Light up the night

Summer nights in east Texas were especially bright. In the rural woods southwest of Texarkana, my grandparents owned a home in the middle of a forest. When the sun set and the musty notes of decomposing leaves saturated the air, tiny sparks of light would signal the coming twilight.

These were lightning bugs, fireflies. If ever there was a whimsical insect to be found in a Hayao Miyazaki film, it would fit the bill. We caught them in jars and put them on our nightstands, and in the morning, they would all be dead or dying.

I think back on that time when I’m in a particularly melancholy mood, or when I’m handed reports claiming that we’re in the midst of an insect population collapse. Like the boy haplessly catching fireflies for his own amusement, am I as a member of our modern society continuing this macabre tradition, killing insects as easily as taking a breath?

A grim future lies ahead for insect species the world over. In a new study published in the journal Biological Conservation, Australian researchers Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris A.G. Wyckhuys reveal that 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction over the next few decades and that 41 percent of insect species have already suffered a decline over the past 10 years.

The researchers list in order of significance the drivers behind the decline: habitat loss and urbanization; the use of pesticides and fertilizers; diseases and invasive species; and climate change.

As a child I was helpless, and perhaps a bit naïve that my actions meant nothing in the global scheme of things. As an adult, there are options we can take to fight back, leaving open the possibility that we can help rather than hinder.

Benefits of an infestation

Rincon-Vitova Insectaries is easy to miss. Set off of Ventura Avenue, behind the Ventura Spirits distillery and across the Ventura River Trail path, the compound is a series of buildings originally used by citrus growers, the former living quarters for migrant workers transformed into hatcheries and incubators for insects.

Known lovingly as the bug farm, co-founder Everett Dietrick opened the business in 1960. In 1991, his daughter, Jan Dietrick took over and in 1997, she hired Ron Whitehurst. Together the pair have carried on the work of Everett Dietrick, who pioneered commercial biological pest control, by offering alternatives to harsh chemicals and pesticides to farmers, growers and even home gardeners in the form of beneficial insects.

Kyra Rude, general manager, has been with the business for 13 years. She learned of the operation via an online job listing from her home state of Indiana.

“It’s not your typical 9 to 5,” said Rude. It became very apparent rather quickly that she wasn’t exaggerating when we stepped into fly alley. The barracks now bore designations far removed from their origins as homes for migrant workers. As we stepped into the Lindorus Room, the vibe was Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the goings on were far from horrific (apart from the smell of decomposing vegetables).

Dozens of butternut squash sat in rows upon racks, their yellow skin turned ashen and white due to an infestation of the pest known as scale. In various places on all of the squash were tiny black spots — these were the Lindorus lophanthae, the scale-destroying beetle.

Scale-infested squash sit on racks at Rincon-Vitova, where tiny scale-eating beetles are grown for use on farms and even in hotel lobbies.

“It likes to go around and use its snout to flip over the scale covering and get after the little juicy insects on the inside,” said Rude.

The beetles are collected using a gentle vacuum system and sold to businesses such as those that grow and sell Christmas trees, which Rude says often deal with scale, and to hotel chains with ornamental plants as decoration.

“They don’t really want to see someone walking around with a big suit spraying something,” said Rude.

Rude promised me that the smell of the Lindorus Room was pleasant compared to the fly room. Promise fulfilled. A few doors down, the common housefly incubated various stages of growth, from the lowly maggot to the adult black-bodied nuisance. The benefits of a housefly are few, but as a vector to grow a much-desired predatory insect, to Rincon-Vitova, they are like gold.

In tubs containing thousands of maggots, the fly larvae gorged themselves on a diet of rice hulls, wheat bran and powdered milk, alarmingly unaware that they were being farmed to play host to a very unwelcome guest.

The parasitoid wasp known as the Muscidifurax zaraptor, no larger than a fine grain of pepper, will lay its egg on a fly larva once it encapsulates itself to metamorphose into a fly. The egg will then hatch and devour the larva.

Ranchers with cows, compost producers and even breweries that produce spent grain make use of the wasp Rincon-Vitova produces as an alternative to poisons and pesticides.

Kyra Rude holds dozens of fly pupa which will play host to a tiny wasp the company sells to farmers, growers and even brewers as a natural bio-pest control option.

