San Diego Floral Association
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January/February 2011, Volume 102 No. 1
Ladybugs Saved Chula Vista’s Title as Lemon Capitol of the World
By John Blocker
Doubtless some of you will smile at the statement, but most of you will live to see the time when people will cease to judge the immense county [San Diego] by a glance from a car window, or the deck of a steamer, when it will be the pride of California, when it will be ranked among the five wealthiest and most productive counties, when it will have outside the cities and towns, the largest population of producer of any county in the state, with the possible exception of Los Angeles County.
– T. S. Van Dyke at the Eleventh Fruit Growers Convention of the State of California, April 17, 1889, in National City
Importation of the vedalia ladybug into California from Australia in 1889 had been a tremendous success. The lady beetle virtually eliminated cottony cushion scale from California’s citrus groves in just one season. The pest had wreaked havoc on agricultural crops and ornamental plantings throughout the state for more than 20 years.
In years to come, cryptolaemus, another lady beetle imported from Australia two years after the vedalia beetle, would become an important predator in the citrus groves in Southern California and in particular, the lemon groves in Chula Vista.
Ellwood Cooper, President of the Thirteenth Annual State Fruit Growers Convention held in Los Angeles, had heard cryptolaemus was known to attack a large number of insect pests in Australia. Because of the professed voraciousness of the cryptolaemus beetle, he urged in his opening speech to the convention on March 11, 1890, “that we memorialize Congress for an adequate appropriation to defray the necessary expenses to go to Australia and adjacent islands, to investigate the reported predaceous insect.”
The federal government did allocate money. Albert Koebele, who brought back the vedalia ladybug in 1888, was sent again to Australia and in 1891 transported to California another ravenous lady beetle, cryptolaemus. This beetle would later be instrumental in controlling a new pest in Chula Vista’s developing lemon industry.
Cryptolaemus montrouzieri larva
A City Built on Lemons
In 1889 the San Diego Land and Town Company, a land development company formed by the Santa Fe Railroad, sold land in Chula Vista in 5 and 10 acre parcels to persons interested in establishing an agricultural enterprise. The Santa Fe Railroad had received the land in trade from Frank Kimball by agreeing to link National City to the East Coast with a rail line. The land had been bought by the Kimball brothers, Frank and Warren, in 1868 when they purchased Rancho de la Nacion, one of the original Mexican land grants.
In July 1889, William Aaron Henry, Professor of Botany from the University of Wisconsin, along with his nephew, Daniel K. Adams, planted 16 acres of Eureka lemons in Chula Vista on land acquired from the San Diego Land and Town Company. Henry found lemons ripened earlier than oranges in the cooler coastal climate. Others observed his success, and soon lemons became the area’s dominant crop.
In 1911 in an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Chula Vista; Lemon Center,” a correspondent reflected, “What Pasadena is to Los Angeles, Chula Vista is going to be to the city of San Diego, a high-grade city of beautiful homes.”
The article quoted Chula Vista residents E. Melville and John Downing, “Our lemon groves, covering several thousand acres are a mass of deep green from one end of the year to the other, and the ever-blooming lemon trees exude a fragrance which is pleasing to the senses at all times.... We have abundant supply of cheap water for irrigation, the enlarged Sweetwater dam having a capacity for holding water enough for 15,000 acres of fruit land. We now have about 4,000 acres in lemons.”
In the same 1911 article, C. R. Colburn described his business enterprise in Chula Vista, “It has been about eighteen months since I went into business here and during that time the building activity has been continuous. The class of people who are buying our lemon orchards, or setting out new ones in our city are desirable additions to the population.”
Growers could make about $2,000 per acre growing lemons in 1911. Gross sales of lemons in Chula Vista that year exceeded $400,000. Five packing houses had been established and two of them were spending more than $10,000 each on additions and improvements. Because lemons ripened throughout the year and are shipped as soon as picked, packing houses kept busy year-round. Lemons were transported east in reefers; that is, rail cars cooled by blocks of ice.
Charles Mohnike also commented in 1911, “I have been a resident of Chula Vista for the past twelve years and have seen the development of the lemon industry and the growing prosperity of our city. From now on forward will be easy sailing for our thriving city.”
Raising the Mealy Bug Destroyer
But in 1913 citrus mealybug arrived in California causing extensive damage to citrus crops throughout the state. Cryptolaemus ladybugs, the ladybug Ellwood Cooper proposed importing at the Fruit Growers Conference in 1890 and the one Albert Koebele brought back from Australia in 1891, were soon found to be an excellent control for citrus mealybug throughout California’s citrus groves, including Chula Vista’s lemon orchards. By 1921, the San Diego County Department of Agriculture was rearing cryptolaemus for release into local orchards at an insectary built at 511 G Street in Chula Vista. Conveniently, a lemon grove was located across the street.
The Second Report of the California Department of Agriculture published in 1922 noted that more than 180,000 cryptolaemus ladybugs were reared at the Chula Vista insectary during the previous year. The larvae consumed so many mealybugs in the field they became known as the “mealybug destroyer.” Because the larvae did not overwinter well, introduction into groves was necessary every year.
By 1921 additional county insectaries were opened in Santa Paula and in Upland, and a State insectary was established in Whittier. The three facilities reared cryptolaemus as well as six other insect predators and parasites to control citrus mealybug, black scale, red scale and cottony cushion scale. During 1921 these insectaries produced almost a million parasites and predators that were brought to locations where pests were active. At the Chula Vista insectary, cryptolaemus was the only predator or parasite produced.
In 1928 Robert R. McLean, Commissioner of Agriculture for San Diego County, described the Chula Vista insectary in an article in the Los Angeles Times: “The walls of the five rooms in the insectary are lined with shelves. In two of the rooms the shelves are covered with earth-filled boxes in which potatoes are sprouted. A few mealy bugs are placed on the tender twigs, which then are taken into the other rooms, in which there are a few oranges or lemons to give the bugs a change of diet before they are attacked by the hungry parasites. The latter, well fed, multiply at a rapid rate and when matured are placed ten in a capsule and taken to an infected orchard. One capsule is used on each tree.” Using this method the insectary could produce about 225,000 beneficial insects per month. Lemon production in Chula Vista boomed. The city proclaimed itself the “Lemon Capital of the World.”
By the 1950s, Chula Vista’s lemon orchards were being plowed under to make room for houses and new businesses to accommodate the post-war population boom in Southern California. Across the street from the Chula Vista insectary, the lemon orchard was removed and Vista Square Elementary School built in its place. Production of cryptolaemus at the Chula Vista insectary ceased as the county’s budget tightened. Private insectaries began producing the lady beetle for sale to growers.
In 2000 the old insectary building was turned into an Agricultural Museum operated by the City of Chula Vista. New greenhouse structures were located in the driveway to serve as insect breeding facilities. To this day the Chula Vista insectary continues to be used by the County Department of Agriculture to raise predaceous and parasitic insects for release to control problem pests in the county.
– John Blocker worked with the agricultural industry in San Diego for 31 years.
California Department of Agriculture, Second Report, 1921
California Fruit Growers and Farmers Convention, Proceedings, no. 11, 1889 and no. 13, 1891
“Chula Vista; Lemon Center,” Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1911
Karna Webster, Chula Vista Heritage 1911-1986. City of Chula Vista, 1986
“Prevention Held to be Easier Than the Cure,” Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1928
“South Bay is Putting Its Rural Past into a Museum,” San Diego Union-Tribune, June 26, 2000
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.