Archive for the 'Life on the Farm' Category

Rincon Vitova is busy as a bee

I wrote a few months ago about the activity at RVI, when everything was all a-buzz with the beginning of spring. Now, here we are in late September, and I just overheard someone say, “Phew, too much going on!” And, it’s true. Our clients’ agricultural seasons have been peaking, and so has our production and supply; new customers are calling every day, and, still, there is so much else going on. There is a push to finish construction on a new on-site solar hydronic heating system, and a collaborative project with our neighbors to grade and pave our road and install more parking for visitors, continuing renovation of a caretaker residence that will accommodate summer entomology interns, ongoing landscaping, manufacturing improvements to the D-Vac vacuum insect net accessories, e-newsletter production, a website overhaul with the addition of on-line shopping, and the distribution of the new expanded and reorganized edition of the Catalog of Beneficials. So, with all of that going on, and more coming down the track, it’s not surprising that an occasional “Phew!” is heard, even out of Jan or Ron. While working here through seasonal changes is sometimes hectic, there is a dedication amongst the staff that continues to invigorate our work. We personally support the same ideas and perspectives that draw our customers to us in the first place, i.e., we are ecologically-minded individuals, working to better the planet. We are fortunate to help farmers and gardeners all over the world to develop new perspective, IPM strategies, and ecologically positive alternatives to using noxious chemicals and other environmentally degrading practices. Similar to the famous sentiments of teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who said, “I touch the future…I teach,” working with RVI clients allows each of us to touch the future of our environment, and that, too, invigorates our dedication. Reminding ourselves of that along with the occasional “Phew!” keeps us on track through all the changes a-buzz. Posted by Duke


Neem vs. Fleas

Everyone at Rincon-Vitova loves Duchess, the official Bug Farm dog, especially the fleas. Treating fleas on a bug farm is a little bit complicated, though. The standard treatment is insect growth regulators like Advantage, but using a long lasting insect growth regulator on a dog who wanders around the farm freely, getting pet by everyone, could spell trouble for the bug breeding operations going on.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Duchess when she noses her head between your knees, begging for some help scratching, so when I saw neem mentioned as a flea remedy I decided it was time for a product test.

Neem oil comes from the seed of Azadirachta indica, an Indian tree that has been used for pest control and medicine for around 3000 years. One chemical constituent of neem is azadiractin, a natural insect growth regulator. Unlike synthetic insect growth regulators, azadirachtin is completely biodegradable and breaks down in water after about a day. This meant that we could bathe Duchess with neem oil and not worry about someone petting her and contaminating one of our fly parasite or Lindorus production rooms.

I got instructions on making a neem shampoo from Discover Neem. I mixed up some neem oil with shampoo, then Jan and I took Duchess to the employee shower along with Bryce, our multitalented photographer extrordinaire. Duchess didn’t quite like the bath, but she was patient as we tried to saturate her fur with neem shampoo, then rinsed and rubbed her down with some straight neem oil for good measure. We had read that neem oil is also supposed to help flea irritated skin. Finally, we toweled her off and set her free. When she was dry, Duchess’ coat felt much softer and she was scratching a lot less.

One important detail to remember is that neem’s main action is insect growth regulation, which means it can stop immature fleas from maturing and mature fleas from reproducing. It can potentially suffocate insects, however, it doesn’t always kill adult fleas. In warm weather, the flea life cycle from egg to adult can be as short as a week. The best way to stop fleas from bugging your pet is to attack the fleas once every week or two, breaking the flea life cycle. A flea bath once a month is generally not enough to eradicate a flea infestation. In the weeks after Duchess’ bath we got side tracked by other projects and didn’t get to bathe her enough times to completely de-flea her, but the bath she got did cut down her flea population and gave her a break from itching.

I brought some neem oil home and tried it out on my indoor cat, Samus. Since she likes to hang out on my lap and give me her fleas, I had extra incentive to bathe her more regularly. She got 3 neem shampoo treatments, one every two weeks, and her fleas were under control – at least, until she escaped one day and got reinfested. Vaccumming throughly once a week and powdering my carpet with boric acid helped a lot, too.

In any honest discussion of neem I have to mention the smell. Neem oil is powerfully pungent, smelling vaguely but not quite like really strong Thai food. Besides inhibiting insect growth, neem is also repellent to many insects, and it’s not hard to see why. Duchess didn’t seem to mind the smell, but Samus is so offended by it that she ignores me for days when I neem her.

-Alia Tsang, Bug Farm intern

A Prophet-Able Insect Idea for Homeschool

A friend of mine is home-schooling her daughters and asked if I had any ideas for their insect projects. Of course, I thought there must be something suitable right here at Rincon Vitova. So I asked Ron, here at the Bugfarm, what insects are most often used in a classroom situation? He immediately suggested the use of Lacewing larvae or Preying Mantis eggs—both of which are readily available at RVI.
I could see that both of those would be good to use, because, for one, they’re not microscopic in size, and, two, they’re almost mascot-like in the field of bio-control, i.e., both the Lacewing and Mantis adults are easily recognizable by children and adults, so much so that hosting these insects takes on the feel of raising a small pet. At least that’s how it felt for me, when I did a bit of a pre-test project: I chose to house a few Mantis eggs for a while at the RVI office before sending anything off to the home-schoolers.


Now, Mantises eat both beneficials and pests, so they are often sold more for educational value than strict bio-control. So, the Lacewing larvae might have made a better choice. Known as the Aphid Lion, Lacewing larvae are described as little alligators, consuming up to 400 aphids or 11,200 spider mites per individual as well as a variety of other pests, e.g., thrips, whitefly, and moths. So they would have been a good choice, especially for release into a garden. Still, I felt something calming about the thought of releasing the little insect that strikes a prophet’s pose, so I chose the Mantis.

