."
"With integrated pest management practices, many developed by colleagues here at the UA, their impact has decreased tremendously, but they still are the worst pest in Arizona's cotton industry. If it wasn't for whiteflies, farmers would be spraying cotton a lot less," Hunter said.