John D. Williams is vacationing in Florida, it is 1988, and he’s flipping through a farmer’s seed catalog when he sees a picture of a ladybug. Wham! It hits him, a revelation, the solution for his Silver Lake tenants who can’t make the rent. Give them ladybugs, he thinks, so they can work, make money. He gets his rent, and the world’s a better place because, in the garden, ladybugs are an alternative to pesticides. Each bug is capable of consuming thousands of aphids.
Williams, 62, a onetime labor-union organizer and truck driver, was a full-time landlord by the time he hit upon distributing ladybugs and other “beneficial” insects as a way to help his tenants — and later the homeless and local schools. Williams calls this effort an “Economic Adaptigen” — which, he explains, “is to provide a substance that will allow people with money to buy it and people who need money to sell it.”
A handful of homeless window washers got involved when they saw Williams’ tenants selling ladybugs in supermarket parking lots in Atwater and Silver Lake. Williams quickly enlisted their services to start an informal self-help program; he provided ladybugs to the homeless free of charge, suggesting that they reimburse him for his costs only if they could afford it.
Although he gradually moved away from homeless vendors because of their instability — he could never consistently find the same people to work with — he’s always made a point of helping the down-and-out, such as Charles Reiser, a Vietnam vet who declares, “I don’t know where I’d be without John.” Reiser lives in a rented room with no phone, and, after a workplace injury to his arm, was jobless until Williams put him to work. He’s sold the critters for nine years, and proudly notes that he can be found “rain or shine” outside of Astro’s Family Restaurant in Silver Lake.
Williams’ vendors include former Frank Zappa pianist Don Preston, who evolved from being Williams’ computer assistant to ladybug seller. Struggling jazz musician Tommy Peltier works the Sunday farmers’ market on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, a city where, he says, pesticides are used minimally. (The city has its own beneficial-insects program, which releases 10,000 helpful bugs a year to limit the amount of pesticides needed.)
Although Williams has devoted thousands of hours to ladybugs, his out-of-pocket costs are fairly modest. One gallon of ladybugs (about 72,000 bugs) costs $45. Plastic egg-shaped containers for holding ladybugs run about 40 to the dollar. The most expensive part of the package is the information sheet on properly using the insects. In return, a kit containing more than 150 ladybugs can bring in $4 or even more. His salespeople decide on the exact price.
Williams insists he’s never made money off the venture: “I spend myself here.” He relies for income on his 23 rental properties.
Williams and assistants now have regular booths set up outside markets in Glendale, Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Santa Monica. At some elementary schools in Glendale, instead of selling chocolate bars, the kids are selling, yes, ladybugs. Williams says that teachers would spot the ladybug booths outside organic supermarkets and become interested in educating their students on the insects. Whatever money the students raise goes directly to the school. If Williams’ vendors set up a booth at the school, they keep 40 percent, with 60 percent going to the school. To get the whole picture, log on at www.ladybugfamilies.com.
While arranging a booth outside the Kidspace Museum in Pasadena recently, another idea struck Williams. Proceeds from this booth and others could go toward a stock-market account for the museum. He’s just started to talk to the museum about this plan. Says Williams: “I don’t want the money. This is something I love.”