The Medfly War

I wasn't home the day Ron Cabreira pulled his brown '71 Dodge up to my curb and sneaked onto my patio. He wasn't very noticeable, a slim 26-year-old wearing blue tennis shoes, blue jeans, tan shirt and baseball cap, so none of the neighbors in our usually watchful neighborhood called me.

But Ron left me a note. I now had a Mediterranean fruit fly trap on my property, he said; if I didn't want it, I could call a special number and Ron would come and take it away.

The thought of removal never crosses my mind. I am thrilled. By chance I have been allowed to join the war against the Medfly, sworn enemy of all us Californians, by virtue of the little cardboard house-like contraption hanging (I discovered after a considerable search) on an upper branch of our grapefruit tree. On the war's outcome hang the political future of the state's governor, the health of our largest industry, and future relations with our largest trading partner, Japan. So I am proud to be a part of it.

I don't like the grapefruit tree anyway. Despite my wife's regular efforts with the most succulent of modern chemical fertilizers, its fruit is always bitter, worthless even for grapefruit juice unless you add a couple pounds of sugar. The thought of those sinister little flies feasting upon our grapefruit strangely satisfies me, but the way the war against the Medfly is going, I may be denied this bit of revenge.

Not one of the creatures has shown itself in the state of California since Nov. 20. Young people like Ron Cabreira, who is officially known as a "trapper" for the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's office, have placed more than 100,000 Medfly traps throughout the state, as many as 50 to 100 per square mile in the original infested areas of northern California. The state and federal governments have spent about $70 million so far to wipe out the beast, which lays eggs in fruits and vegetables soon turned soft and porous by the greedy hatched larvae. Farmers may have lost as much as $70 million through quarantines and the Japanese embargo against all non-fumigated California fruit. So Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., now running for the Senate, and other state officials are eager to end the expensive war and regain consumer confidence with a declaration of victory--until the next careless tourist brings some Medfly-ridden fruit from Hawaii or South America.

Where 12 helicopters once flew nightly suburban spraying missions, only four still take the air. The 70,000 gallons of controversial malathion pesticide mixed with syrupy bait sprayed each week over the state is down to about 5,000 gallons. Only 350 people are still working on the eradication campaign, far below the 4,000 who were stripping trees, planting traps and mixing pesticide last summer.

Here in Los Angeles County's San Gabriel Valley, always a minor skirmish area compared to the big war zone around San Francisco Bay, the aerial spraying has stopped already. On May 15, if no Medflies appear here in the meantime, the county agricultural commissioner intends to declare victory, marking the end of one Medfly life cycle without spraying.

Cabreira got his job last year, fresh from exploring his ethnic roots and earning a forestry degree at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. He said he became excited a while ago when he found a suspicious-looking fly on the sticky cardboard slat in a trap in San Marino. But it turned out to be a brown walnut husk fly, with stripes rather than Medfly spots on its wings. He still braves occasional dogs and cajoles reluctant homeowners to check his 50 traps a day, 250 a week, but he has never found a Medfly.

Up in San Jose at Medfly project headquarters, Annie Zeller carries a Medfly encased in plastic on her key chain so that helpful citizens who come in with what they think are new finds can see the creature's distinctive blue eyes and spotted wings. Zeller, 28, is tempted to describe the insect as "cute," even in the larval stage when the rice-sized worms "jump up from the warmth of your hand."

Zeller is promoting the project's "worm hunt," an $87,000 federally funded program to encourage children and home owners to look out for the little larvae. Children consider this a splendid use of their time, but often ask, "What happens if you eat one?"

"It's protein. It's good for you," Zeller always replies.

The northern California counties hope to declare victory in mid-September, at which time Zeller, who joined the Medfly war last year just after leaving a regular acting job, hopes to resume a career in theater and movies. Cabreira also plans to be moving on, taking my trap away for its usual rotation next week to someone else's back yard and leaving me with my grapefruit tree and its bitter memories. But Cabreira is getting a new assignment with the Agricultural Commissioner in June.

"I'll be working with the Japanese beetle," he said.