When most people want to get rid of bugs, they call in an exterminator. When Jake Blehm wants to get rid of bugs, he calls in other bugs.
Blehm and his father Jack run Rincon Vitova, a Ventura firm that breeds good insects that eat bad insects.
Each day, they produce more than 80 million hungry critters from ladybugs to wasps, which are let loose by farmers to devour pests from mealybugs to houseflies.
As concern about agricultural pesticides mounts, firms that offer farmers organic alternatives are fairly buzzing with business. Rincon Vitova says business has tripled in the last five years. Last year the Blehms supplied millions of dollars (they won't give actual sales figures) worth of bugs to customers on three continents.
"They're the major supplier in the U. S. and they've been very successful in working with the growers," said Larry G. Bezark, a pest management specialist with the state Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento.
Bio-pest control, as the system is called, is a low-tech method of controlling bugs that was first used by the Chinese thousands of years ago, although it came into vogue again in the late 1800s.
But that was before the chemical pesticide industry took off in the late 1940s and became the preferred method of controlling insects.
The tide is slowly turning however, and today, a close-knit group of about 15 insectaries nationwide have sales that total $25 million annually, Blehm estimates.
In agricultural Ventura County, a handful of insectaries flourish, including two non-commercial grower cooperatives started by farmers to breed insects that eat citrus parasites. They are the Fillmore Insectary, which dates to 1922, and Associates Insectary in Santa Paula. Several other firms breed bugs, albeit on a smaller scale than Rincon Vitova, including Sespe Creek Insectary and Oxnard Pest Control.
Industry-watchers say the field is poised for growth as an increasing number of growers turn to organic farming to satisfy consumer demand. Universities are adding classes on integrated pest management. The Assn. of Applied Insect Ecologists, a trade group, is producing a video that shows farmers how to work with beneficial insects. And the state agriculture department has given its stamp of approval to the method.
"The department is definitely promoting bio-control. As more and more chemicals are being restricted, it's an economic alternative," said Bezark, whose office includes six pest management specialists who help farmers launch bio-control programs.
"This is the future," added Ken Hagen, a professor of entomology at UC Berkeley. "There is a great need. The farmers are desperate."
State agriculture officials say they don't know how many growers practice bio-control, although they estimate that it's under 10%.
However, many echo the sentiments of Oxnard grower Dean Walsh, who converted his 800 acres of vegetables to organic farming two years ago and now keeps pests under control with bugs purchased from Rincon Vitova.
"It has worked quite well, and it's much healthier, not only for the end user but for the ground, the ground water and the employees applying it," Walsh said.
But controlling pests this way also takes longer. And since pesticides often kill good bugs along with the bad, farmers must cease chemical spraying while waiting for the good bugs to take effect.
"The hardest thing for the farmer is to have enough faith," Blehm said. "He's not used to seeing pests in the field; he's used to a quick knockdown when you go in, spray and next day you come back and see dead bugs. With this method, you have to watch for several weeks before you see a difference. And at the beginning, all the farmer sees is that his crop is contaminated with bugs."
Also, a farmer must cultivate a habitat for his insect armies, which can mean growing a "cover" crop such as clover in between the cash crop of, say, strawberries.
Then there's calculating when to release the insects.
Rincon Vitova works closely with farmers to draw up a method of application and monitoring. They use computer modeling to track the insects' life cycle, the weather and other variables.
"It's a very complex web of life we're trying to manipulate. We time the release of these insects to coincide with when the pest is most vulnerable," Blehm said.
Depending on the size of the field, laborers can walk through the planted crops, sprinkling bugs or bug larvae like some insect-bearing Johnny Appleseed. Blehm has also been known to use a specially rigged leaf blower and, in the case of large fields, to disgorge them in bulk from helicopters.
Rincon Vitova mixes the insects with an inert material such as corn cobs, calculating a density of between 5,000 to 250,000 insects per acre, depending on the parasite and crop.
The firm also ships a lot to greenhouses and plant maintenance firms that release the bugs in indoor areas with plants, such as malls and offices.