I simply placed a couple of the Mantis eggs in a terrarium, and each week I eagerly anticipated the arrival of the little Mantes or Mantises. I anticipated about a month wait and put a little moisture and plant debris in the terrarium at week four. And, in just over a month, there they were. Each of the Mantis eggs contains 50 -100+ Mantes, so there wasn’t much time to leave the little brood of hatchlings in the terrarium following their emergence. I thought there would be some juvenile stage and an outer transformation into their classically esoteric adult pose, but, there, posed at the tip of my finger before releasing, was a young and fragile baby Mantis, a tiny image of their adult self. We released all of them onto some nearby rose bushes. A note, though, after the initial burst of young Mantises and their release, I’ve kept the eggs for awhile, and there are still a few small groups emerging well into the second month. So, this little insect project keeps on giving opportunities to watch for new emerging life and to care for and release insects over an extended period of time.

At the end of my pre-test project, I am convinced that the Mantises will supply a prophet-able project idea, suitable to both the home-schooled children and their garden. –end June 09 Duke

Day to Day: Wildfires!

From left, Jan, Ron and Duke position themselves to take in the fire.

With all the wildfires in California, we thought we’d post our own little slice of life.

A small hillside fire broke out approximately two miles west of the Rincon-Vitova Insectaries (RVI) around 4:45pm on Tuesday, October 22, 2008. While the late day skeleton crew clicked away at computer monitors, Kyra and Gabe had left early and called in from the road. “You could see the fire from the [RVI] driveway,” Kyra explains. “It looked really close, but driving towards it we realized just how far it was.”

“It was the perspective. At first we thought we might have to evacuate,” said Gabe thinking back on the fire. “We joked about picking which DVDs to leave behind.”

The fire’s distance from the insectaries didn’t ease everyone’s mind. Duke lives nearby and was initially worried his house would be threatened, but it didn’t take long to notice the winds were blowing the opposite direction. “I did make a call to check, though” he said.

About five years ago, Duke’s neighborhood was evacuated during a hillside fire emergency. “…the authorities were pounding on the door and my girlfriend was trying to grab the cat and go. The cat, though, was not compliant.” So she grabbed a pillowcase, threw the cat in, and jumped into the car. “It’s kind of a funny story now,” Duke concludes.

When asked if he was worried about the fire’s proximity, Ron shook his head no. “I used to live at the base of that hill 6 years ago. Conditions in the area are ripe. It’s a reminder to be prepared. Fire is part of the ecology and learning to live with it and having contingency plans is essential.” Ron went on to describe priority boxes or even fire wells to store information below ground.

“It’s about what’s important. We’d shut down the server and grab the basic computer units. If we had more time we’d take the [insect] cages with all the mother cultures. We could take a few trays of [fly] pupae, but if we didn’t get back in three days we’d have a fly problem,” Ron laughs.

In the end, the fire burned approximately 5 acres, accrued no property damage and the unnamed hill stands with a black eye to the north. If there was any common thread felt here at the insectary, it was the realization of choice and priority. Insects may be small, but not everything can fit in a pillowcase.

For more info, check out the Ventura County Star article.

*Second Image: Kyra snapped this with her cell phone on the way home.

Photo Series: Lacewing Larvae Units

We’re starting a series of photo posts here at The Bug Farm. Every few weeks, we’ll be putting up some slices of life with quotes and helpful tips from the Rincon Vitova Team. The captions might be a bit formal, but we’re working on a system to have some slide shows which will make it all the better. Stay tuned!

Resident entomologist Ron Whitehurst inspects a Lacewing Larvae Unit for larvae size and distribution at Rincon Vitova Insectaries in Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, October 17, 2008. “They start out as an egg about 1/30th of an inch and are 5/8th inch when full grown,” explains Whitehurst. Using syringe like pincers to inject digestive enzymes and liquefy their prey, the lacewing larvae “can become effective predators for any soft bodied insects.”

Kyra Ankenbruck and Ron Whitehurst drop moth eggs into the lacewing larvae units in the assembly room at Rincon Vitova Insectaries in Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, October 17, 2008. The eggs act as a food source during transit. “They’ll have enough food while en route to end users plus they will eat any other lacewing larvae in the cell. [The customer gets] whoever wins.” Ankenbruck says with a smile. Lacewing larvae are voracious predators resorting to cannibalism if there is no other prey.

Jan Dietrick demonstrates how to check the larvae by tapping the unit above white paper. Each unit is filled 115% to ensure each of the 500 cells will have a larva. “Our standard is to overfill the units,” Dietrick explains. “You have to tap the back really hard, because the little larvae may hold onto the inside of the cells.” This same method is used for in-field release of the larvae on infested foliage.

Stacks of Lacewing Larvae Units stand behind the glue board in the assembly room at Rincon Vitova Insectaries in Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, October 17, 2008. The glue glob on the board has grown layer by layer as a paint roller is used to glue the organdy covers on. Kyra Ankenbruck encountered the glue board in May 2006. “It wasn’t much smaller than now,” Ankenbruck comments.

Kyra Ankenbruck waters down the floor of the Lacewing Larvae Unit incubation room at Rincon Vitova Insectaries in Ventura, Calif., on Friday, November 14, 2008. In dry weather, watering the floor keeps the high humidity the larvae need. “You wouldn’t believe how many we’ve lost when the Santa Anas [hot California winds], blow in,” says Ankenbruck.

For more info on Lacewings and their larvae, check out Rincon Vitova’s Lacewing Bulliten.

All Images copyright: Bryce Yukio Adolphson © 2008 and may not be reused without express permission.


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