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EARTHWATCH

Bug Against Bug : Work by Ventura insectaries is minimizing the threat of pesticides.

July 25, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This month's pesticide spill, which put a rail tanker load of toxics into Northern California's water supply, need not have happened. I'm not talking about railway safety, although that certainly needs to be looked into.

I'm talking about pesticides. As reported in this paper, Gov. Wilson noted the effect on "our natural treasures when poisoned by man-made hazards."

Today, I would like to point out some Venturans who are doing something to roll back the threat of the pesticide hazard.

Ventura County is at the forefront of the movement to control insects and to fertilize crops via non-toxic means.

One of the leading insectaries--a producer of beneficial insects that kill pests--is located here. Indeed, its fame has spread to the East Coast through newspaper articles--articles which apparently touched a nerve because the phones of Rincon-Vitova Insectaries in Oak View are suddenly ringing off the hook.

"We're doing a job that should be provided by government. There needs to be a balance between chemical insecticides and biologicals--now," said Jan Bassari, who is in charge of marketing for the two facilities the company maintains here.

"But research hasn't produced enough (beneficial insect strains) to completely eliminate the need for chemicals," she said. "If people were doing it right, we wouldn't be in business."

As Everett Dietrick, the company founder, put it: "We're in the business of making the farmer money, not selling chemicals."

In other words, they're in the education business and for the foreseeable future they're going to have to provide the beneficial insects themselves until farmers and gardeners take to breeding them. A ladybug is not a patentable item.

More about our local insectaries later.

First, a word about how people like you and me can "do it right." Until recently, the must book on non-toxic bug banishment was Shelia Daar's "Common Sense Pest Control," which I advocated in a column last year. But, as the New York Times noted of the comprehensive $39 study, it was "not a little pocket-size paperback to be read on the subway."

Last week, Bantam released in quality paperback, "Tiny Game Hunting--Environmentally Healthy Ways To Trap and Kill the Pests in Your House and Yard" by Hilary Dole Klein and Adrian M. Wenner. Both live in Santa Barbara where Wenner is professor of Zoology at the University of California and Klein is a writer whose byline graces this edition of The Times.

"It's so satisfying to see a little ladybug working in your yard," Klein said in a tone so appealing it made me want to run out to Oak View and buy a gallon of the little creatures.

The book, which owes a lot to Daar's pioneering study, is very well-organized. Look up any bug that is bothering you--in the house, in the yard, on the pet or on yourself--and find out how to dispatch it without poisoning yourself. The book gets into bug-banishment tricks like garlic and soap and water, or fruit-fly traps using banana peels.

It turns out that it is also possible to vacuum bugs off crops. Dietrick told me that.

"Deke" Dietrick is also no slouch when it comes to turning a pithy phrase in the cause of "integrated pest management." He refers to the bugs he breeds and sells as "smart bombs." They kill only the undesirable insects.

I would evoke the image of a savvy shopper zeroing in on the bargains at the supermarket and zipping by the overpriced and outmoded stock.

These ladybugs, lacewings and predatory mites of Dietrick's are determined to "go to their host," as he puts it, and not bother with anything else-such as biting you or me.

Dietrick and his colleague Alvaro Sequeria, employing natural pest-control processes originated by thrifty farmers in Saticoy back in the 1920s, are exporting beneficial insects to Latin America.

"The amount of U.S. money flowing into Mexico to purchase organic vegetables there has influenced the state of Baja to resist chemical spraying," Dietrick said.

According to Bassari, chemical companies in Central America, faced with the fact that their product is too expensive for the locals, have begun entering the beneficial bug market. It's cost-effective from the farmer's standpoint. Since the beginning of the year, Rincon-Vitova and other such firms in the U.S. have been swamped with orders from farmers and gardeners from all over the world. The word is out. And for Californias in particular, just in time.

* FYI

For a catalogue: Rincon-Vitova Insectaries Inc., P.O. Box 95 Oak View, Calif. 93022. A paperback ($8.50) of Bantam Books' "Tiny Game Hunting--Environmentally Healthy Ways To Trap and Kill the Pests in Your House and Garden" should be available at your local bookstore.

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