The ol' Conservatory of Flowers has one very nasty cockroach problem. Time for the insecticide, right? Not in this town. Solution: Let loose a squad of adorable sticky-footed geckos, which happen to find roaches the most divine meal known to lizardkind. Plus geckos make the cutest little peeps and lick their own eyeballs. Ah, nature.
The following story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle April 27, 2000.
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Conservatory's bug blight turned over to hungry geckos
Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
It's one of those stories that should be an urban myth but is all too nauseatingly true -- a story simultaneously involving a place of great beauty, a storybook wedding and the most disgusting bug on the planet.
And there's a kicker: salvation in the guise of a lizard.
Just before the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers closed five years ago, a wedding party was held in its humid interior. The bride and groom were married in one room of the giant hothouse, while the wedding cake was displayed in another.
Once the nuptials were completed, the party repaired to the adjoining room to cut the cake -- a cake covered with giant Australian cockroaches, as it turned out.
The bride screamed and ran from the conservatory in tears.
At that point, said Sherri Ferris, a board member of the Friends of Recreation and Parks, a San Francisco group devoted to raising money for civic works, it became apparent that the conservatory required some serious bug control mojo.
Things have been put on hold for the past five years while the 122- year-old building -- heavily damaged during a 1995 wind storm -- has been undergoing repairs.
The Friends of Recreation and Parks have raised about two-thirds of the $18 million needed for renovation, and estimate the conservatory will reopen in 2003.
THICK WITH FLEAS, ER, ROACHES
But the cockroaches are still there by the teeming and stomach- turning multitudes, fat, sassy and noxious as ever. And they can't be controlled by potent insecticides -- a terrible environmental faux pas by San Francisco standards.
The solution: geckos. Sticky-footed lizards that prowl the interiors of houses for bugs, occasionally pausing to peep timorously or lick their own eyeballs.
About twenty geckos will be turned loose today, and more will be released at some later date. A few anoles -- small lizards that change color like chameleons -- also will be set free.
There are scores of species of geckos. Though they are found in temperate areas, they are particularly common in the tropics and desert regions. They vary widely in size and coloration, but all share a common characteristic: voracious appetite.
Australian cockroaches are haute cuisine to geckos. For a bug, they're big and meaty -- but they're also quite tender, with relatively soft exoskeletons. To a gecko, they're as succulent as poached salmon.
Not that the geckos don't have their work cut out for them. Many of the lizards scheduled for today's release are immature -- scarcely bigger than the roaches they're supposed to tackle.
``We hope they can eat the (roach) eggs and babies until they get bigger,'' said P.J. Jamison, a Friends of Recreation and Parks board member.
LIZARDS NOT PICKY
But prey size isn't much of an intimidation factor to the average gecko, observed Julie Bergman, the owner of The Gecko Ranch in Davis.
`If they can fit it into their mouths, they'll try to eat it,'' Bergman said.
Cockroaches, in short, should prepare to shiver in their chitin with fear.
Bergman raises 55 species of geckos, and she provided the Friends of Recreation and Parks with three varieties -- lined day geckos, dull day geckos and house geckos -- to deal with the roach problem.
All are tropical geckos, meaning they're unlikely to spread throughout Golden Gate Park in the event of an escape. But they'll reproduce readily in the warm, moist environment of the conservatory, said Bergman.
``Several of the females I gave to the conservatory were gravid (full of fertilized eggs),'' Bergman said.
Cockroaches are common through San Francisco, of course, but the ones seen in most city kitchens are German cockroaches. They're small and relatively inconspicuous.
ALL THIS, AND THEY FLY
But the Australian roaches are much bigger -- some would say uglier as well. And unlike German roaches, they fly readily.
As far as anyone knows, the Conservatory of Flowers is the only place in the city that harbors the bugs. Conservatory gardeners say they probably hitchhiked in on imported plants.
In a less enlightened past, the conservatory would be tented and gassed with a chemical strong enough to peel paint, let alone kill cockroaches.
But the gecko project demonstrates that San Francisco has moved away from such heavy-handed and environmentally dangerous practices. Integrated pest management (IPM) is now the standard way of dealing with insects and weeds on city property.
IPM relies on plant monitoring for infestations, predatory insects and animals and the restricted use of pesticides and herbicides. When some kind of chemical agent is unavoidable, only the least deleterious substances are used.
Deborah Raphael, the pesticide program coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, says IPM is now used in city parks, golf courses and buildings.
SENSITIVE, MAKES SENSE
Raphael said IPM has allowed staffers to cut pesticide use in San Francisco by 50 percent, ``and the pesticides we do use are very low risk,'' she said.
``We're using goats to control weeds at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, flame torches to destroy young weeds in Golden Gate Park and corn gluten meal instead of herbicides to suppress weeds at (San Francisco International) airport,'' Raphael said, ``so this project is right in keeping with our general program.''
Raphael said low-toxicity baits are usually employed for German cockroaches, but added the Australian roach isn't very susceptible to baiting.
``This is a pretty tough roach,'' she said. ``Geckos offer an exotic solution to an exotic pest.''