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Harnessing the power of bugs for profit

By Janet DiGiacomo, CNN
Bob Rich sweeps the grass for weevils, which he will later sort, package and ship to buyers.
Bob Rich sweeps the grass for weevils, which he will later sort, package and ship to buyers.
  • Family collects, sells bugs that eat specific weeds
  • Scientific name for the service is "biological control" or "weed management"
  • Owner says method is natural, nonchemical and highly compatible with organic farming
  • Equipment includes PVC pipe, pillowcases and ice cream containers

(CNN) -- Ice cream cartons, PVC pipe, nets, pillowcases, a couple of refrigerators, boxes and bugs. Lots of bugs.

Not the typical supplies for a family business. But we aren't talking about the typical family business.

Bob Rich and his family are gearing up for another year of bug collecting. It's what he, his wife, his son and a few close friends do at Weedbusters Biocontrol in Missoula, Montana.

They collect bugs -- specific bugs that eat specific weeds to help farmers, landowners and some state agencies rid properties from plant overgrowth.

"When people ask my wife and I what we do for a living, it takes us a while to explain," said Rich, who was a state forester for 22 years before creating Weedbusters with his wife, Kandace, who has an art degree and teaching experience.

"She jumped right on board with the idea," he said. "She thinks some of the bugs are cute."

The official name for the service this family provides is "biological control," which is the use of a living organism to control a pest. The pest in this case is any noxious or invasive plant not indigenous to a particular region

"These non-native plants overpower and displace much of our native vegetation and create a real problem for landowners. We find bugs that eat only these nonindigenous plants. And they are able to clear up the land." Rich said this method is natural, nonchemical and highly compatible with organic farming and ranching.

The Rich family takes their work seriously but understands the raised eyebrows from people who do not voluntarily have bugs around the house, or in the house.

"Occasionally, after a day of sorting bugs, I'm on the couch watching TV, I feel something scratch me behind my ear; I usually find one or two bugs crawling on me. So, I have to pause the DVR and put the bugs in their containers."

Weedbusters' work does not end at collecting. The work also requires Rich and crew to identify species, separate them, store them and ship them, which is why their equipment list reads like an inventory at a church bazaar.

"We use nets to catch the insects. For some collections, we use a PVC pipe. When we sweep the plants, we get a lot of insects and other material. We put it all in a PVC pipe and cap it. The pipe goes into a pillowcase and sits for about 15 minutes. The bugs we need, leafy spurge flea beetles, are actually attracted to the white of the pillowcase. So they crawl out and we find them in the bottom of the case," said Rich.

And the ice cream containers? "We find the pint ice cream containers work the best," he said. "We put the bugs in the ice cream containers and then ship the containers in insulated boxes to our clients."

The bug collecting starts in the warmer months and the family knows exactly where to go to find their catch. "There are a few places here in town that we frequent because we made the release of these bugs a few years ago. We head out to those spots with our nets in the heat of the day. That's when the bugs are most active. But we can only stay out for a few hours. The bugs do well in the heat, we don't do as well. We can only take so much heat."

A typical day's bug take-home count is usually from the hundreds and higher. But Rich said there have been days -- especially when collecting leafy spurge flea beetles -- when the nets and pillowcases were filled with several thousand bugs.

The Rich's bug hunt looks for the knapweed root weevil, toadflax stem weevil, leafy spurge flea beetles, red headed spurge stem borer, Canada thistle stem weevil and St. John's wort beetles. These bugs eat only the plants they are targeted for and their names say it all -- the knapweed root weevil attacks knapweed, the toadflax stem weevil eats toadflax, and so on.

With the bugs bagged, the Riches head home to place the squirmy pillowcases in the refrigerator.

Yes, the refrigerator.

"We put the bugs in the fridge to cool them down so they are easier to handle," Rich said.

"We normally have an extra fridge just for the bugs, but sometimes I just put them in the kitchen fridge in the pillowcase. Well, one time there was a hole in the case and a good number of them got out. We found a few stuck to the butter, others were floating in the orange juice."

The reason for bugs in the refrigerator is valid. Dropping the core temperatures of the bugs significantly reduces their movement without causing death, Rich said.

The chilled bugs are then placed on a large table, identified and separated into groups of about 100. After they are properly identified and placed with their own group, the bugs go into the ice cream containers and back in the fridge, waiting to be shipped.

The idea is to keep the bugs cool until they reach their destination, which could be anywhere in the country. When the bugs are released, they get warm and active.

While the work may sound exclusive, Rich modestly admitted his is not the only bug collecting group around, which makes him a bit protective. After revealing that he had already received orders for the 2010 season, he politely declined to identify the customer. "I'd rather not tell you who made the order," he said, "I don't want to give anything away."

But he will tell you that $140 will buy you 100 knapweed root weevils and $80 buys you 200 flower weevils.

It's even possible to get a gift certificate.

"We had a lady call and ask if we gave gift certificates because she wanted to give her son a release of bugs for his property as a gift. So we printed up a certificate with a big picture of the bug and we gave her a dead one leftover from the summer. She put the dead bug in a box, her son opened it up on Christmas Day."

In the slower months, during the winter, Rich educates potential customers with seminars. He explains everything from the types of bugs available to how to release them once the customer receives them.

He is quick to point out that biocontrol does not eradicate any weed species.

"Since the insect feeds only on the weed they are targeted for, they will never eradicate their only host." The bugs, he said, will reduce the plant to a low level, and then maintain it at that level. Also, the process may take years before there is a noticeable impact on weed density in a particular area.

There is one piece of information that Rich himself adheres to every day.

"I always check for holes in the pillowcases."