Monday, November 24, 2014

Photo Essay: Throwing Good Bugs After Bad at Associates Insectary

I had known Santa Paula as the turnaround point for the Fillmore and Western Railway, and as one of the towns wiped out by the flood of the St. Francis Dam break, but it turns out that Santa Paula is also home to a bug farm that engages in biological warfare against crop-eating pests.



At Associates Insectary, founded in 1928, beneficial organisms are raised to combat the destructive "bad bugs" that munch on the leaves and fruits of many farms' agricultural endeavors.



That, of course, attracts some flies, and plenty of cobwebs.



It's all part of an integrated pest control strategy, which combines introducing natural enemies into the crop environment with occasional spray applications of minimum impact pesticides.



Associates Insectary started its business with – and is probably best-known for – rearing the Cryptlaemus montrouzieri, the Mealybug Destroyer Beetle.



But to rear the beneficial insect, you have to also rear the pest insect – the mealybug – for it to feed on.



So they have all these dark rooms of sprouting potatoes...



...which host the mealybug...



...which then the beetle – a kind of ladybug – can feed on...



...until it's ready to be packaged and shipped out.



Similar to the common ladybug...



...this particular species has a red head and black body.



There are other rooms where other host plants and produce are kept to germinate...



...and the bad bugs feeding on them flock to the light of the window...



...where they are collected and transported...



...to become food for the good bugs...



...like the Aphytis melinus...



...a parasite wasp that feeds upon the California red scale...



...a nasty pest of citrus.



In each of these cases, in order to grow the good bugs...



...they also have to grow the bad bugs...



...so the good ones have something to feed on.



The parasite wasps are collected on large white sheets...



...poured into a funnel...



...and distributed evenly (more or less eyeballed) into white plastic containers...



...which are then sealed with a plastic lid, where they all crawl around inside.




Finally, the eggs of the "bad mites" (the Persea mites, which attack avocado groves) are collected from lima beans....



...and fed to the "good mites," the Neoseiulus canlifornius...



...which grow and then are shipped out to fight the bad mites in avocado orchards.



The lima beans that host the persea mites are grown in greenhouses...



...which are kept warm and humid...



...so that the lima bean plants (which used to be prominent in the Heritage Valley) may thrive.



It's hard to visit the insectary and not get the creepy-crawlies. No matter how accustomed to bug life you are (and I have slept in cockroach-infested NYC apartments and survived tarantulas in my bathroom in Joshua Tree), some of these good bugs are so microscopic, you can't help but think you're bringing some of them home with you – on your clothes, in your hair, in your nostrils, whatever. And it's a little disturbing to see how we're messing with nature, trying to combat pests which have been introduced to California from foreign territories by rearing a population of their natural predators – but, in the process, of course, also raising the pests themselves.

Because sometimes good needs to feed on the bad. One cannot exist without the other. And one cannot be destroyed without the other.

Related Post:
Pinning It Down
Photo Essay: The Path of Destruction of the St. Francis Dam Flood, 86 Years Later
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Santa Paula to Fillmore