Matias Habib first noticed the Japanese beetle in the summer of 2019. The pests attack and destroy the flowers and foliage of plants and feed on grass roots, tearing through lawns and fields. For Habib, it was as if the beetles “came out of nowhere. I never saw them before, and it was like an alien invasion.”
Luckily, Habib was working on a project for his local 4-H chapter in Sandwich, IL. He decided to focus on entomology and looked into the Japanese beetle, trying to figure out how to stop its spread. As a proponent of integrated pest management, Habib wanted to move away from traditional, broad-spectrum pesticides. So, he got to work.
Habib found an amino acid present in geraniums that mimics a neurotransmitter in the brain of a Japanese beetle. “It acts like a neurotoxin. Once they ingest it, they go super hyperactive, but eventually they’ll be paralyzed for 24 hours, when they can be eaten by bugs, washed away, drowned or they may not wake up,” Habib explains. “But it doesn’t have the same effect on bees, humans, pets, birds; it’s only seen in the Japanese beetle.”
Armed with this newfound knowledge of beetle neurotoxins, Habib got to work. He spent two years tweaking the formulation. Habib distilled the amino acid, mixed it with a water and oil emulsion and eventually landed on the final product: a formula that is sprayable, clings to leaves without weighing them down and has repellent factors. TerraBuster was born.
He began using it in his own garden, which includes apple, cherry and peach trees, grapes, tomatoes and decorative plants. From there, a few neighbors showed interest. Now, he’s selling it locally—available for pickup—and at several nurseries in the community, and the response has been enormous. With just one post on his town’s Facebook page, orders started pouring in. “From then, I’ve had a bunch of returning customers, as well as word of mouth, people telling their neighbors or family members that they need to buy this.” Habib says he made a few thousand dollars last summer, which he promptly poured right back into the business, buying an industrial blender and other equipment.
Matias Habib making TerraBuster. Photography courtesy of National 4-H Council.
Not bad for a 4-H project. The judges for the Youth in Action awards agreed, giving Habib the Agriculture award for 2022-23. Along with a $5,000 scholarship, Habib is now an official 4-H spokesperson—something he still finds a bit surreal. “It’s a pretty great feeling because I can be an example to others that I had a crazy idea… and it kind of worked out,” says Habib.
But even with this early success, Habib isn’t sure where he’d like to go from here. He could expand the production of TerraBuster, renting warehouse space and working to ship the product beyond his town. He’s also considering agriculture programs at colleges and universities, including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, his state school. And, of course, he’s still inventing new products. “I have tree nets that I’m also selling, and I’m working on another product line as well.”
But before he has to make any big decisions, he’s gearing up for another busy season. His sales peaked in July and August last year, when the beetles were at their worst. He’ll be ready this year, armed with fresh batches of TerraBuster, a group of family and friends ready to help with production and his new status as a 4-H success story.
The beetles don’t stand a chance.