Why Hard Times at NJ’s ‘Insect Factory’ Could Be Bad News for Garden State

Carly Sitrin | February 8, 2018 | Energy & Environment
The Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Rearing Laboratory breeds ‘good’ bugs to fight pests and reduce pesticide use, but overdue repairs are hampering its mission

insect factory
There’s a place in New Jersey where bugs are not swatted, trapped, or flushed but instead, counted, fed, and cared for. Unfortunately, the bugs are in better condition than the building that houses them.

The Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Rearing Laboratory (PABIL) has been fostering helpful insects since its construction in 1985. But in recent years, while still structurally sound, the lab is in serious need of an upgrade if it is to fulfill its mission: supplying beneficial bugs to the areas in New Jersey and across the country that need them. Despite annual requests of around $4,000 for just the HVAC system, however, the lab has found itself in serious disrepair.

The work being done at the PABIL is known as “biological control” which involves raising specific insects that help farmers and New Jersey residents by targeting invasive plants or other harmful pests, while also limiting the use of pesticides and chemicals. The HVAC, ductwork, and pipes in the building pose a threat to the meticulous work being done in the lab.

‘An insect factory’

Mark Mayer, supervising entomologist at PABIL
“We’re trying to bring the pest population down, so that it’s more in balance with nature,” explained Mark Mayer, supervising entomologist at the PABIL. “We’re like an insect factory, we produce a lot of bugs and try to get them out into the environment as soon as we can.”

That “insect factory” isn’t sending out hordes of mosquitoes or flies, but rather propagating painstakingly researched and carefully selected weevils, beetles, and parasites that only target specific and USDA-approved weeds or pests and present no harm to humans.

The lab, which is arguably the biggest state facility of its kind in the Northeast, touts several success stories that have saved taxpayers and farmers millions of in pesticide costs — both financial and environmental. According to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, in 2009 alone, the lab’s Mexican Bean Beetle program reportedly eliminated more than $1.24 million in pesticide costs for the state and kept nearly 62,000 pounds of pesticide off soybeans in New Jersey. Since 1987, Mayer said, no farmer has had to spray for the Mexican Bean Beetle.

The lab’s Alfalfa Weevil parasite reduced chemical spraying on 25,000 acres of alfalfa produced in New Jersey annually by more than 95 percent.

“It may cost the taxpayers over 10 years, a million dollars to raise that insect, but once that insect becomes established, then we don’t raise it any more so that money is all the taxpayers ever pay.” Mayer said. “Even a hundred years from now, that’s all the taxpayers ever pay.”

A tour of the lab

The lab, operated by NJDA’s Division of Plant Industry, is a 21,000 square-foot facility with 24 temperature- and humidity-controlled insect-rearing rooms. At peak capacity in 1985, the $3.3 million building was state-of-the-art and as the New York Times wrote ahead of its opening, “the laboratory’s key feature is a series of environmental chambers in which the temperature, humidity and light of New Jersey’s growing seasons can be simulated to get the insects in the mood to reproduce.”

Its placement in New Jersey was crucial since the state is surrounded by ports where foreign insects and plant spores come and go every day. According to the state, 6.25 million shipping container units, 47 million tons of bulk cargo, 663,000 vehicles, and 140,000 tons of break bulk cargo came through the northern Port of New York and New Jersey last year alone. The Garden State is usually the first line of defense against many invasive species and pests hitching oversea rides in those shipping containers, making the work done at the PABIL crucial to maintaining a stable agricultural ecosystem.

Unfortunately, not much of the building has changed since 1985. An environmental control study conducted in 2007 at the request of the state Treasury, revealed serious issues with the building’s roof and its HVAC system. The Commission on Capital Budgeting and Planning approved funding for upgrading the HVAC system in 1997 and began work on the system the following year. The leaky ductwork encouraged mold growth and “indoor rain events,” causing slippery floors and hazardous work environments.

In a 2008 Commission on Capital Budget and Planning meeting, former Agriculture Secretary Charles Kuperus said that the department had tried, over the years “a series of low-cost approaches to try and address this problem without any success.” He said at the time that efforts to fix the building’s problems were “essentially trying to put a Band-Aid on something that really needs a major renovation.” Being a scientist, Kuperus also noted that they had not yet characterized the species of mold present in the building.

