(FOX 11) Thirty-four years ago this month an air war was raging in the skies over Los Angeles; part of an effort to swat a fly, specifically the Mediterranean fruit fly. Ground and aerial spraying of the insecticide Malathion – you might call it a “rain” of terror – was considered the best way to eradicate the crop-destroying insect.
The infestation had spread from the San Francisco area south and threatened the state’s central farming region. By early July, several states were refusing to accept California produce unless it was fumigated. Our multibillion dollar agriculture industry was at risk, and the feds were pressuring Governor Jerry Brown to take action.
The action he took was very unpopular. Although state agriculture officials insisted that Malathion posed little health risk to humans, many humans weren’t buying it. This led Brown’s chief of staff, the late B.T. Collins, to demonstrate the pesticide’s harmlessness by taking a couple gulps of it during a widely-publicized speech for members of the California Conservation Corps. It was a colorful bit of street theater and Collins was perfect for the role. The gruff and outspoken former Green Beret had lost an arm and a leg in Vietnam. It would take more than a swig or two of bug killer to knock him down.
Soon it became apparent that spraying would commence, despite public protests, letters to editors and threats of lawsuits. Then came a run on car covers, tarps and anything else that could be used to cover our valuable chariots from the airborne pesticide. People were warned to keep their pets indoors during the overnight spraying sessions. As an anxious public awaited the spray of extinction, some enterprising entrepreneurs saw humor in the panic, and marketed “save the medfly” t-shirts and bumper stickers.
After several months of aerial and ground spraying and a quarantine to stop visitors from bringing fruit and vegetables into the state, California declared victory over the medfly. But within a few years the medfly menace was back, and spraying resumed. Over the years new fruit fly species have taken up residence in the state, and they pose an ongoing threat to agriculture. Malathion remains a primary tool to control the pests. The release of sterilized male flies is another method that’s used to limit the fruit fly population. It’s sort of like birth control for flies. However, despite these heroic efforts, the battle to eradicate these invasive fly species seems to have come to a draw. They’ve become a permanent part of California’s ecosystem. Like so many other transplants, medflies seem to like it here.