The Scotland Yard of the bug world

A new insectary in California targets agricultural pests like the glassy- winged sharpshooter and the eucalyptus longhorned borer.

Exotic pests are in the news here.

No, not the politicians in the nation's capital, or corporate lobbyists, or even us media jackals, but rather an altogether different class of slug, nit, and louse.

That would be the pesky and microscopic kind that get into lettuce, oranges, and grapes and can ruin the food industry's whole day, while costing consumers billions. Or the amoeba-size microbes that feast on your favorite tree and can permanently alter the landscape of an entire state - from leafy and beautiful to postnuclear and lunarlike.

Though the bugs' names might raise a chuckle - glassy-winged sharpshooter, eucalyptus longhorned borer - the business of containing them is no laughing, or inexpensive, matter. The sharpshooter is poised to wreak havoc on California's Napa and Sonoma wine industries while the borer is causing millions in damage to one of the state's signature trees. And they are just two of about six new species to enter the state every year, many of which are harmful to agriculture or even humans.

That's where the University of California at Riverside comes in. Long known as the Scotland Yard of the bug world, with a staff of 310 and yearly grants in the millions, the university last week unveiled a new $15 million facility which will try to do for America's crops what President Bush's proposed missile shield would do for its people.

The building is called an insectary, but it looks more like an intergalactic docking station right out of Star Wars. With 28,000 square feet of quarantine receiving rooms, laboratories, cold rooms, and bug-rearing quarters, the facility is the only one of its kind in America's most productive and diverse farm state. For some key tasks, it is the largest in the world.

Major infestation problems, which already cost California farmers an estimated $3 billion a year, are set to accelerate with new trade agreements such as NAFTA - which will bring in more insects via train, truck, and ship.

Because of this, the insectary, along with a new entomology department to open in the fall, represents a new threshold in US biological warfare.

"This new Riverside facility is critical because it allows some of the top scientists in the world to work on controlling pests in the key state where they are causing problems," says Dr. Robert Dowell, primary state entomologist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

On the facility's opening day, Tim Paine, chair of the entomology department and Tom Bellows, a professor of entomology, introduced spectators to table upon table of exotic bug species with names like "chrysomelid defoliato," and the "Madagascar hissing beetle."

James Bond's techno-master, "Agent Q," had nothing on these guys. Describing their pest-fighting methods, they told of an episode in late 1988, when the tree-blighting ash whitefly was spreading rapidly across the state. Researchers here released a tiny, stingless wasp that brought ash whiteflies to negligible levels by 1992.

As the scientists explained, for those who don't follow Entomology Weekly Magazine, eradicating such pests the old-fashioned way - using chemicals and sprays - is totally five minutes ago.

For one thing, like that other band of exotic pests in Washington (who develop thick skins under relentless media criticism), insects develop resistance to chemical pesticides.

And pesticides have fallen out of favor with an increasingly environmentally conscious public, making "biological control" - finding natural enemies to combat insect infestations - the new watchword.

That means first identifying the new, intruding pest (one enters California every 60 days), tracking its country or region of origin, and then introducing natural predators into threatened areas to minimize pest populations.

There are lots of catches to this procedure. Besides keeping track of newly arrived pests (with variations), scientists must retrieve several specimens of the pests' natural predators, and rear them in sufficient quantities to introduce into the wild.

They must also make sure each new predator doesn't upset the biological balance, and doesn't bring with it any other teeny organisms that might do so.

To accomplish this, the insectary boasts sealed chambers and synchronized magnetic door locks to prevent air from rushing in and out of rooms carrying pollen or microscopic bugs. It has vaults to kill the tiniest spore, specially heated rooms that can mimic the temperature and humidity of anywhere on earth, and hallways lined with light traps to attract and zap any errant bug.

There are also incubating vaults, drying rooms, refrigerating rooms, bins galore, and enough decontamination rooms to supply a nuclear facility.

"These ovens are used to kill spores, but can also be used to bake great bread or punish a recalcitrant grad student," says professor Tom Bellows, in a lighter moment.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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