PORT ALLEN, La.
A virus has killed millions of crickets that are raised to feed pet reptiles and zoo animals, putting some producers out of business and disrupting supplies to pet shops across North America.
The cricket paralysis virus killed 60 million of the insects at an operation in Canada, forced a Florida farmer to declare bankruptcy and prompted a Michigan grower to close until spring.
The virus led Elizabeth Payne to declare bankruptcy in June, and a bank foreclosed on her property in Leesburg, Fla., in November. She and her husband, who died three years ago, bought their farm in 1987 and built up sales to a million crickets a week, but it was ruined by the virus.
She finally gave up after closing the facility four times and spraying the walls and equipment with a strong chlorine solution, then pressure-washing the walls.
"There is no cure for that virus, and there is no way to get the virus out of that facility," Payne said.
Cricket farms started in the 1940s as a source of fish bait, but the bulk of sales now are to pet supply companies, reptile owners and zoos, although people also eat some. Most U.S. farms are in the South, but suppliers from Pennsylvania to California also raise crickets.
The virus had swept through European cricket farms in 2002. It was first noticed in 2009 in the U.S. and Canada in the only commonly sold cricket species -- the house cricket Acheta domesticus.
The virus doesn't affect animals that eat crickets or even other cricket species, said Peter Tijssen, a virologist at the University of Quebec in Laval, Canada.
David Fluker, president of Fluker's Cricket Farm Inc. in Port Allen, estimated there are 10 major U.S. farms and many smaller operations. Fluker, who created a limited access blog to discuss the problem, said he thinks four or five farmers are now fighting the virus.
Despite the problem, untainted operations seem to be largely meeting the demand. Some retailers noted, though, that they have had to search a bit for crickets.
Raymond Lambrecht, owner of The Pet Zone in Shreveport, La., said he had to switch suppliers this summer.
"All of a sudden, they told me they didn't have any large crickets," he said. "I could get small ones, but no medium to large crickets for several months."
Jeff McFarlane, owner of Aardvark Pets in Winnepeg, Canada, said two farmers he bought from have gone out of business. McFarlane previously relied on one supplier, but now splits his orders between three to ensure he doesn't become too reliant on one operation.
Barry Garrity, a sales associate at Upscales Fish and Reptiles in Tualatin, Ore., said for several months from midsummer to fall, his store had a hard time getting crickets, and many died within a day or two after delivery. His supplier said he changed distributors and hasn't had a problem since.
For those operations infected with the virus, getting rid of the problem can be a long and frustrating process.
The virus forced Top Hat Cricket Farm in Kalamazoo, Mich., to close until spring while officials "re-invent the way we operate," according to a notice on its website. General manager Bob Eldred declined the comment on the matter.
Canadian grower Bill Duckworth, owner of Krickets Un Ltd in Lacombe, Alberta, said more than 60 million crickets at his operation died within 10 days.
In response, he's been sanitizing his barns since August and hoped to reopen "real soon."
When they reopen, Duckworth will institute procedures to prevent entrance of the virus, such as requiring workers to wear protective suits and step onto chemical-saturated pads to kill any viruses on their shoes.
"It'll be a $100,000 ordeal before I'm done here. When I'm done, I'll be 100 percent biosecure," Duckworth said.
One farm's statement: http://www.tophatcrickets.com/2010ShortageINFO.htm
Some cricket farms: