New Delhi: Often looked upon as a panacea for many ills, the popular neem tree is under attack from a new voracious pest that is found to devour the leaves of the wonder tree, say scientists.
The pest has been identified as 'Cleora Coronaria' belonging to a family of moths and previously known as a minor pest of the neem tree, referred to as 'Arishta' or reliever of sickness in ancient Sanskrit texts.
A study of the pest by zoologists of the University of Lucknow indicates it is a fast-growing insect with a voracious appetite.
The newly-hatched insects were usually found clumped on the edges of neem leaves feeding in a frenzied manner, Prof Omkar and Geentanjali Mishra said.
"They moved around actively in search of food and cut leaves rhythmically in semi-circles," they said.
After feeding on the neem leaves for four to five days, the insects become sluggish and burrow themselves in moist soil to transform into a moth in about a fortnight. In their lifetime of five to seven days, the moths mate thrice with the female laying over 500 eggs of which over 95 per cent were found to be viable, the zoologists said.
Two peculiar incidents of entire defoliation of mature neem trees in 2009-10 in some villages of Uttar Pradesh caught the scientists' attention.
"The increasing spread of this defoliating insect on a tree believed to be invincible, led to studies about its identity, previous records, status as an occasional pest and life history," they said.
They now recommend that the insect be re-classified as a major pest. Observations that locusts settled on the neem tree but did not feed on it, led to numerous studies which aided the identification of around 200 compounds responsible for various insecticidal and medicinal properties.