“I read a statistic recently that showed that only 3 percent of all insects are harmful, everybody else is helping us in some way,” said Rude, holding a handful of fly larvae, offering me a chance to do the same . . . which I politely declined. “They really get a bad rep.”

Other beneficial pest control insects include the much-beloved ladybug beetle and the green lacewing, whose larvae are voracious eaters of aphids and anything else with a soft body.

The times are changing for biological pest control with more and more growers seeking natural remedies, including the burgeoning cannabis industry. Not all change has been good, however. Rude says that when she first started with Rincon-Vitova 13 years ago, she could count on one hand the number of growers that needed year-round recurring shipments.

“We had three or four customers in Southern California and Texas who had year-round schedules; now there’s at least a dozen,” said Rude, who, when asked why, was quick to answer. “Climate change. We think that’s a big part of it. Things are definitely different.”

The United Nations agrees that climate change is just one problem. In January, the UN released its Environment Foresight Brief, which reads like a desperate plea for attention for an issue that they say is being largely ignored.

“The tiny wasps and flies that are the invisible workers on every farm are seldom noticed, but they naturally control crop pests at no cost to us,” reads the report. “Without them, crops would be devastated, livestock would be plagued, and dependence on agrochemicals, with all the associated environmental and financial costs, would be ruinous.”

As bio-pest control’s popularity increases for agricultural uses, growers are adding it to their pest-control regimen, which might also include pesticides. Rude says there are ways that home gardens can work to attract and support beneficial insects, too.

“A lot of what we teach people to do is to augment their environment and plant the habitat that increases the diversity such that they’re going to naturally draw in what they need for their local pests,” said Rude.

Elephant in the room

The Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys study lists the global use of pesticides as its second-most impactful item toward the insect population decline. In Ventura County, agriculture is king, and in order to produce enough fruit and vegetables to supply the world, pesticides are required.

In March, the Environmental Working Group released its annual Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce, with the catchy “Dirty 12” fruits and vegetables found to have the most pesticide residue. Topping the list was the strawberry, which Ventura County grows aplenty.

Ed Williams

Ed Williams, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner, who stepped into the position in August of 2018, says that though the report sounds ominous, the levels of pesticide residue on the fruit fall within what state and federal testing calls safe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 99 percent of fruits and vegetables tested had pesticide residues well below benchmark safety levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But when it comes to insects, there isn’t much in the way of protection.

Williams says that just about every commercial crop relies on pollinators, be that bees, moths or butterflies, and that the county brings honey bees in to do the job for avocados and citrus. State regulations require that if a pesticide determined to be toxic to bees is going to be used on a crop, a 48-hour notice is given to area beekeepers so that proper precautions can be taken, whether that be moving the hives or covering them with protection.

Wild bees and other insects are not given the same notification, however.

“The labels do say ‘toxic to bees, don’t apply when bees are present,’ but the regulations say that if [growers] are following the state mandated protocols for notification that we talked about then they are permitted to make those applications even if bees are visiting the crops,” said Andy Calderwood, Deputy Agricultural Commissioner, adding that there are no restrictions even if the crops are in bloom.

Both Williams and Calderwood are aware of the United Nations report on global climate change and its implications. 

“It worries me,” said Calderwood. “There’s no doubt that wild bee populations are impacted from intensive agriculture. Nobody could argue that’s not the case, and it concerns me about these insect population collapses that everybody is reporting.”

Calderwood and Williams point toward other exasperating issues, including climate change and habitat destruction, noting that most of Ventura County is far from agriculture land and even in those areas, insect species are on the decline. Williams says that the issue has been discussed with area farmers.

“We are having those discussions about alternative pest management practices, encouraging biological control-types of integrative pest management,” said Williams, though insect populations haven’t specifically been addressed, he said.

“I feel a sense of urgency personally as a resident of planet Earth,” said Calderwood. “But our agency is tasked with certain things, enforcing certain regulations. We have our sector of duties that is our responsibility and changing the course of planet Earth is not really something that a county agency can take the lead on.”

Williams says that the agency is more than willing to participate in the discussion but that change would have to be on the collective state, federal and consumer level.

