YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Hunting for good bugs to fight bad bugs

An entomologist couple at UC Riverside travel the world searching for parasites to counter imported pests. Their lab is a high-security warren of trick doors and rooms within rooms.

September 24, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
  • UC Riverside entomologists Mark and Christina Hoddle gather and breed parasites to counter crop-killing pests, a practice called "biological control."
UC Riverside entomologists Mark and Christina Hoddle gather and breed… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Mark Hoddle waits for the door to click into place. A magnetic sensor won't let him open the next door, just an arm's length away, until the first has been sealed shut.

Then he's walking through a maze of darkened corridors. Black lights — positioned to lure and then zap any fugitive bugs — cast a dim lavender glow that suggests rather than reveals the way forward.

Finally, Hoddle reaches a high-security laboratory. Inside, behind a wall of glass, his wife and fellow entomologist, Christina, hunches over a microscope. Ornate green earrings from Pakistan, picked up on a recent parasite-hunting expedition, dangle above the lapels of her lab coat.

When Hoddle raps on the glass, quarantine officer Imad Bayoun stops him: The alarms could go off.

Christina, looking up, brandishes a vial the width of a pinkie.

"See that little black speck?" Hoddle says. Trapped inside are tiny parasitic insects that the couple traveled halfway around the globe to find.

California, like many other states, is under attack by insects from foreign lands that destroy crops, prey on native plants and compete with indigenous creatures for food and shelter. They cost the U.S. about $20 billion annually in agricultural losses, environmental damage and pest control.

"Each year, California acquires at least six new exotic species. At least six," said Hoddle, 44, director of UC Riverside's Center for Invasive Species Research.

They arrive on ships, in produce, on unsuspecting humans and animals. Many are harmless, but some wreak havoc, often because they're no longer held in check by parasites that afflicted them in their native habitats.

That's where entomologists like the Hoddles come in. They believe the solution is to make life miserable for invasive critters by importing their natural enemies. It's an approach called "biological control," and it has taken the couple around the world in search of exotic parasites, which they bring home in Rubbermaid containers. They've grown accustomed to grillings by airport security officers.

Much about their life mirrors their professional obsession. They were married six years ago at the Mission Inn in Riverside, where California entomologist Harry Scott Smith coined the term "biological control" in 1919. Paintings of insects adorn the walls of their home. They keep a mealworm colony in their kitchen to feed orioles and lizards in the backyard. Christina, 36, drives a bright yellow VW Beetle, though the couple bikes to the university's quarantine facility each day.

The complex, with gleaming greenhouses on each level, looks distinctly modern from the outside. Inside, it's a warren of trick doors and rooms within rooms designed to securely hold insects until they've been thoroughly studied.

"Anything that goes into that building can't escape," Hoddle said.

At least not until the Hoddles have the all-clear to unleash a pest against its enemies.

Insects are among the most troublesome of invasive species. They multiply quickly, can travel far and are hard to detect. Controlling them with pesticides is costly because the chemicals have to be sprayed on crops every season. Pesticides can't be used in uncultivated areas because they would kill all bugs, good and bad.

California, Hawaii and Florida are especially prone to insect invasions because their long coastlines and mild weather attract trade and tourism.

"They do well for the same reasons we like living here," Hoddle said of the interlopers. "Great climate, pretty much all year-round; lots of food. And, most importantly, they've escaped their natural enemies."

Finding those enemies isn't easy. First, the Hoddles have to figure out where a pest came from. Then they have to go there and find it. The final step is to identify parasites that prey on the offending bug and bring them back to UC Riverside for study.

With funding from the state and federal agriculture departments and the citrus industry, the Hoddles have traveled to Pakistan's Punjab province several times, most recently this year, looking for natural enemies of the Asian citrus psyllid. The bug has been sucking the fluids out of citrus trees in California since 2008 — and spreading a bacterial disease known as huanglongbing (Chinese for "yellow dragon disease") through Florida.

In studying the problem, Mark Hoddle came across an obscure 1927 paper in which researchers reported finding parasitic wasps that fed on the citrus psyllid in Punjab, which has a climate similar to that of California's citrus-growing regions.

In Pakistan, the couple spent hours tramping through citrus groves in triple-degree temperatures, armed with pruners, scissors and soda-bottle crates in which they placed vials stuffed with snipped branches. At night, they brought promising insects back to a local lab. Frequent power outages cut off the lights and ventilation. The Hoddles would pull out headlamps and continue peering into microscopes as sweat rolled off them in the dark.

Los Angeles Times Articles