The Business of Beneficial Bugs

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This article is a part of KCET and Link TV's “Summer of the Environment,” which offers a robust library of content on multiple platforms from June-August intended to ignite compassion and action for helping to save and heal our planet.

When dealing with insect pests, Jan Dietrick and Ron Whitehurst have a simple solution: add more bugs.  

The two environmental activists run Rincon-Vitova Insectary, one of the oldest bug farms in Ventura. Whitehurst is a trained biologist that believes that many bug problems can be dealt with by using natural predators. Or by adding a few flowing bushes in the right place. The tiny Australian spalangia wasp, for example, is one of their best sellers and used to reduce fly populations.

Rincon-Vitova clients include zoos, stables and organic growers that need to minimize chemical pesticide use. But Dietrick says that she’s been getting more calls from panicked growers that have oversprayed and are now faced with pesticide resistant bugs.

Infographic showing how spalangia wasps consume house fly larva from the inside out. | Dennis Nishi

Resistance is a growing global problem but not a new one. Conservationist Rachel Carson warned about pesticide resistance back in the 1950’s and recommended the use of biological pest control alternatives such as beneficial bugs. In fact, successful beneficial bug use in California agriculture goes back to the nineteenth century. A tiny black beetle from Australia saved California citrus crops from an unwelcome invader from South Asia called the California red scale, an armored insect that favors the leaves, twigs and fruit of citrus trees. Dietrick sells the same ladybird beetle used in the 1888 since scale pests have recently become resistant to modern pesticides.

Ladybird beetles attack scale pests.
Ladybird beetles attack the patches of armored scale insects. | Dennis Nishi


"There's no resistance to predators. That's why beneficial bugs work. But the chemical pesticide companies might have you think otherwise," says Dietrick who believes that more education is needed. She and Whitehurst regularly visit schools with boxes of bugs that students can touch. "People get afraid of insects from a young age and don't see any value in them. We like to show the kids that bugs are part of the productive world that we live in, and that they can be helpful."

Tom Nuccio releases lacewings in his greenhouse.
Tom Nuccio, of Nuccio's Nursery in Altadena, Calif., releases lacewings in his greenhouse. | Dennis Nishi


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