The collective level

Early Saturday morning, March 30, the Ventura Land Trust hosts dozens of volunteers and families at Big Rock Preserve, their property adjacent to the Ventura River. The goal for the day is to plant milkweed and nectar-producing plants to attract butterflies, specifically the monarch. Hence the name of the event: Monarch Madness.

Butterfly expert Juliana Danaus, owner and founder of Ojai’s Monarch Arc, gives lessons and workshops on the life cycle of the butterfly. Her work in area schools has included six-week courses starting from egg and, hopefully, ending with living butterflies to release into the wild.

Tanya Nunez and Juliana Danaus make seed balls containing a variety of native plant seeds including milkweed at the Ventura Land Trust’s Monarch Madness event on Saturday, March 31.

“My biggest joy in doing this would be having a little kid smile because they get it and something clicks and you can tell that that kid is going to run with it for a significant portion of their life,” said Danaus.

Out of 100 eggs, only one will become a full-fledged butterfly, due to parasitoids, predators, disease and the like, says Danaus. Over the past few years, Danaus says that her children, 12 and 6 years of age, have witnessed the decline of the monarch population.

It’s a startling number. The Xerces Society conducts a count of Western Monarchs every Thanksgiving, and in 2017, the number of counted monarchs overwintering in California was around 148,000. In 2018, that number had dropped to just over 20,000.

Danaus says that she believes the Thomas and Woolsey fires helped to keep that number low. With concurrent fires burning in northern California, Danaus says she believes many of the monarchs traveled eastward, joining the eastern migration of monarchs that travel between Mexico and the southwest. That particular population of monarchs actually saw an increase in numbers around the same time.

But the numbers of monarchs were decreasing long before the fires. In the 1980s, an estimated 4.5 million monarchs overwintered in California.

After a demonstration of a new Ventura Land Trust tractor donated by Ventura-based Cummins Sales and Services, families took up buckets of water and various plants to put into the ground around the property.

Kate Furlong, stewardship director, says that she wanted to pick plants such as the purple sage, coyote bush and coast sunflower to plant alongside the Ventura County native milkweed so that insects would have food year round. These plants bloom on different schedules annually. Furlong says that getting the community directly involved promotes stewardship of the land, especially in kids.

“We’re trying to encourage the future stewards to care about bugs, and not just the cute ones, not just the pretty butterflies,” said Furlong, noting that Big Rock Preserve acts as habitat to native bees. As for how plants are chosen for events such as Monarch Madness, Furlong says that she makes her decisions based on the future.

“You’re not planning for right now or how things used to be, you’re working on a projection that it’s going to get worse, currently,” said Furlong. “So we’re trying to make it adapt so then it can still be great for the pollinators and for the other animals and humans that use this area in the future when things get a little more stressed.”

The Chandler family takes part in Monarch Madness, burying a native plant in hopes that it will become food for native pollinators. From left: L.B., Zeke, Dar and Savanna Chandler.

Parents helped their kids dig holes and to remove plants from their containers for planting. Girl Scouts from local Ventura troop 65048 collectively planted milkweed along the path toward the river while adjacent to them Dar and L.B. Chandler helped their son Zeke, 4, plant coyote bush while nearly-2-year-old Savanna supervised.

“I feel like when we’re out here this is how it’s supposed to be,” said Dar. “This is how kids are supposed to grow up and learn and be on this kind of playground.”

The end

It would be hard to imagine a planet without insects because it would be even harder to picture a world without the things they ensure exist. Insects act as pollinators, as decomposers of organic material, as primary food sources for a multitude of the world’s animal species.

Since leaving Texas, I haven’t seen a firefly. Just recently, the sound of croaking frogs startled my urban-dwelling wife. Perhaps our blasé attitude toward the preservation of insects relies on a continued disconnection that exists between our species and nature, and in particular, ick-inducing insects. We squirm at the site of them, myself no less guilty as Kyra Rude would undoubtedly attest. Perhaps, for the sake of the planet, it’s time to get over ourselves and realize that, like the firefly, we have placed ourselves in a jar that only we can open.

For more information, visit:

Rincon-Vitova Insectaries, www.rinconvitova.com

Ventura Land Trust, www.venturalandtrust.org

Monarch Arc, www.facebook.com/MonarchArc/