Mating Disruption, Pheromones, and Paranoia

Yesterday, I posted a new episode in the “Ask an Entomologist” series. My regular readers (we’re up to 8!) were probably thinking “Gosh, why is Bug-girl writing this long post? Isn’t she hugely overworked at her new job?”

The answer is yes, I am very stretched right now. (Urk!)
I finished that post on pheromones (it had been a draft since last fall) because something silly annoyed me very, very much. I wrote that post to provide the background to the smack I’m about to deliver today.

What motivated me? There is a huge outcry in California…because they are planning to spray pheromones for light brown apple moth (LBAM).

Several urban regions in California will try mating disruption, which, as I explained yesterday, is a quite environmentally benign process. The linked article is incredibly alarmist:

“Officials claim no “adverse” effects are expected when aerial dissipation of vast quantities of CheckMate OLR-F and LBAM-F will be sprayed over the Bay Area beginning as early as June. Tell that to hundreds of residents of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties who have reported health problems from last years coating.”

Errr..what? Pheromones are about as safe as you can get! They are naturally occurring compounds that are used in insect sexual communication. Most consider them a type of biological control.

As I explained yesterday, insect sex pheromones are used in tiny amounts (0.0001 microlitres still gets a rise out of my males). The application rate for CheckMate is 0.65 fluid ounces per acre. I’ll say that again:
Less. Than. One. Ounce. Per. Acre.

So, rather than using broad-spectrum pesticides, the state is using unique natural compounds specific to two pest species. And this is grounds for a petition and multiple protest sites? Their reaction can be best summarized as “OMG there are chemicals!!”

Interestingly, the very same blogger that sounds the alarm above, 6 months earlier, detailed the threat to California agriculture:

“The state’s agriculture industry faces $100′s of millions in losses if this interloper gets a more serious foothold in the agricultural zones of the Central Valley, and already nursery stock & cut flowers from 8 Bay Area & Northern California counties are quarantined and not allowed to ship interstate. “

What will be the consequence if this spray is halted? As mentioned in the quote above, LBAM, an introduced species, could become permanently established in California, and cause a lot of people to loose a lot of money. And then REAL pesticides will be used, in considerably larger quantities than this pheromone spray.

Have we really progressed to a point where any chemical use at all is suspect? I’m afraid so: Dihydrogen oxide is a good example. I’m sure it’s totally a coincidence that it was also in California that a county almost banned this compound in 2004:

“The city councillors of Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California, are well-meaning, socially responsible people. And when they came across the huge threat posed to their constituents by dihydrogen monoxide they did what any elected official should do: they took steps to protect their community. A motion due to go before the city legislature proposed banning the potentially deadly substance from within the city boundaries.”

This backlash to pheromone use reminds me very much of individuals refusing to be vaccinated for selfish (and unfounded) reasons, and harming a larger group.

California is a very, very strange place. I will now resort to the stereotypical Midwestern comment:

Cripes.

37 thoughts on “Mating Disruption, Pheromones, and Paranoia

  1. Thanks for the pheromone posts very interesting and useful information.

    Just wait, next thing we’ll hear is the protesters screaming to use DDT instead because it’s a wonder chemical. Actually if that happens I think I’ll have to start studying hara-kiri. :-) To steal the a line from Orac, “the stupid it burns”.

  2. Your post yesterday was the first I’ve ever heard of pheromone control, and I think it’s a great idea. I’ve always worried about the lack of species specific controls out there. Hey, do you think it’ll work for the Emerald Ash Borer, or do they find eachother by different means?

  3. I am a person who was recently sprayed by these over flights (in September). My concern isn’t about the trace levels of pheromones. It’s the other contents of the spray. The state Department of Food and Agriculture claims the spraying is harmless, however, they (or anyone else) performed no study of the real effects of spraying on human respiration. It’s been shown that some of the assumptions made, such a particle size (which effects the ability to be absorbed through respiration), are incorrect and these may have significant implications for the actual health impacts.

    So would you like your children to be spray repeated with a chemical cocktail whose short term and long term health effects are unknown?

  4. you know, I knew when I wrote this that someone would ask that question. “Think of the children!”

    I would have no problem with it, because:
    A. It’s a very good choice, and better than any alternative control methods
    and
    B. I think people are reacting more to the concept of something being sprayed, than the actual facts about what is sprayed. I don’t think this is a risk. In fact, several environmental toxicologists agree with that assessment (PDF).

    Sample commentary from that document:

    “Dr. Ronald Tjeerdema, Chair, Department of Environmental Toxicology
    University of California, Davis
    (Article by Erin Digitale, “Report: Moth spray not a likely cause of Monterey Peninsula illnesses,”
    The Salinas Californian, dated November 20, 2007)
    “Looking at the ingredients, I don’t see anything of concern. The Department of Food and
    Agriculture should be commended for using pheromones and not traditional pesticides.”

  5. I also liked this quote, from the same document linked in comment #5:

    Mary-Ann Warmerdam, Director, Department of Pesticide Regulation
    Joan Denton, Director, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment
    (Letter to Secretary Linda Adams, Cal-EPA; Secretary Kim Belshe, California Health and Human
    Services Agency; and Secretary A.G. Kawamura, CDFA; dated November 16, 2007)


    Public concern has centered on the previously undisclosed inert ingredients, which have now
    been disclosed. Water is the bulk of the inert ingredients,
    as the microencapsulated polyurea
    particles consist primarily of the pheromone active ingredients. The polyurea shell exists only as
    a component of the particles, and makes up only a small percentage of the particle weight.

    Emphasis mine.

  6. As a child, I remember playing in my backyard when the mosquito control spray trucks drove by, with great clouds of white foul smelling stuff billowing into the yard. I live in the SF Bay Area. I dislike billowing clouds of foul smelling pesticides. Sign me up for an ounce of pheromone per acre! You all will be the first to know if I start feeling unnatural attractions towards six legged creepy crawlies…

    Theo

  7. Ah but you see, Bug_girl, there is dihydrogen monoxide in the spray, and they have the guts calling it an inert ingredient! This very nasty compound causes fatal injury when drunk in huge quantities. And when it is sprayed, it increases the odds of colds and flus to children in a complex interaction with outside temperatures (though a very significant correlation with cold air is known since decades)… So you do want kids to get cold, don’t you?

  8. It’s all well and good to promote spraying when it’s not IN YOUR AREA! I’m in the area of the spraying. Imagine getting a note in your mail box from the California Department of Food and Agriculture that says, “Wash off the surfaces in your yard before touching them after the spray.” Wouldn’t that make you think that it might not be good for you, your children, or you pets? Then imagine that you have a beloved dog that rolls around in that yard daily. Oh, yes, then imagine that you are going to give birth to an infant who will attempt to shove things from the yard in his or her mouth. Then imagine that you have a good friend who got very ill after the spraying and you read 632 reports of people who also got ill after said spraying. I’m sure the pheromone is harmless. But breathing in plastic airborne chemicals containing anything is not harmless if you are chemically sensitive or have asthmas or if you are 6 months old and your lungs are still developing. There are FIVE MILLION people who are about to be subjected to this against their will. You should really think twice before making light of this situation. For those living in it (who do not include you!!!) we feel attacked. This experience personally makes me feel like I’m living in a Nazi regime. I may have to move away from the area and separate from my husband who may need to stay here to work. This is ruining peoples lives, and you are telling us to grow up and get real? I’m beyond offended and I think that you owe the five million people of the California Central Coast and the San Francisco Bay Area who are about to have their lives hugely disrupted due to aerial spraying every 90 days for years and years. People will suffer psychological distress as they worry whether or not they are safe given that this is an UNTESTED process. and they will suffer financial stress as they sell homes, leave jobs, and move to get away from years of spraying.

  9. There is no doubt in my mind that the CDFA note was written to be politically correct and to ward off lawsuits by idiots who get “sick” with hysterical diseases. Bad choice for the CDFA. You do NOT want to give the nuts in CA any more ammunition to support their disjoint with reality.

  10. No Spray, you really need to calm down. Seriously.
    Nazis???
    That not only trivializes what happened in WWII, it shows how hysterical you are acting.

    As I have stated in another comment, I have no problem with being sprayed. It’s perfectly safe. I don’t think, however, that you actually READ anything here, but just reacted.

