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COLUMN ONE : U.S. Faces the Year of the Locusts : Or cicadas, killer bees, Medflies, fire ants, aphids and meat-eating yellow jackets. Across the nation, bugs are booming.

June 08, 1990|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern Californians who believe that 10 months of Medflies, malathion and helicopters have been rough should consider the plight of Big Foot, Ill. Last week, millions of sausage-sized bugs called cicadas emerged after 17 years underground, covering the town and surrounding countryside in a crunchy carpet of wailing insects.

Or how about the poor people of Brownsville, Tex.? There, after years of "killer bee" headlines and occasional spottings, the long-feared Africanized honey bee finally is to arrive in force this summer. Consider, too, the plight of South Lake Tahoe, where the Chamber of Commerce, bracing for an onslaught of meat-eating yellow jackets, has distributed kits of poisoned canned fish to kill off the pest.

Add to the list munching armies of Mormon crickets in Nevada, fire ants in Texas and 11 other states, Medflies in Florida and, back in Los Angeles, the worst aphid infestation in a decade, and it all adds up to one creepy-crawly year.

There are many reasons. Dry weather in the West, cyclical insect population explosions in the Midwest and other entomological mysteries have all contributed to this unnerving confluence of bug outbreaks across the nation.

There are few, if any, direct connections between the infestations, but some entomologists find common themes in the uncommon outbreaks. For example, they say that concerns about pesticide usage have complicated eradication strategies. Also, exotic bugs once confined to faraway lands are hitching rides into this country, and officials concede that there is no way to keep the gate shut tight.

"It's a symptom of our times," said Roy Cunningham, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist and one of the world's top experts on the Medfly. "We're all exchanging our diseases and insects."

He and others said that the sheer variety of this year's outbreaks, coupled with a growing public awareness of the costs and effects of the various onslaughts, have placed insects in the limelight as never before. Entomologists, who once spent entire careers laboring in obscurity in bug-filled laboratories, have found themselves thrust into the public arena with the livelihoods of farmers and city dwellers hinging on their decisions.

Cunningham, chairman of the scientific panel guiding the Medfly eradication in California, said he cannot recall a time when he has been attacked, praised and pursued in such a frenzied manner.

"Mother never told me it would be like this," he said.

Cunningham is one of five scientists advising the state as it attempts to eradicate the Medfly from Southern California, perhaps the most visible of several such campaigns being waged nationally against various pests.

That the Southland finds itself on the front lines of bug battles is not surprising. In the last few years, it has become the nation's unofficial exotic pest capital. Three years ago, agricultural officials in California reported finding eight different types of exotic fruit flies in Los Angeles and Orange counties; the bugs hail from as far away as Pakistan, Thailand and equatorial Africa.

There was even one fly found that experts still have not been able to identify. The only place in the world it has been recorded is Los Angeles.

"It's the final irony in how whacked-out things have become," said Eric Fisher, one of the state entomologists in charge of identifying exotic pests.

As entomologists scramble to meet the threats from Medflies, cicadas and the like, they have been forced to contend with increasing environmental and health concerns. For example, protests against repeated malathion spraying in Southern California have spooked state officials to the point where some worry that even a single urban pesticide spraying soon will be politically impossible.

Some of science's best weapons against insects, such as DDT, the old backbone of mosquito eradication, have been banned for years because of damaging environmental effects. Government regulations to protect water and air have also restricted the use of chemicals against pests.

"The rules of the game have completely changed," Cunningham said. "We have so much more to deal with today."

The concerns about pesticide use and science's increasing understanding of its effects have forced officials into a delicate balancing act between the risks to agriculture and the public health risks. There are often no clear answers.

"It's so much harder today," said UC Davis entomologist Richard Rice, another member of the Medfly Science Advisory Panel. "We can't just give up and go back to nature, but we also have to be concerned about the health and ecological effects. We all wish sometimes for simpler days."

In the meantime, there seems to

be no shortage of pests. Farmers in 32 states are now operating under federal quarantines for various pest infestations. One of the most worrisome pests is the Medfly.

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