Bug-Eating Bugs Scratch Out A New, Growing Retail Niche



VENTURA, Calif. -- Jan Dietrich got the call in April: Fox TV needed 5,000 maggots, ASAP, for a pilot of its reality show, "Truth or Consequences."

"But they had to be clean maggots," says Ms. Dietrick, general manager of Rincon-Vitova Insectaries Inc. "They said, 'Are they sterile? The contestants have to eat them.' "

Ms. Dietrick, a 56-year-old former dietician, got to work. "We said, 'We'll wash 'em, put 'em in deli containers, and have them ready for you in the morning.' "

The bug business is booming these days -- and gross-out TV shows are just the tip of the antenna. Ms. Dietrick has handled calls on everything from organic growers ordering predatory mites by the millions to a film company needing gallons of ladybugs -- that's 72,000 per gallon -- to pour over the actress Thandie Newton for her bug-ridden role in the 1998 movie "Beloved."

The Association of Natural Biocontrol Producers, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based trade group that represents the 30 biggest insectaries in the U.S. and Canada, estimates that about $200 million in commercial bugs are sold each year -- with demand growing about 10% annually. Behind the uptick: Bugs that eat other bugs, in demand from farmers as an alternative to chemical pesticides. More bugs are growing resistant to pesticides and more consumers are buying organic. "We're moving toward a strategy of good bugs eating bad bugs," says Maclay Burt, the association's executive director.

David Bunn, assistant manager of Crown Packing Co. in Salinas, Calif., says his company buys ladybugs and green lacewings to control insect pests on 200 acres of organic artichokes, lettuce, celery and cauliflower. "We've gone from zero organic farming around here to nearly 5%," he says of the rich farming lands around Salinas.

In Hereford, Texas, Ralph Diller uses an ultralight aircraft to spray 12.5 million wasps and lacewings over his 1,100 acres of organic corn, wheat and soybeans. Mr. Diller says the bugs repel moths that arrive from South Texas in flights so heavy they can be picked up by radar.

John France, who raises 250 acres of organic mandarin oranges, prunes, walnuts and table grapes on his ranch near Porterville, Calif., says he began buying bugs to control harmful insects nearly a dozen years ago. "It was a massive decision," he says. "We kept some chemicals until we were sure it worked."

Now, Mr. France is a bug believer. "If we have a bug that needs to be dealt with, we figure out what kind of other bug will do the job and buy it."

Recently, Mr. France and his work crew were busy scattering millions of tiny wasps, called Aphytis melinus, through his orchards. The wasps, about the size of a pepper grain, attack California red scales, heavily armored parasites that plague citrus growers. The wasps punch holes into the parasites, insert their eggs, and the larvae feed from the inside out.

Mr. France says he used to spray his fruit with Lorsban, an insecticide he calls "pretty heavy stuff." These days he and his workers carry cardboard cups, each containing 25,000 of the tiny wasps, and tap them out onto the leaves of his trees.

"It's not a real high-tech operation," he says, "but it works."

There is big money in bugs. Growers can charge as much as 40 cents each for some ladybugs, although farmers can pick up 1,000 run-of-the-mill ladybugs for just $1. Some insectaries charge up to $1 each for certain weed-eating bugs.

Syngenta Bioline's bug farm in Oxnard, Calif., sits behind a locked gate, marked only by a weathered sign. Daniel Cahn, president of the unit of Swiss agrochemical concern Syngenta AG, says the low profile is to discourage visitors who might be after his bug-propagation secrets. "There are people who think this is a gold mine," he says. "They're tripping over themselves to get in."

Raising bugs is a fairly simple business. Mr. Cahn's greenhouse is filled with bean plants and spider mites, which feed on the plants. While the spider mites are eating the beans, predator mites eat the spider mites.

The tricky part is collecting the 15 million predator mites Syngenta ships in a busy summer week. Mr. Cahn declines to show a visitor around his greenhouse or to say how he collects the bugs. "They move upwards, and we exploit that," he says.

Ms. Dietrick, Rincon-Vitova's general manager, is less secretive. The insectary, on the site of a former farm-labor camp, operates out of a labyrinth of 26 pale-green cargo containers and a couple of flyspecked workrooms tucked away among a field of oil derricks.

Ms. Dietrick opens a cargo container and out pours a rush of barley odor along with the musky smell of millions of breeding bugs. The room is filled with six-foot-long bags hanging from the ceiling. In the bags, cereal moths lay their eggs on barley kernels. The moth eggs will be fed to green lacewings, known as "aphid lions" for their predatory gusto.

Ms. Dietrick refers to another line of odiferous storage bins as "fly alley." Inside, 14 million flies are growing on a diet of bran, milk and sugar. In other containers, maggots grow in piles of woodchips and an army of ladybugs feeds on a table of rotting squash.

Ms. Dietrick's father, Everett "Deke" Dietrick, a white-bearded former entomologist at the University of California at Berkeley, started the business in 1960. Mr. Dietrick, now 82 years old, began by peddling bugs to West Texas cotton farmers out of the back of his Chevy pickup in the early 1960s.

"I'd keep a box of bugs on ice to slow down their growth, and a box heated up -- to speed up the hatch and show what they could do," says Mr. Dietrick. He competed head-to-head with salesmen from chemical companies. On occasion, he recalls, competitors would swoop down in crop dusters and release clouds of insecticide as he was putting his bugs through their paces in the fields.

"The chemical companies won the battle then," says Mr. Dietrich, who still pads around the place keeping track of his bugs, "but we're struggling back."