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New insectary a tool in the fight against agricultural pests

New insectary a tool in the fight against agricultural pests

(May 3, 2001)

The University of California, Riverside is expanding its ability to help the nation combat exotic agricultural pests with the opening of a $15 million high-security Insectary & Quarantine Facility, the only one of its kind in the state.

The 28,000-square foot insectary will advance the study of exotic pests, the evaluation of potential natural enemies, and the development of genetically-engineered plants and insects.

Chancellor Raymond L. Orbach will release thousands of ladybird beetles (ladybugs) during the opening ceremony, Friday, May 4, a reminder of the first heroic insect, the vidalia beetle, which fed on a cotton-like scale on citrus and saved the citrus industry from financial ruin just before the turn of the 20th century.

On average, a new exotic pest is introduced in the state every 60 days. Each year these insects or the pathogens they carry cause an estimated $3 billion in agricultural damages in California alone. The state's location on the Pacific Rim, the shared border with Mexico, the warm climate, the wide variety of crops grown, and the popularity as a tourist destination combine to make California particularly vulnerable to invasions of exotic pests.

Additionally, an increasingly strict regulatory environment has meant the loss of many traditional forms of pesticides for pest control, while, at the same time, pests are developing greater resistance to many chemicals. The public's concern about the effects of pesticides on water quality and human health makes it vital to find more environmentally sensitive ways to fight these pests.

UCR researchers are world-renowned in biological control, the practice of finding the natural enemy of an exotic insect or disease and importing it to keep the problem under control. These insects and organisms must be rigorously quarantined, tested, and then carefully raised before they can be released safely to fight pests such as the avocado thrip or the eucalyptus longhorned borer.

The current fight against the glassy-winged sharpshooter and Pierce's disease, which threatens a $33 billion industry in wine, raisin and table grapes, and associated tourism, is being waged with the help of a tiny, stingerless parasitic wasp imported from Mexico and bred at UCR. That is just one of the beneficial species that UCR has released, an average of 22 each year.

UCR is also developing ways to modify insects genetically to protect plants, and even humans, from dangerous diseases. For instance, UCR entomologists Peter Atkinson and Brian Federici have research projects aimed at blocking the ability of mosquitoes to infect people with diseases such as yellow fever or the West Nile virus.

The insectary is one of three in the western U.S. It is the only one in California that includes a research area at biosafety level three, which can contain transgenic pollens, plants and insects. It has 64 rearing rooms, three environmental rooms, two quarantine receiving rooms, six laboratories, cold rooms and various other facilities. Light, temperature, humidity and ventilation can be carefully controlled in each of the rooms. It replaces UCR's current quarantine facility, built in 1933 and expanded in 1960.

For the protection of the research and the environment, the building requires strict quarantine procedures. For instance, researchers must superheat their equipment or fumigate it with nitrogen before they take it out, to make sure no insects or pollens escape. Before moving from one insect room to another, they must shower and change clothes.

"This will be the premier quarantine facility within a university setting and easily matches what is available in the most modern quarantine facilities elsewhere," said Timothy Paine, chair of the Department of Entomology. "It has a level three quarantine stage that allows us to study transgenic pollens and their effect on insects through the natural lifecycle, while still protecting the environment."

Congress appropriated a total of $5.1 million for the new facility. In March 1996, California voters approved a bond issue, which provided the required state-funding match, a total of $5.6 million. The rest of the money came from private fund-raising.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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