`Beneficial' Bugs Control Pests and Eat Their Way Into a Booming Business

IT is Monday in this Sacramento River valley town, and the offices of Unique Insect Control are buzzing with activity. With the growing season in full swing, Unique is shipping products that growers, gardeners, and even mall managers love to receive: pest-eating bugs.

They are called "beneficial insects" by the agricultural industry, and they are being shipped in record number by suppliers around the country. Customers order them as an alternative to chemical pesticides.

"They are a key component to our business," says Larry Kavanagh, marketing director for Gardens Alive! of Lawrenceburg, Ind., which last year sent out 40,000 one-ounce packages filled with bugs.

During the past 10 years, the privately held company has evolved from an insect-only supplier into an organic garden catalog supplier, processing 200,000 orders annually. "The rest of the products have grown up around them," Mr. Kavanagh says.

Beneficial Insectories, in Oak Run, Calif., has also diversified its insect hatchery from parasites used to control flies on livestock to pest-eating insects used by commercial greenhouse growers and row crop farmers.

Business has grown 20 percent annually over the past five years, says Sinthya Penn, an entomologist and former agriculture consultant, who is the proprietor of the 15-year-old insect farm. Bug shipments grow

Since the late 1980s, she adds, the interest in natural enemies to combat chemical-resistant pests has spurred the growth of the beneficial insect market.

Ms. Penn and other suppliers go to great lengths to make sure their bugs arrive alive, since some shipments are worth as much as $3,000. Some larvae are carefully bundled in ice packs and wet paper towels so the insects will not hatch in transit. Still others feed off honey supplies coated on the lids of the containers so they will not starve. Most of the insects are shipped at the beginning of the week so they will not be stranded in a mail distribution center over a weekend.

On any given Monday, Unique Insect Control processes up to 2,000 insect orders. The company can, for example, ship as many as 800 half-pint containers filled with ladybugs - its most-requested insect.

Gathered from the Sierra foothills by hand, a single gallon can contain 72,000 ladybugs, says Jeanne Houston, a partner with her parents in the 13-year-old family business.

Last year, Unique shipped 5,000 gallons of ladybugs. Other popular insects include green lacewings, fly parasites, and trichogramma wasps - an egg parasite used to control moths and worms. The company ships insects used to combat everything from lawn grubs to flies in indoor malls and outdoor cafes.

The company also ships beneficial bugs for Burpee's, the granddaddy of garden supply catalog companies. Burpee's responded to customer demand as early as 1974 by offering ladybugs, praying mantises, and earthworms. It has added other beneficial bugs as customer demand has grown. Getting them there

The growth potential of the pest-eating bug market has also attracted the attention of overnight carriers United Parcel Service and Federal Express.

Most bugs go first-class via the United States Postal Service, which charges less, making it the preferred shipper for most insect suppliers. Federal Express says it can do with bugs what it did with fresh-cut flowers sent next-day from Calyx & Corolla of San Francisco. Last year, the carrier handled more than 250,000 overnight packages for the sophisticated mail-order florist.

Growth in garden catalog sales, the save-the-earth movement, and mounting legislation to curb the use of chemicals all make Linda Skyburg, a Federal Express account executive, predict that the market for pest-eating bugs has "a lot of room for expansion."

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