Catalina-based business ARBICO has turned the breeding of insect killers into a multimillion dollar a year business.
The firm, started by former University of Arizona biologists Rick and Sheri Frey in 1978, specializes in biological pest control, the use of ladybugs, beetles, fly parasites and about two dozen other beneficial inspect species to reduce the harmful effects of other insects on plants and animals.
ARBICO, short for Arizona Biological Control Inc., lists among its clients Disneyland, Churchill Downs Race Track, Busch Garden, Biosphere 2 in Oracle, the city of Phoenix's wastewater treatment plant, cattle producers, cotton, cantaloupe and melon growers in the Southwest, aviaries, zoos, aquariums, resort hotels, greenhouses and stables.
The company draws its customers from all 50 states and more than 15 countries, including Japan, Denmark, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Latin America and Mexico, said General Manager Pamela Harding Martinez.
For the past two years, ARBICO, which has seen its business grow from about 35,000 customers nearly 10 years ago to nearly 100,000 currently, has been doing between 10 and 15 percent of that business on the Internet, Harding Martinez said. By the end of 2002 that's expected to rise to 25 percent, she said.
You name it and if what you're looking for is an insect killer or trap, a predatory powder to repel aggravating invaders such as mice, moles, squirrels or shrews, or just something to help your garden grow, ARBICO either makes it or sells it.
A product called Bio-Pests-B-Gone, as an example, is a "formulation of beneficial nematodes - microscopic non-segmented worms that occur naturally in the soil." Once released, the nematodes seek out beetles, cockroaches, ants, termites, fleas, gnats and weevils - enter through their body openings and kill them within 48 hours.
Among ARBICO's most popular products are fly parasites, gnat-sized, nocturnal , burrowing insects that when released near manure collection sites, under water troughs, along fence lines or below straw bedding, seek out and destroy flies before and during the breeding stage without biting, stinging or otherwise harming either humans or animals.
Green lacewing are especially popular because of the potential problems white fly infestation can pose to cotton and vegetable farmers in Arizona and throughout the Southwest each spring and summer and because of the growing realization of the extensive harm that pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers are doing to humans, the soil and naturally beneficial insects.
The green lacewing is in fact Harding Martinez's personal favorite as an all around killer. It feeds not only on the white fly, but on aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, leafhopper nymphs, caterpillar eggs and scales as well. The insects are shipped as eggs packed in bran or as adults.
The green lacewing, she said, isn't as picky as the ladybug, is more adaptable to a wider range of temperatures and unlike the ladybug, won't pack up and leave as soon as the food supply runs out. Also, because ladybugs are collected in the wild, availability is subject to the whims of nature, ARBICO's catalog notes. Extra ladybugs are shipped with each order to compensate for mortality rates in transit.
Until about five years ago, ARBICO used to provide a remote controlled airplane with a plastic pod attachment that would drop thousands of beneficial insects on a field in minutes, speeding a process that otherwise might take hours to do by hand.
The company has replaced its remote controlled airplane with a remote controlled helicopter that eliminates the problem of trying to dump insects precisely on a site in windy conditions. Only large growers are likely to employ the copter, however, because it can cost several thousand dollars, Harding Martinez said.
Among such users is Pima County's Wastewater Management Department. The helicopter is used to dump beneficial insects that will reduce the mosquito problem at the county's Roger Road water treatment plant . There, a wetlands research effort is being conducted in cooperation with the University of Arizona on the use of such plant life as duckweed and water hyacinths and a variety of trees to enhance water quality.
ARBICO also assists its customers in growing habitat refuge plants, those plants attractive to beneficial insects such as the ladybug, Harding Martinez said.
"By creating a natural habitat where you'd like them to be, you don't have to buy your insects from me," she said.
The company does a great deal of networking with American and European producers , teaching them about environmental sustainability and growing their own beneficial insects to increase the natural resources of their own countries, she said. Emphasis is placed on organic gardening, composting, water harvesting, recycling and alternative energy development.
ARBICO works on the premise that all bad things agriculturally begin with the soil and that bug problems arise when a plant simply isn't strong enough to resist when attacked.
For that reason, the company places a high priority on products that "enrich, aerate and awaken" the soil, products such as its soil enzymes, organic fertilizers, earthworms and compost. At any one time, ARBICO might have as much as 100 truckloads of compost on hand.
ARBICO states its overall philosophy in a company profile:
"As stewards of sustainable agriculture, the goal of ARBICO is to offer natural solutions to contemporary agricultural needs. There is a great need to comprehend the delicate balance and interdependence between the soil, water, air, birds, weeds, insects and the overall management of today's agricultural facets from large to small applications.
"Sustainable agriculture encourages balance and subsequent change from controlling nature to cooperating with nature; a change from being master to being a steward of sustainable agriculture."