Emergency Relief

Israel Sells 380 Million Male Fruit Flies to Croatia

What Haaretz really wants to know is who counted them.

Courtesy of BioBee

Croatia, Israel has your back, as attested by the rescue mission involving an emergency shipment of 380 million Mediterranean male fruit flies to the Adriatic nation.

Males. Not a female in the lot. But why would Croatia want fruit flies?

Because like most of the rest of the world, Croatia's farmers have a problem with the Mediterranean fruit fly. The insect's name is a misnomer: they've even reached South America, says Shaul Bassi, CEO of BioBee, an insect-breeding company owned jointly by Kibbutz Sde Eliahu and a financial investor, Tom Bar.

Yes, Croatia actually wanted the flies, at least after they had been rendered barren by radiation at the BioBee laboratory's radiation facility. "The fly larvae are exposed to radiation for some tens of seconds. They are not hurt in any way," Bassi hastens to reassure the tender of heart among us. "But they become sterile."

The flies were flown to Split, then after some organization, were released in orchards throughout Croatia and Bosnia too.

Fruit flies have very short lives – in the case of the Mediterranean Sea one, a week at most. Naturally their purpose in that short time is to procreate and indeed, the purpose of this exercise is for the sterilized fruit flies to make merry with the local females, which will then produce barren eggs.

That solves the farmers' problem, because what's actually damaging their orchards are the larvae, not the adult flies, Bassi explains. How much did the company make from its sale of 380 million fruit flies to Croatia? Hundreds of thousands of shekels, he says.

Why would Croatia buy from an Israeli company? "There are others, in Spain for instance, but we're a lot better," says Bossi modestly. In breeding insects for sale, stability is key. Biologically-based companies tend to have a problem with the sheer enormity of parameters that can make them come a cropper. BioBee has cracked the code of keeping its bugs alive and humming for sale.

So, the flies were bred at the BioBee lab at Kibbutz Sde Eliahu, were sterilized with radiation (urrgh) under the supervision of the Israeli Atomic Energy commission – charming thought, that – and flown over.

Bossi declined to explain exactly how the company manages to send over only male flies, or put otherwise, how it segregates the males from the females. But it does.

The company also sells a range of other insects – fruit flies, bees, wasps, lice and what not, all for agriculture purposes. Naturally not all are sterilized – in some cases, the entire purpose is for them to be fruitflyful and multiply, for instance bugs bought for "integrated pest management". "Instead of using pesticides, farmers can use our insects that kill the bad bugs," Bossi explains simply.

The bugs are sold by amount – tray, or bag, or box, depending on the insect species and its "packaging environment."

So how were 380 million flies, and only males at that, counted? By weight, explains Bassi. The company has a proprietary method of differentiating between male and female flies at the larval stage, he adds.

The company has collaboration agreements in place with the Palestinian Authority and with Jordan and sells to a number of European countries as well, he says.