The Public Eye

Mandatory insect spraying angers Sacramento County residents

John Hooper with the California Department of Food and Agriculture listens to Ellen Sward as she voices her disagreement with spraying at her home.
John Hooper with the California Department of Food and Agriculture listens to Ellen Sward as she voices her disagreement with spraying at her home.

Mandatory state spraying of three pesticides to kill the invasive Japanese beetle in Fair Oaks and Carmichael has drawn the ire of residents concerned about forced spraying on their property and the lack of a public forum to discuss the issue with neighbors.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s decision to spray is also being questioned by a UC Davis entomologist, who contends that the Japanese beetle is already established locally and must be managed differently.

CDFA is spraying 41 properties in Fair Oaks and 247 in Carmichael, including the turf at Jesuit High School, in an effort to eradicate the Japanese beetle from two different Sacramento County locations. The insect is known to ravage ornamental plants, trees and lawns, and state officials say comprehensive spraying is necessary to ensure that the beetle does not get established and spreads.

The eradication calls for the spraying of cyfluthrin for citrus plants and landscape plants; carbaryl for stone fruit trees; and imidacloprid for turf and low-ground cover. The CDFA says its approach will allow California to avoid the fate of East Coast states where the Japanese beetle has been established for decades.

Whenever the beetle shows up in a CDFA trap, the state agency sprays for two years to ensure that grubs that live in the ground are also treated. In the Fair Oaks area, CDFA found two Japanese beetles in 2011 and four in 2012. The last trap find in Fair Oaks was recorded in 2014 when three beetles were found, while seven beetles were discovered in Carmichael this year.

Residents in and adjacent to a 2-mile spray area in Carmichael and Fair Oaks see the benefit of eradicating the beetle, but contend that spraying each year is intrusive and unnecessary because the insect’s intermittent history suggests it is already an established invasive species. They say other means of dealing with the pest may be less intrusive.

“Residents are subjected, year after year, to chemical management, not chemical ‘eradication,’ every time two or more beetles are found,” said Ellen Sward, who grudgingly opened her Carmichael property to CDFA spray crews Monday.

Fair Oaks resident Bob Mitchell initially resisted spraying in 2011. “I told them to bring a warrant if they were to try to get on my property ... otherwise they would have problems,” he said.

CDFA heeded the warning and arrived at his property that year with a warrant and the presence of California Highway Patrol officers, he said. The CDFA is authorized to enter properties and spray, according to the state’s food and agricultural code.

“Now, every time they come to my house, they come with a police escort,” he said.

In 1983, at least two property owners were arrested after resisting the spraying of diazinon on lawns to eradicate the beetle in Orangevale. That year, 10 percent of 489 homeowners refused to cooperate with the spraying and forced the state to obtain warrants.

Since 2011, Mitchell said CDFA has sprayed his property five times. His property falls within a 200-meter perimeter of where the Japanese beetle was trapped, but he noted that “they have not found one beetle on my property.”

CDFA officials say the yearly eradication efforts forestall the insect getting established and spreading, according to CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle.

“We can’t grant a request for a spray refusal without the department putting itself in a position of losing ground to the pest,” Lyle said.

When spraying for other invasive pests, CDFA tries to work with property owners and in many cases will bypass those who refuse, he said. But not with the Japanese beetle, which presents unique challenges because it emerges for a short period each year before disappearing.

“For the program to be successful, we have to treat in a small window every host plant on every property,” Lyle said.

The CDFA will be spraying imidacloprid on turf at Jesuit High School in Carmichael during evening hours later this week. It has not established which day it will spray at the school.

Residents raised particular concerns about imidacloprid, which some studies have found toxic to honeybees. Mitchell has noticed an absence of honeybees and butterflies on his property after each application.

Mitchell also expressed concern because his 93-year-old mother lives on his property, as well as two dogs. Mitchell said his 7-year-old giant poodle died of liver erosion after the second year of CDFA spraying on his property. He did not seek an autopsy.

But Rima Woods, toxicologist with the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said the pesticide is safe after being diluted with water.

“The levels they will use are so highly diluted, we do not expect any health effects, human or pet, although we do not focus specifically on pets,” said Woods.

She said that the turf at Jesuit will be safe once the grass dries.

The Japanese beetle made its first appearance in the United States in 1916 in a nursery in southern New Jersey. By 1972, beetle infestations had been reported in 22 states east of the Mississippi River. Efforts to control the larval and adult stages cost more than $460 million annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In California, the pest made its first appearance in 1951 near Los Angeles International Airport. The beetle is often found in aircraft or airfields.

It did not appear in the state again until 1961 and 1962 when 449 adult beetles were trapped in Sacramento’s Capitol Park and as far west as the Crocker Art Museum. After an appearance in 1983 in Orangevale, the Japanese beetle was not found in any California trap until 2011 in Fair Oaks.

UC Davis entomologist James Carey questioned the state’s eradication approach.

“The good news is that the Japanese beetle is at a very, very low level,” he said. “The bad news is that they’re almost certainly established.”

He contends that the beetle’s regular reappearance in the area means a different approach is needed.

“They call it an eradication program, but it’s basically a year-to-year control program,” Carey said.

He suggested that the state look at using organic controls such as roundworms or fungi to eat the Japanese beetle grubs.

“They have to work with the public and become partners with them and come up with a way to where there is use of biological pesticides and something more acceptable to the public,” Carey said.

Residents complained last week about the lack of a public forum where they can ask questions of the CDFA and other agencies in a public setting similar to what is available at city council meetings.

At a Thursday open house in Carmichael, the agency set up individual tables where residents spoke one-on-one with officials about the spraying program. About 40 people attended out of the 450 residents invited, and there was no public forum or minutes taken.

“The effect is to minimally advise small groups of neighbors and invite them with short notice to an open house without much opportunity for neighbors to discuss and share info,” said Carmichael resident Lisa Phenix.

Lyle disagreed with the criticism.

“We use a different approach than the public meeting approach,” he said. “But we believe this is a more effective approach in establishing a rapport with the community.”

Edward Ortiz: (916) 321-1071;