Same old thing

What’s more, language citing the study’s findings of fire hazards, HVAC control problems, and pipe failures has been repeated in Capital Improvement Planning Requests for every fiscal year from 2010 to 2017, along with repeated requests for funding.

Shirley Kline, a local farmer and member of the State Board of Agriculture toured the lab this summer and said what she saw specifically in the penthouse area appalled her.

“There were garbage cans with tarps that were collecting condensate from the system right over the breaker boxes,” Kline said. “It affects the ability to raise insects because the number of labs is limited by faulty heating ventilation and a/c systems.”

According to the FY17 Planning Request, six of the 24 temperature-controlled rooms are currently inoperable due to HVAC issues.

Not at full capacity

Having the lab at full operating capacity is crucial, Mayer said, because the work being done at PABIL is long-term. According to Mayer, it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 years to get an insect approved and out into the environment. There’s an understandably complex series of testing and permitting done by the federal government before the bugs ever enter New Jersey, thereby ensuring no unintended consequences or unchecked insect swarms are let loose in the state. Once the bugs are released, Mayer said, there’s no bringing them back (however some, like the Pediobius foveolatus parasite, which is used to control the Mexican Bean Beetle, can’t survive the winter and are raised and released on a schedule every year).

And new plants and pests are being discovered every year, intensifying the need for biological control options. After Hurricane Sandy, the state was overrun by a destructive vine called “mile-a-minute” (named for its incredibly quick growth rate), which can cause millions of dollars of damage according to Mayer. At PABIL, they are raising and releasing a weevil, Rhinoncomimus latipes, to help control the vine.

Though the work being done at the lab is environmentally friendly and relatively cost effective for the state, Mayer said facilities like PABIL are in danger of being shut down or falling into severe disrepair because they don’t operate like typical businesses that incur profits and it’s not something that attracts a public-private partnership.

“Private industry doesn’t do this because they can’t make money at it,” Mayer said. “There are some things that the government can do that private industry can’t do, but it’s still beneficial to everybody in the state. That’s really why we exist.”

Still looking for funding

As they have in years past, lawmakers are again attempting to secure funding for the lab but with a new governor in office, they are more optimistic. Gov. Phil Murphy’s Agriculture Transition Advisory report released last month noted the PABIL’s disrepair and urged the administration to “prioritize full restoration of capital funding for repairs.”

The report placed most of the blame on the Christie administration, which, they wrote, “failed to prioritize necessary repairs at this facility and financially constrained the laboratory by freezing fees it charges for services.”

Every year since 2008, the Department of Agriculture has requested between $2,000 and $4,000 for PABIL renovations from the state Treasury in the Capital Improvement Plan but has not received the funding. Kline said there have also been opportunities for federal grant money that the lab has not been able to claim since it requires a match from the state.

“The committee that reviews these applications always asks the Department (of Agriculture) how much they can contribute and the Department has had a straight line budget since the Christie administration. In real dollars, their budget is going downhill, not maintaining its buying ability after all these years. The department just doesn’t have the money,” Kline said.
Jeff Wolfe, a spokesman for the NJDA, said the lab could certainly use an upgrade but declined to comment on the specific claims outlined in the transition report.

In the Legislature, Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) is co-sponsoring a bill (A780) that would appropriate $3.5 million for renovations at the PABIL.

“It’s a hidden gem in the state,” Adrzejczak said of the lab. “The research being done here benefits not only New Jersey but agriculture all across the country.”

He said the bill is slowly gaining support, but explaining the work being done there is proving challenging. “The service it’s providing is really amazing, and to me that’s really cool, but to a lot of people, bugs are boring.”

To their credit, the staff at the insect lab have been resourceful in using the materials at hand. Mayer said that they recently acquired a centrifuge that had been sitting in the basement of a state building for years before they put it back to use, and they’ve repurposed plastic football display cases as insect-housing units in some rooms. But building upgrades and funding for staff are at the top of Mayer’s priority list and after 30 years at the lab, he said there’s still more work to be done.

“This is something for the next generation, this is why we do this.” Mayer said. “There’s a couple things in the pipeline including a [bug to control] Japanese knotweed that should be approved this year. I want that one. It’s my white whale.”

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight