By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
This year, Assemblyman Bill Campbell, also from Orange County, upped the ante by authoring a bill that would have annually appropriated $10 million for a fire-ant-eradication program over the next five years. Again the legislation had no registered opposition; however, the Assembly Appropriations Committee recently decided that the state could not afford to allocate more than $5 million for the program in the next fiscal year. This revised amount is expected to pass the Senate Appropriations Committee on August 7, then head to the governor for final approval. If Campbell had his way, California would spend almost $60 million in the first five years of its battle against the fire ant. That would put the program at nearly a perfect pace to match the $200 million spent by the state since 1980 controlling the medfly population in the L.A. basin. In no other state does the battle with insects consume as large a portion of the budget.
Bob Falconer says it‘s money well spent. ”With most pests, people want to gauge their destructive effect on agriculture,“ he says. ”But the fire ant, this thing really goes across the board. People can’t go into parks, and can‘t go without shoes. This really goes beyond the quarantine. It’s a lifestyle issue.“
While California is alone in making confident claims about eradication, it is also the only infested state in the nation that is not devoting considerable funds to research. None of the nearly $60 million proposed by the state has been earmarked for basic fire-ant assessment. Instead, the state Agriculture Department says it is relying on previous studies done in East Texas and the South, even though both areas -- being hot and moist in the same season -- are not really representative of Southern California‘s situation. The state’s money is currently being spent on a furious frontline assault involving quarantine-enforcement officers and pest-management agents, who bait and poison the infested areas.
Shortly after first infestation was discovered, one small research grant from the Agriculture Department‘s general fund was given to entomologist Dr. Les Greenberg, but he was told to use the majority of the money on public education. Consequently, he spends much of his time traveling around the state with a slide-photo show: a cow trapped in a field with ant mounds to the horizon; an arm covered with glowing-red, pus-filled welts; and plenty of close-ups of ants.
Meanwhile, Greenberg’s specialization in research science has gone largely unutilized. He‘s anxious to experiment with a soil fungus, called Beauveria, that attacks fire ants. The Agriculture Department finally agreed to give him some money for the project about a month ago, although he hasn’t yet received the funding he was promised.
Greenberg spent 15 years researching the fire ant in Texas, and is now trying to continue his research in Orange County. He remains fairly optimistic on the subject of eradication. ”I think a lot of people have assumed that we can‘t stop them,“ he says. ”But our case is different than the rest of the country. I tell people that we have a better chance than anyone else had, because the environment’s so different here. Until we try for several years, we‘re not going to know whether we can do it or not. And not to try at this stage of the game is a mistake, I think.“
A moment later, Greenberg is reconsidering his own words. ”Still,“ he says, ”you’re always going to have a colony out there. Under someone‘s doorstep. One colony that you didn’t find.“
Greenberg‘s laboratory is a trailer parked in an agricultural-research station in south Orange County, surrounded by massive nursery fields, avocado groves and greenhouses. The inside is sterile and cold, like a doctor’s office. The room is softly illuminated with light sifting in through gaps in the blinds. Greenberg keeps it dark so the winged ants inside don‘t get any ideas about taking flight. The far wall is covered with shelves. On each one, large plastic tubs are strapped in place with orange stretch cords. Each tub is coated with Teflon film, labeled and full of ants. A hand-written sign on a refrigerator next to the shelves says, ”For Lab Use Only. No Food or Drink for Human Consumption.“
On this day, Greenberg is entertaining Mohammed Zubaidy, an ”economic entomologist“ from the state Agriculture Department and the point man for Southern California’s eradication effort. Zubaidy has come to see Greenberg‘s setup. Greenberg pulls a tub off the shelf and places it on a counter in the middle of the room. He, Zubaidy and a couple of other guests crowd around. In the tub, several queens and thousands of workers mill peacefully.
Greenberg gently brushes aside ants with a pair of long tweezers, finally locating and capturing a queen. She’s a bit smaller than the head of a match, slightly larger than a worker, and in the airy lighting she almost glows orange. Her bulbous back half, where she produces hundreds of eggs each day, is barely attached to the rest of her body. In the next instant, frantic workers free her from the delicate grip of the tweezers and carry her to a safer place. The human observers lean in for a closer look. Suddenly, the thick black mass is moving as one body, shifting and shoving, climbing and pulling.
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