Getting the Bugs Out : Firm Sells Ladylike Way to Fight Pests
Jeff Hadden grabbed a pillowcase-size bag from one of the seven refrigerators in his garage. Inside were thousands upon thousands of ladybugs.
Soon, they would be packaged and going off to market--the counters of retail nurseries, where avid rose growers gladly pay $4 for a bagful of the natural remedy for pesky aphids.
Hadden’s Natural Pest Control company ships about 30 million of the orange-shell bugs every year from this Sacramento suburb. It’s one of a handful of small firms--less than a dozen in California--pioneering the beneficial bug business. Their products, including ladybugs, are predators of other insects that are harmful to crops, flowers and gardens.
Ladybugs devour aphids and about 40 other kinds of insect eggs or soft-bodied bugs, such as corn borers and coddling moths.
But between Hadden’s refrigerator--where the ladybugs are in a dormant state--and home gardens, the insects are put through Hadden’s backyard assembly line. First, he sets up a metal washtub on a board, between three rotating bicycle wheels. Then, handfuls of rice hulls are thrown into the tub.
From the bag of ladybugs, Hadden scoops a bunch of bugs, using a plastic pitcher, into the tub. After mixing the ladybugs and rice hulls--the rice helps prevent the ladybugs from being jostled during shipping--Hadden spoons batches into small mesh bags. Each bag gets a thousand or so bugs and a single raisin--food enough to tide them over until they hit the plants. The little packets of ladybugs begin showing up on nursery store counters about February.
Selling ladybugs isn’t new. Hadden says that, in the 1940s, the Department of Agriculture bought ladybugs and gave them to farmers for controlling aphids on wheat and alfalfa. Later, however, chemicals became more popular for controlling insects.
“Now, nearly 40 years later, the government has gone full circle and is coming back to the natural way of doing things,” Hadden said. Colleges, he added, are training agriculture students to use integrated pest management strategies that combine so-called beneficial insects and chemicals methods.
Other countries are interested in natural pest control, too. France, Israel, New Zealand, Japan and Australia have sent representatives with inquiries to Hadden, who in 1976 sold his entire year’s supply of ladybugs to Ecuador. That country had a major problem with the cottony cushion scale that, before it was controlled with ladybugs and other parasites, destroyed most of Ecuador’s citrus and acacia trees. Although most of his ladybugs are sold in California, Hadden plans to expand his distribution into other parts of the country.
Hadden came upon ladybugs when he was a junior biology major at Cal State Sacramento.
He had a class project involving the study of a black, sooty-looking substance that covered the ice plant alongside of the freeways each April. The soot turned out to be aphids and disappeared within five months because of an invasion of hungry ladybugs.
“I didn’t graduate at the top of my class in biology, so the only way to make it big was to go into business for myself,” Hadden said. He started his Natural Pest Control company 14 years ago. His first “crop” of ladybugs netted him sales of $1,400 in a weekend.
Now, in addition to ladybugs, his company also sells praying mantis eggs, which hatch and feed on any kind of bugs that settle on the tops of plants. And Hadden also operates a firewood business in Sacramento.
He won’t say how much money he makes with his bug business, only that “it’s enough to pay for this place,” referring to the spacious, $200,000 home that was custom built for Hadden, his wife and three children.
The bulk of his success, he said, is due to the way he packages and markets the ladybugs to retail nursery outlets. Now those stores, such as Rogers Gardens in Corona del Mar, constitute about 98% of Hadden’s business. The remaining sales are to agricultural outlets and mail-order customers.
“The old way of marketing was to ship ladybugs in bulk, store them in refrigerators and let the store scoop them out when someone wanted to buy the bugs,” he said. The other way is by mail order, which is the specialty of most of Hadden’s competitors.
But Hadden thought that home gardeners might be more apt to buy ladybugs if they were packaged attractively for display at nursery checkout counters. He developed a display rack and special mesh bag (made in Hong Kong) for packaging.
The season for ladybugs is early spring through October, with the peak coming in March and April. Until then, Hadden’s company is a one-man operation. But in April, when about 70% to 80% of his annual business takes place, “I hire my wife and one high school kid,” he said.
Each Wednesday during the season, Hadden can be found standing at the corner of West Ranch Road and Hazel Avenue in Orangevale, waiting for the brown United Parcel Service Truck. Shipping the bugs each Wednesday gets the ladybugs to stores by Friday, just in time for weekend gardeners.
No Ladybug Catcher
In fact, there’s little about the business that Hadden doesn’t do. Except for the first step: He is not a ladybug catcher.
“Collecting ladybugs is hard work,” explained Hadden. “Sometimes you can drive right to the nest, other times you drive within a mile and it might be a mile straight across a canyon. It’s a lot of work, gathering and packing them out of a canyon.”
Most of Hadden’s supply is caught by recreational gold miners, who prowl the streams of the Sierra slopes for gold. “Ladybugs build nests near water, usually near a bend or fork in the stream,” Hadden said. And, while they may not find real gold, ladybugs are so plentiful near the streams that the panners call the insects “red gold.”
Hadden pays ladybug gatherers $6 to $8 for a gallon--or about 100,000 ladybugs. A collector can earn $2,000 to $3,000 a month, according to Hadden.
But when it’s all said and done, the gatherers, Hadden and even his customers seem only to be borrowing the ladybugs: Once ladybugs have eaten all the aphids in one backyard, it’s adios. They’ll fly away, in search of more.