Bunchy top is a viral disease caused by the Banana bunchy top virus (BBTV). Like many virual diseases, BBTV was named after the symptoms seen in its natural hosts, Musa spp., where the infected plants are stunted and have “bunchy” leaves at the top. (Stephen et al., 1997). The disease was first identified in Fiji in 1889, and has spread around the world since then (Global Invasive Species Database, 2005). The virus itself, which was originally classified as a luteovirus, was isolated in the late 1980s and reassigned to the Nanoviridae family in the genus Babuvirus. Banana bunchy top disease (BBTD) is the most important viral disease of bananas (Musa spp.).

Transmission and epidemiology

Picture of Countries affected by BBTD.

Countries affected by BBTD.

BBTV is transmitted by the banana aphid (Pentalonia nigronervosa) in a persistent manner (Magee, 1927). The virus is also transmitted through infected plant suckers and other plant components used in banana propagation but is not sap transmissible (Magee, 1927). Banana aphids have a worldwide distribution with a host range that includes M. textilis and other species in the Musaceae. Species in several closely related plant families including the Araceae (Alocasia sp., Caladium spp., Dieffenbachia spp., Xanthosoma sp.), Cannaceae (Canna spp.), Heliconiaceae (Heliconia spp.), Strelitzeaceae (Strelitzia spp.) and Zingiberaceae (Alpinia spp., Costus sp., Hedychium spp.) are also colonized (Wardlaw, 1961). However, a degree of host preference is displayed and some difficulty can be experienced transferring them between host species. On banana plants in New South Wales, aphids are found at the base of the pseudostem at soil level and for several centimetres below the soil surface, beneath the outer leaf sheaths and on newly emerging suckers. Aphid numbers decrease during periods of drought (Wardlaw, 1961).
Transmission efficiency for individual aphids has been reported as ranging from 46 to 67% (Magee, 1927; Wu and Su., 1990a; Hu et al., 1996) and the virus is more efficiently acquired by nymphs than by adults (Magee, 1940).

In studies of outbreaks of bunchy top in commercial banana plantations, Allen (1978b, 1987) showed that the average distance of secondary spread of the disease by aphids was only 15.5-17.2 m. Nearly two-thirds of new infections were within 20 m of the nearest source of infection and 99% were within 86 m. Allen and Barnier (1977) showed that if a new plantation was located adjacent to a diseased plantation, the chance of spread of bunchy top into the new plantation within the first 12 months was 88%. This chance was reduced to 27% if the plantations were separated by 50-1000 m and to less than 5% if they were 1000 m apart. On average, the interval between infection of a plant and movement of aphids from this plant to initiate new infections elsewhere (the disease latent period) was equivalent to the time taken for 3.7 new leaves to emerge. The rate of leaf emergence varied seasonally with a maximum in summer (Allen, 1987)


Disease symptoms usually appear about a month after infection. The disease is named after one of the most characteristic symptoms of an advanced infection, when the leaves become progressively dwarfed, upright and bunched at the top of the plant, with wavy and chlorotic margins that tend to turn necrotic. Initial symptoms are more difficult to detect. The first symptoms are dark green streaks on the lower portion of the leaf’s midrib and later on the secondary veins. Removing the waxy white coating on the midrib makes it easier to see the streaking. The streaks consist of dots and short lines, the so-called ‘Morse code’ pattern, the most diagnostic symptom of bunchy top. As infection progresses, streak symptoms become more evident on the leaf blade. Dark-green hook-like extensions of the veins can also be seen in the narrow, light-green zone between the midrib and the lamina. The short hooks point down along the midrib toward the petiole. These hooks are best observed from the underside of the leaf by holding the leaf to the light.

Picture of yypical symptoms of BBTD

Typical symptoms of BBTD

The symptoms are most severe and distinctive when the infection arises from infected planting material (primary infection). These plants are typically stunted (less than 1 m) and rarely produce fruit.

When a plant gets infected by aphids after a period of BBTV-free growth (secondary infection), the symptoms are usually milder and only appear in tissues formed after the infection. The first symptoms usually appear at the earliest in the second leaf to emerge after a plant has become infected. The leaf will look normal to untrained eyes but on closer inspection it will have the dots and dashes on the midrib, petiole and blade. The margin also curls up. If the plant flowers, the veins of the bracts of the inflorescense may show discontinuous streaks that resemble the ‘Morse code’ symptoms on petioles and leaves (mottled inflorescence). If a bunch is produced, its growth will be stunted and the hands and fingers are likely to be distorted and twisted. On plants infected very late in their life cycle, the only symptoms present may be a few dark green streaks on the tips of the flower bract.

The early stages of a secondary infection may be confused with signs of nutrient deficiency or environmental stress.


Picture of BBTD-affected plant in a field

BBTD-affected plant in a field

The most important factors in controlling banana bunchy top virus are killing the aphid vector (disease carrier) and rogueing (removing and destroying) infected banana plants. By first killing the aphids on the banana plant, the banana aphids will not fly off to the healthy plants and spread the disease. Since the only host of BBTV is banana, rogueing infected trees reduces spread of the virus by reducing the opportunity for aphids to acquire the virus or for people to obtain and transport infected suckers or planting material.

Banana aphids can be treated by either injecting the infested banana plant with imidacloprid; or by spraying the entire infested banana plant with paraffinic oil. All banana plants within 10 metres of the infested banana plant should also be sprayed with paraffinic oil. Banana aphids also feed on heliconia and flowering ginger. Although these plants do not harbor the virus, they should also be sprayed to control aphids on them when they are in the vicinity of banana plants. This would help reduce aphid populations in the area.


Allen R.N. 1978, Spread of bunchy top disease in established banana plantations. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research, 29 (6): 1223-1233.

Allen R.N. 1987, Further Studies on epidemiological factors influencing control of banana bunchy top disease and evaluation of control measures by computer simulation. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research, 38(2): 373-382.

Allen R.N. and Barnier N.C.,1977. The spread of bunchy top disease between banana plantations in the tweed river District during 1975-76. NSW Department of Agriculture, Biology Branch Plant Disease Survey (1975-76), 27-28
Hu J.S. Wang M, Sether D, Xie W, Leonhardt K.W., 1996. Use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to study transmission of banana bunchy top virus by the banana aphid (Pentalonia nigronervosa). Annals of Applied Biology, 128 (1): 55- 6

Magee, C.J. 1927. Investigation on the Bunchy Top Disease of the Banana. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Bulletin, Melbourne. 86 pp.

Magee C.J.P., 1940. Tranmission studies on the banana bunchy-top virus. The Journal of the Ausralian Institute of Agricultural Science, 6: 109-110

Journal of General Virology 74, 323-328. National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) & IUCN/SSC Invasive Species Specialist Group. “Banana Bunchy Top Virus.” Global Invasive Species Database. N.p., 6 July 2005.

Stephen A., Eduardo E. Trujillo, and Desmond Y. Ogata. Banana Bunchy Top Virus. N.p.: College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, 1997. N. pag. University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Wardlaw C. W., 1961. Banana Diseases including Plantains and Abaca. London, Uk. Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd.

Wu R.Y. Su H.J., 1990. Production of monoclonal antibodies against banana bunchy top virus and their use in enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Journal of phytophatology, 128(3): 203-208.

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