Got a weird bug? Call Baldo. Some strange pest destroying your roses? Call Baldo.
Found something in your garden that no one can identify? You know who to call: Baldo Villegas, Sacramento’s “Bug Man.”
Known to gardeners throughout California, Villegas has earned his reputation as the go-to guy for unusual pests. Before his 2011 retirement, the state entomologist spent 35 years developing integrated pest management programs against invasive insect and weed pests throughout California.
As an environmental research scientist for the state’s Food and Agriculture Department, he sought to identify and stop threats before they became widespread. With biological controls, he battled the western grapeleaf skeltonizer and dreaded star thistle, plus dozens of other bad bugs and invasive plants.
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In the rose-loving community, Villegas has been a savior, literally rescuing gardens from imminent destruction. Roses rank among the plants Villegas loves best; he grows more than 2,000 bushes in his own Orangevale garden.
Villegas gives lectures nationwide on rose pests and how to fight them via biological means. He’s taught generations of gardeners how to recognize trouble.
For his work with roses and educating gardeners, Villegas recently received the American Rose Society’s Klima Medal. Considered one of the highest honors from the ARS, the medal rewards a rosarian for lifetime contributions to horticultural education. It was created in honor of the late ARS president emeritus Joseph Klima and his wife, Marion, of Fairfield.
“This award is the culmination of my career,” Villegas said. “I give so many programs across the country, in every (rose society) district. I’m always helping people; I never refuse a sample (of a possible pest). When I go to a (rose) convention, everybody knows me.”
While the medal is an honor, it also represented a challenge. To accept it, Villegas had to agree to deliver a special lecture at the ARS national convention in Ohio.
“Because of the lecture, they told me last December that I had won, but I had to keep it a secret,” Villegas said. “It was hard! I wanted to tell everyone! But I also had to come up with a new lecture.”
Villegas chose one of his favorite subjects: pest identification.
“That’s one of the keys to integrated pest management: You’ve got to know what you’re dealing with,” he explained. “This is what I did for 35 years: Help people identify pests and disease.”
Correct identification seems so simple, but so many pests look alike or make plants exhibit similar symptoms. One problem may be simple to solve, another a complex nightmare.
Villegas already is legendary for coming up with the right answers, not only in California but nationwide.
He recalls the case of the chilli thrips. Native to Southern Asia, this bug was unknown in the continental United States until 2003.
Back then, a friend in Florida contacted Villegas about a tiny insect that was causing huge problems.
“It was totally different from anything else they had experienced,” Villegas recalled. “They asked for help in making a final determination. This was something new to North America. Chilli thrips get their name because chili peppers are a common host, but anything green it will eat. I had heard it called one of the worst nightmares if it ever showed up on our continent. I called my friend and told him you’ve got a pest that shouldn’t be there.
“Once word got around, more people started sending me samples,” he said. “I always encourage people to contact their local IPM experts first.”
Chilli thrips chewed their way “all over South Florida,” Villegas added, but agricultural inspectors, nurserymen and gardeners were able to get out in front of its invasion because they knew the enemy.
Closer to home, Villegas found rose midge in Petaluma – the first time this pest was spotted in California. This tiny bug can destroy rose gardens.
“It looks like someone took a little torch to the bush,” Villegas said. “The end of the stems all turn black.”
The tiny midge larvae girdle the stem tips, killing the buds and new growth. When the Petaluma gardener originally asked for a diagnosis, the damage was attributed to pesticide burn.
“They saw black tips and made an assumption because rose midge wasn’t common here,” Villegas said. “Be very careful with diagnosis. Even people who should know better can jump to the wrong conclusion.”
Villegas maintains a website – sactorose.org/rosebug – packed with examples of pests and diseases. He’s always on the lookout for new threats.
“I may not know what it is,” he said with a chuckle, “but just as important, I know who else to call.”