  11. Of course YOU PERSONALLY have no problem with being sprayed because you are not sensitive to chemicals, you do not have asthma or other respiratory issues, you are not pregnant, and you are not nursing an infant. It seems that your recommendations and your endorsements are all about you and not about the welfare of the entire population of this country. So what is your analysis of the 643 documented health complaints from people who actually lived through the spray? And have you personally evaluated every one of the inert ingredients in the spray for safety? Oh, no, of course you haven’t, because they haven’t even published what the ingredients are for the next round of spraying to begin in the summer. I’m actually thrilled that you perceived the “hysteria” in my post. Take that and times it by about 2 million people. You cannot discount the psychological trauma that forced aerial spraying of huge urban areas will have on the population. You think you know everything about bugs… and maybe you do. But try taking a look at the larger issue here, which is the fact that the Federal government as it stands today can spray anyone at any time with anything and without needing anyone’s consent. Are you all for that state of affairs as well?

  12. I’m glad your psychic powers are helping you know so much about me. From the other side of the country.

    My analysis is that 642 people are just as freaked out and irrational as you are. One person might have had a legit complaint; but frankly, I doubt it.

  13. I see that rather than taking the care and time to address each of my points and arguments in this debate, you are just making a blanket statement that people are just “freaking out.” Keep in mind that some of those 642 people are young children who don’t know what the hell is going on. Maybe you should take some time to really read up on the issue and do your research before blindly assuming that 642 people who have taken the time to fill out illness reports are just “freaking out.” You really don’t know what the $^$(@&^! you are talking about. You’re just throwing useless and harmful opinions around, and claiming to be an “expert” on the topic while doing so. I find your opinions to be harmful and careless and your arrogance to be rather distasteful.

  14. Lady. My research for the last 20 years has been on pheromones and mating disruption. I think that gives me a bit of insight in to the problem.

    YOU are the one who has said in both your previous post that “psychological trauma” is an issue. The fear of the unknown is what is upsetting you (and the other folks). If you would look at the facts about the spray, you would see that it is exactly the kind of control that is commonly used in growing organic foods.

    I am not “addressing each of your points” because you have made no points. You have claimed knowledge about me you don’t have, then invoked the spectre of Nazi Germany, and then discussed psychological trauma from a harmless spray so great you would leave your husband.

    I think you have some issues, but they are not related to what we are discussing here.

  15. For those watching this at home–the earlier spray occurred during peak allergy season. While some people (and children) certainly experienced real symptoms, that doesn’t mean that it had anything to do with the sprays.

    Correlation is not causation.
    This was also the conclusion of a medical and toxicology report.

  16. Well…I live in an area that is sprayed every year by government agencies (although not from black helicopters). They use planes to spray various control methods (such as Bt, a naturally occuring bacteria, and now NPV virus)to try to reduce gypsy moths.

    This has been going on for years and there has been no reports of anyone having any medical reactions due to this spraying (or people moving out of the area or psychological trauma).

    And, last I checked, we DO have kids living here yet no outpouring of hysteria. Must be made of tougher stock here in the Midwest.

  17. Wow Nospray, you sound like a true paranoiac!

    You don’t seem to understand the infintesimal amounts being bandied about here, nor the fact that mating pheremones are pretty darned specific in their actions. Oh yes, there might be a person here and there who’s truly allergic to them, but the sheer number of complaints alone, regarding such an innocuous and relatively inactive compound is a clear indicator that it’s a psychological problem and not a physical one. Do you think that they HAVEN’T tested it on animals & humans, and in much higher concentrations?

    The note about washing off things in the yard is to warn those people who ARE sensitive to chemicals that they should take basic precautions. Do you realize that, if they DON’T do this, and the moths in question get settled in as permanant residents, these same pheremones will be wafting through the air every year, and not just on specific, well-publicized dates?

    The amounts being used are so tiny that even if they were spraying arsenic or some REAL poison, it’d be so dilute that no one would be affected. When you’re talking about a pheremone that doesn’t ‘do’ anything at all in the way of chemical reactions, and ESPECIALLY when you start comparing the spraying to the Nazis… You really come off sounding like a frightened loon.

    And then to go off on BugGirl and make all those mean claims about her, when you’re so obviously just guessing. I’ve got to say, you make me embarassed to admit that I also live in the Bay Area. We’re not ALL like that, really. There’s several million of us, and only 600 or so people (by NoSpray’s count) complained of problems, right? Most of us don’t have any problem with it. In fact, I’d really appreciate it if NoSpray wouldn’t set hirself up as spokeperson for all of us! You have no idea how many of us even know about this spraying, nor how many of us agree that it’s the easiest, safest way possible to deal with this problem.

    Is that a better way to address the points you raised?

    *sigh* Now I’m going to have to go get involved, aren’t I? I’ll have to find out where the discussions and protests are going on, so I can try and bring in another voice of reason to dilute the crazy, I suppose..

    Please, NS, get some spine and maybe LEARN a little something about mating pheremones before you go flying off the handle!

    Weevils

  18. Hey, these are the people who climb up in a few oaks threatened with cutting and now are having panic attacks over using pheromones to reduce the threat to plants – including threatened or endangered species like Madrone or Valley Oak.

    I moved down here from the Pacific Northwest. The entire Bay Area is composed of the biologically, botanically, and zoologically ignorant. We have moronic twits who believe that feeding feral cats is acceptable because the elimination of native ground nesting bird species is a result of “survival of the fittest” – and then they go to the ballot box to ban the slaughter of equines.

    No issue here is resolved with science or common sense – everything is based on emotion, self-esteem, and the alignment of the planets. Issues are discussed in terms of “how it feels” or “how it makes me feel” and never in terms of results and consequences. I can hardly wait until my husband can retire and we can get out of this open air geek show.

  19. Well, here is a true story that demonstrates just how demented most of the Bay Area denizens appear to be. There are a few sane people around – they either tend to have been born here back when there were still farms around or they came from one of the more rural states. Much of California is full of transplants from New England, New York, and other intellectually backward areas.

    We decided to replace a fence, so we called utility services to mark the locations of underground utilities. To indicate the involved area, we drew boundaries using all purpose flour. We attempted to explain this in advance to our neighbors; but one of them refuses to listen to us since he considers us barbaric rednecks – and me with a Master’s degree from the University of Washington!

    Not long afterward I answered the door to a police officer; apparently my neighbor, his dogs, and assorted family members had become ill from the “mysterious white powder.” I went out, told the officer what it was, explained why it was there, and even tasted some to demonstrate that it really was all purpose flour. Fortunately, they hadn’t called the ambulance yet for the outbreak of respiratory and skin problems.

    Equally indicative was the neighbor who became ill after watching us spray – the sprayer contained a dilution of a popular organic plant food – it can cause problems if inhaled or left on the skin – but these are unlikely on a day with winds below five miles an hour if one lives several houses away and across the street.

  20. Bug-girl, in regards to your comment to ‘No Sray’… Ever hear of Operation Paperclip? Where many imporatant Nazi Scientists were basically integrated into the U.S. Gov’t after the war?

    Not only are you over-opinionated… you are mis-informed.

  21. Sigh. I live in norcal– and I’m also an entomologist and an ecologist– and I can’t believe some of the hysteria I’m hearing from otherwise apparently intelligent folks over this issue. Spraying anything out of aircraft evidently makes Rachel Carsen’s kitten cry. This is the sort of biocontrol based pest management strategy we’ve been trying to get states and agribusiness to embrace for DECADES, and when the CDFA finally gets the clue the very environmental movement that should be cheering turns on them. It’s just ignorance, I suspect. Ignorance and paranoia.

    xoxo
    Mike C.

  22. Well, Bug Girl, if you have watched the local news, read the local paper, or searched the Internet lately, I think you will find that you are out numbered on this issue. Keep in mind that whatever is sprayed – everyone will be inhaling and living in it for years. And from the last ingredients list I saw, it contains known endocrine disruptors in the sunscreen chemicals and also BHT a food preservative that is linked to cancer. Two or three sprays would probably be no big deal. But monthly sprays for years on end… well the poison is in the dose.

  23. Oh yes, and um – NO they haven’t tested in on humans. So I see that you have not done your research on the subject.

  24. Just having a lot of gullible people on your side doesn’t make you correct. As for your other statement–

    Chemicals that aren’t meant to be human pharmaceuticals are generally not tested on humans. Animals are used as toxicity substitutes.

    Seriously. You seem to have some real issues. I’d start talking to someone a little closer to home.

  25. Are they any biological approach technology on fungal control measures? Part of our corporate social responsibility is to uplift the standard of living in our community especially on remote and depressed areas through sustainable plant based livelihood such as rose, anthurium, chrysanthemum cutflower project and banana plantation.Aside from alternative biological approach measures on pest and fungal control May I know if there are also environmental friendly chemicals moderate in toxicity but not jeopardizing its effectiveness.

  26. I replied to your other comment at the Mating Disruption post.

    Roses and other cut flowers are very difficult to grow organically, since the standard of appearance is so very high. I’m not sure that you will get the level of control you want from a pheromone, since it is rare to get 100% control. You can get up to 90% in some situations, but some damage will still occur.
    That’s ok in crops with some tolerance for damage, but that’s not cut flowers. :(
    Also, this assumes that the pheromone of the species you want to control has been identfied and synthesized (see my other reply).

    For fungus, especially soil fungi, control is always difficult, and you’re right that most of the current solutions are pretty toxic. Fungi are, however, out of my area of expertise, and I have no suggestions for you.

    I suggest you consult with an IPM (Integrated pest management) firm in your area. They will know your local conditions, and can make the best suggestions for all your control needs.

  27. In the past week, I discovered (through small talk at the coffee shop, the office, etc.) myself and nine others have developed allergies for the first time EVER. You can call me paranoid, but it is an unlikely coincidence that an untested pheromone is being released at high levels on our crops. Crops that we eat everyday. And at the same time a high percentage of people have developed allergies for the first time ever.

    Maybe you wanna be the guinea pig next time eh.

  28. Betsy: I have been exposed to, and worked with, multiple kinds of (and large amounts of) pheromone over the last 20 years.
    I’m the ORIGINAL guinea pig.

    As I have said before, just because two events occur together in time, that doesn’t mean the one that got all the publicity caused the other one.

    These pheromones have been in use on some crops for over 30 years. Again, everyone seems to have been just fine….until they found out that the pheromones might be in their back yard.

  29. First, let me tell you that the beginning of your blog is showing badly on my screen, with the photos and archive list on top of the text making it all but unreadable. Can you fix it, or do you think it is at my end?

    Second, let me say that I live in the Bay Area, where I teach and write about horticulture. I think you are quite right that most people who are organizing against the spraying are panicked by the idea rather than the facts. It doesn’t help that the CDFC sprayed as an “emergency measure” without explaining much ahead of time. Also it doesn’t help that the TV news and other media keep using the work pesticide, as in “opposition to PESTICIDE spraying against the light brown apple moth…” I wrote a letter to one local channel to say that it isn’t a pesticide, but the next night, they repeated the word without comment. I have discovered since that, technically, they are correct, in that pheromones are, in fact, legally defined as pesticides, either when sprayed or in twist-ties. They are not, however, if used in sticky traps that attract and then kill the moth on the glue–because this is considered a “monitoring device.” In the dictionary, a “pesticide” is something that kills a pest, but the legal definition is different.
    Most of the public is just reacting to the fact that some people said they got sick and the fact that the media keep calling the spray a pesticide. They don’t know much more, and there hasn’t been enough effort to educate. Would you be interested in writing something to appear in California media–to share your expertise? Reply to me if you might be.

  30. Sane, I’m not sure about the display issue–are you using a small screen? type of browser? The CSS makes things overlap if you use a screen size smaller than 600 x 800.

    Pheromones are *legally* classified as pesticides in some formulations since there is no other classification for it under USDA/EPA regulations–that doesn’t mean it actually fits the definition of a pesticide as something that kills. It’s like the way that vitamins are regulated by the FDA, although they are not drugs.

    Given the types of nasty emails I’ve gotten over this–the comments you see here are just the tip of the iceberg– I have no desire to go public. In fact, I strongly suspect that this whole fiasco will be the death of pheromones in general, and may result in the banning of their use on agricultural crops.
    Which would really be a terrible thing.

  31. Your facts are right on target, Bug Girl! Application rate was 20 grams per acre of the diluted solution, which was 75-80% water. The pheromone was tested by US-EPA and rated Category IV–Very Low Toxicity–it took a dose of >2,000 mg/kg to get skin rashes and eye irritation. The inerts in the polyurea shell was at most 3% of the spray. And the dosage at ground level was minute–an median of 135 spray encapsulated particles per square foot.

    A very organized and vocal miniscule minority is crowing that they were able to alter public policy–and one can reasonably ask, who was speaking for the other 99.99999% of the population? Their largest constituancy was 30,000 signers of a petition–including 30% from out of state and nearly 25% anonymous–including runs of up to 8 anonymous in a row.

    I’d like to share background: my organization, California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers (CANGC) represents more than 1000 growers and nurseries at risk of business disruption due to this activist and media hysteria.

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