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Moss Landing scientists ready for their moths


Published: February 27, 2009

IN A new effort to eradicate the invasive light brown apple moth without the use of pesticides, state and federal agriculture workers are gearing up for the arrival of thousands of the insects at a brand new facility in Moss Landing.

In a building across the street from the Dynegy power plant, researchers will raise male apple moths so they can be sterilized and released. The hope is that, with thousands of sterile moths distracting the females moths in agricultural areas of Monterey, Santa Cruz and other counties, the LBAM population will shrink, if not disappear.

Six people who will work on the apple-moth-rearing operation are already at the facility. And in about two weeks, after securing a state permit to raise the insects, thousands of moths will be moved there.

“We have started to move in,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman Larry Hawkins.

The insects, which will arrive in their larval stage, will be placed in sealed chambers where they will be raised to adulthood.

“The chambers allow us to control the temperature, light and humidity for the moths,” Simmons said.

Workers will then collect the moths with a vacuum hose and transfer them to refrigerated boxes.

The cold will put the insects into hibernation, in which they will remain during the sterilization process and until they are released.

“We will release them by hand and by aircraft,” Simmons said, in areas throughout the state where LBAMs are deemed a threat, including Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Since March 2007, LBAM trappers have caught 68,000 moths in at least 13 California counties.


The moth-rearing operation is just one facet of the LBAM facility in Moss Landing. About 100 state and federal workers involved in apple-moth research moved there from the old LBAM headquarters in Watsonville

“All of the regulatory officers working with nurseries, commercial growers, certified organic growers or community gardens work out of this office,” Hawkins said.

About 100,000 certificates — required by the state to ship agricultural products out of California — are issued to growers every year in Monterey County.

“It is a certificate that is required to certify that the product is free of light brown apple moths,” Hawkins said.

The Moss Landing facility also contains administrative workers, and employees who examine and identify suspect apple moths caught in sticky traps.

The state has warned that the apple moth, which is native to Australia, could cause millions of dollars in damage to fruits, vegetables and plants.

But an earlier non-pesticide effort to wipe out the moth by aerial spraying of moth pheromones — a synthetic chemical intended to confuse males and make it difficult for them to locate potential mates — ran into heated opposition among the communities which were sprayed.

The latest effort mostly takes place behind closed doors in specially outfitted modular trailers on property that was formerly a brick plant.

“People will be surprised,” Hawkins told The Pine Cone. “We are not putting up a big factory that some people have visualized.”

But Hawkins said if the program is successful, the facility could grow into a larger operation with more employees raising millions of moths at the facility.

The first apple moth colony will be moved to the Moss Landing facility from a lab in Albany (Alameda County), Hawkins said.

The idea behind the sterilization program is to inundate the fertile population with sterile moths to cause a “population collapse” of the destructive moth.

Ionized radiation will be used to sterilize the moths when they are adults.

The plan is to introduce sterile male moths so when they mate with females, the females don’t produce eggs that would grow into hungry larvae. The release of millions of males moth throughout the state won’t have any effect on crops and plants, Hawkins said.

The moth-rearing program is a partnership between the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the USDA.

Hawkins said the USDA would hold a media event at the new facility Friday, Feb. 27, to “demystify” the operation.