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KALAMAZOO GAZETTE (Michigan) 15 August 10 Insect virus creeps into North America, shuts down Portage commercial cricket grower (Rosemary Parker)
Portage: An obscure virus studied by only a handful of scientists is sending ripples of alarm through this country’s zoos and reptile-breeder communities.
The virus doesn’t hurt reptiles or any other animals. But in Europe, it wiped out a staple of the captive reptile diet.
“It moved through this factory like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Bob Eldred, general manager of Top Hat Cricket Farm Inc. in Portage, one of the country’s largest wholesale suppliers of crickets.
“We were seeing dead crickets everywhere within a matter of weeks. We dumped 30 million crickets we had right in the garbage.”
Until last year, cricket paralysis virus was Europe’s problem.
An outbreak of the pathogen swept that continent in 2002, essentially rendering the common brown cricket commercially extinct there.
But the virus found its way across the Atlantic Ocean and into Canadian and U.S. cricket-rearing facilities.
“My Canadian contact said it is spreading through the cricket industry there like wildfire,” said Suzanne Thiem, insect virologist at Michigan State University.
In April, it reached Eldred’s 58-year-old family owned business on Forest Drive. Despite the company’s best efforts, it has been unable to get rid of the virus.
When it first hit, workers culled out crickets that appeared sick, but that didn’t slow the wave of illness.
“So we made the decision to clean out the hatchery,” Eldred said, disposing of all the crickets.
“We went crazy with bleach and explored various sterilization methods,” then started production again, he said.
By early June, “we were bringing in fresh eggs from a hatchery, and (they) hatched normally,” Eldred said. “Then the new crickets began to show signs of the disease.”
Diseased crickets will flip over on their backs, unable to move, and die.
Again the company disposed of the dead crickets, production stopped and Eldred got out the bleach. “Due to the situation, we had to lay off all of our 30 employees,” he said.
Top Hat had been shipping up to 5.5 million crickets every week to zoos, local pet stores and distributors.
“We’ve gone on total lockdown. No one is allowed in the facility,” he said, except Eldred, his brothers, Tom and Charlie, and their father, Dave, who are continuing to clean and sterilize while they explore other possible solutions.
“The only option now may be to take advantage of a Michigan winter and let the place freeze out,” Eldred said. “ Being as it is a virus, it’s incredibly difficult to kill.”
Thiem said cricket paralysis virus, or Acheta domesticus densovirus, belongs to a type of virus that is notoriously persistent.
She said colleagues in France and Canada have told her of cricket producers there using bleach, ozone treatments, even replacing all of their equipment to eradicate the virus — “but to no avail,” she said.
The virus was first discovered in France in the 1960s and has caused problems in Europe’s commercial cricket industry for the past several years. It surfaced in North America last September.
Thiem said the virus doesn’t affect people, or the animals that eat crickets. The virus also doesn’t infect other species of crickets, such as the wild black ones chirping in Michigan backyards this time of year.
Better to switch than fight?
Because the virus affects only the brown house cricket, and because the virus is so hard to wipe out once it’s established, European producers solved their problem by switching commercial production to different cricket species and other insects, Thiem said.
That’s not an easy option in the United States because the brown house cricket is the only variety approved for commercial production, Eldred said.
Alyn Kiel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the import of any insect that might prove a threat to U.S. agriculture or the environment is prohibited. Any proposal to import insects is scrutinized through a permitting process.
“Our scientists here have been exploring domestic alternatives (to the brown house cricket) that might fit the needs of the industry,” Kiel said.
A growth industry
The $45 billion pet industry needs answers. Reptiles are hot and the success of raising them in captivity depends on the availability of a proper diet. Crickets are the food of choice for many reptiles.
Pet food wasn’t an issue when Bob Eldred’s grandfather, Grant Eldred, started Top Hat Cricket in 1952. The demand then for crickets was for fish bait. Today, fish bait makes up less than 10 percent of the company’s business.
“When the economy was going down, our business was going up” as interest in pet reptiles and amphibians grew, Eldred said. A survey conducted last year by The American Pet Products Association showed 4.7 million U.S. households kept 13.6 million pet reptiles. Feeder crickets are the preferred food of frogs, toads, other reptiles and lizards, according to the survey.
Crickets are a staple for the reptile and amphibian exhibits in zoos and theme parks, said Barb Snyder, general curator of John Ball Park Zoo in Grand Rapids. Frogs and lizards at the zoo eat about 8,000 crickets every two weeks, at a cost of about $90, she said. Top Hat has been the zoo’s supplier for years, she said.
Wayne Hill, director of the National Reptile Breeders Expo in Daytona Beach, Fla., said cricket paralysis virus is sure to be a hot topic at this week’s show, which is expected to draw exhibitors from 15 countries. The show is billed as the largest reptile meeting in the world.
Hill said big money is tied up in the animals that eat crickets. “I have had animals at my show go for $40,000,” he said. “The first year, an albino Burmese (python) went for $25,000.”
