The ROOTS of modern biocontrol began not far from Rincon-Vitova’s Ventura insectary. The year was 1888. The place was downtown Los Angeles, where Union Station now stands. Before there was a movie industry or a modern metropolis, L.A. was renowned for its picture post card citrus orchards. However, southern California was pulling out its citrus orchards, as the pesky cottony cushion scale (insect) was killing the trees. Even covering trees with tarps and pumping in fumigant pesticides did not help.
Charles Riley, the USDA’s chief entomologist in Washington D.C., enlisted Alfred Koebele, a German entomologist residing in Los Angeles, to test the then novel theory of biocontrol. Riley theorized that exotic insects became pests in new lands by escaping the biocontrol organisms (e.g. predators, parasites, pathogens) keeping them at low numbers (in ecological balance) in their native homeland. Thus, the solution was going to the native homeland of the pest and importing native natural enemies to recreate the natural ecological balance.
Riley persuaded the state of California to put up $5,000 in expense money for Koebele to search Australia and New Zealand for cottony cushion scale natural enemies. Koebele started the first field insectary in 1888, placing 500 imported Vedalia lady beetles under netting covering a citrus tree at the J.W. Wolfskill ranch in downtown Los Angeles. Similar field insectaries were started at the J.R. Dobbins and A. Scott Chapman ranches in San Gabriel.
The media proclaimed it a MIRACLE, as the Vedalia beetles cleaned up the scale insect pests. The citrus industry was saved. Millions of beetles grew from the original 500. People came on weekend outings to the insectary orchards to pray, thank God for the miracle, and collect and spread the beetles around southern California.
That’s how modern biocontrol started in southern California in 1888, and then spread around the world.