He said one breeder, The Gourmet Rodent, “may feed 12,000 to 15,000 (crickets) every week. “He supplies 800 stores with lizards and snakes.”
Hill said an expo presenter three or four years ago lectured about the cricket virus then in Europe, and warned to prepare for it because it would hit this country at some point. No one was too concerned, he recalled. “They said, ‘Nah, there’s an ocean between us,’” Hill said.
Then this year, Hill said, “I started having (cricket suppliers) call and say, ‘I won’t be at the show this year, we had to cut out our entire business.’ They just shut down.”
Many of those who are coming have hired outside companies to set up rental booths and equipment that will never enter their facilities, and have told Hill they will not bring any stock back from the show.
“They are taking precautions,” Hill said, “saying ‘It don’t matter what goes out of here, it’s what’s coming back in."
“The only way they know of to get rid of the virus is to shut down, clean everything out, so not even an ant is left on the premises, and to prevent it from ever re-entering.”
How far has it spread?
It is difficult to assess how far the virus has spread in the U.S. cricket industry, or the economic impact it might have.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t track brown cricket production. Cricket growers are not represented by farm or commodity groups or included in records compiled by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
And not every producer has been as forthright about the problem as Eldred.
Because people’s livelihoods are at stake, they may be reluctant to discuss the issue openly for fear their customers will misunderstand the nature of the disease, Thiem said.
Lucky Lure, one of Florida’s oldest commercial cricket farms supplying theme parks and zoos, was driven to bankruptcy by the virus, the Orlando Sentinel reported in June. The virus struck there in February. Attempts to reach its owners last week were unsuccessful — the telephone has been disconnected.
Eldred declined to disclose how much money his family’s business has lost this summer. “I don’t even want to think about it,” he said.
But he is confident the problem will be solved and the business survive.
In a statement on the company’s website, his father, Dave Eldred, assures customers: “We are not going to give up. We have too many years of success at Top Hat to allow this virus to defeat us.”
Fast facts about crickets
Raising crickets is big business. Consider:
- Crickets sold on the Internet cost from $12.49 per 1,000 to $24 per 1000, depending on size.
- Crickets are sold as reptile food in sizes ranging from tiny “pinheads” to mature adults.
- Common brown house crickets, the only species raised commercially in this country, are accustomed to dense living conditions. Their wild counterparts, black crickets, are intensely territorial and not suitable for rearing in captivity.
- Other insects, such as cockroaches, may not be appropriate for reptile food production because of their hard-to-digest exoskeletons and the possible threat they pose to natural resources and agriculture.
- Live feeder insects must be shipped in temperature-controlled packaging to assure they don’t die in transit.
Source: Top Hat Cricket Farm, cricket farm websites
Reptile food trends
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not track the economic value of the cricket industry, but pet-owner trends suggest it is growing. For instance:
Feeder crickets are the preferred food bought for frogs and toads, reptiles and lizards.
From 1998 to 2008, feeder crickets made up from 18 to 29 percent of the reptile food purchased. Lizards and frogs ate the most.
4.7 million U.S. households owned a reptile in 2009-2010, the second highest number of U.S. households to own a reptile since ownership monitoring began at least 12 years ago.
It cost lizard owners an average of $258 to maintain their pets. Of that cost, food accounted for $133.
Source: 2009/2010 National Pet Owners Survey, American Pet Products Association
I am wanderings what species of black crickets they are talking about. I have black field crickets Gryllus from the Sierra Foothills and they do fine in captivity, although they don't produce the huge mega hatches I get with the acheta domestica. Still, though, they are worthwhile to raise and have the same husbandry as the brown acheta. The pinheads hatch out a tad bigger than the brown pinheads, and they live a long time, and will breed all year round if kept warm. There are many types of black crickets, and some may well be not suitable for domestic production, but I think the type I have would work out fine. I am keeping my black cricket colony going just in case something should happen to my brown ones, God Forbid!- Common brown house crickets, the only species raised commercially in this country, are accustomed to dense living conditions. Their wild counterparts, black crickets, are intensely territorial and not suitable for rearing in captivity.
This truely sucks. What's going to be our alternative in place of Acheta domestica?
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This totally frightens me. I cannot feed roaches! Will not feed roaches!
I'm the same way, after a few traumatic events while growing up in NYC. My tree frogs will eat anything, but my leopard geckos are pretty finicky. I finally got them to eat a few mealworms, but I had to get them hungrier than I'm comfortable with before they even started eyeing the mealworm bowl. I'm really not sure what I'm going to do if crickets become unavailable.
A couple of my black females (gryllus integer, I think)
Young almost adult male. He has another molt to go then will have little wings to sing with.
These are my alternative to the acheta domestica.
The problem is that other crickets will not be permitted to be sold commercially in the U.S.
While raising local crickets may be good for enthusiasts. the commercial pet industry will not continue to offer reptiles or amphibians as pets if they can not offer a suitable food!
I like not being dependent upon an outside source for my pets' needs.
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