Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's news in entomology?

Portland, Oregon, site of this year's ESA
meeting, is a short drive from many natural
wonders, including Punch Bowl Falls in the
Columbia Gorge area.
Some 20 years ago, shortly after being hired as extension entomologist, I figured I would save money by not attending the annual conference of the Entomological Society of America. In retrospect, that decision ranked as one of the poorest choices of my professional life.

The year I skipped ESA was like being lost in space--as if I had missed out on all the advancements in my field for the previous 12 months.  The ESA annual conference is the best way I know to keep in touch with colleagues and learn about new advances in the science of insects.  The meeting covers everything from the most basic scientific theory to very practical topics in pest control. I haven't missed a meeting since that lost year.

This year the meetings were at the Portland Oregon Convention Center, with over 3,400 entomologists and about 3600 papers and posters. Every year after the meeting I like to go over my notes and highlight what I think were some of the most important bits of information.  So, as my gift to you, here are highlights from the very small slice of the conference that I experienced:
  • In Michigan and other Midwest states, an insect called the Emerald ash borer (EAB) has been devastating ash trees since 2002. Researchers are finding, however, that after a decade of expanding its range, some "good" bugs are coming to the rescue.  In the center of its new territory, parasitic wasps, both native and imported, have reduced EAB densities five-fold over their peak in 2005.  With EAB poised to invade Texas, this is especially good news.  Over the past ten years, several effective treatments have been discovered for this beetle.  Emamectin benzoate (TREEage), imidacloprid (Merit), dinotefuran (Safari) provide multiple years of control with one application. There is even an effective organic treatment.  Azadirachtin (TreeAzin 2) has been found to control EAB larvae for one year.
  • Molecular genetics has become a major, if not dominant, subject of presentations at the annual conference.  This year's keynote speaker, Fred Gould of North Carolina State University, spoke of the successes and potential of genetic pest management.  The science started with sterile insect releases that eradicated the screwworm fly and Med flies as early as the 1960s.  More recently genetic engineering has been developed to insert genes into a population of insects that might reduce its ability to be a pest.  For example genes have been discovered that might prevent a mosquito from becoming infected with a virus like West Nile.  Mosquitoes have been targets for this kind of genetic engineering research in the past 20 years, but a major challenge has been how to speed up the spread of desirable genes into the whole population.  Now a new version of this technology promises to solve this problem.  According to Gould, special genes have been designed that not only insert desirable genes into pest insect DNA, but also, like a computer virus, replicate itself within the pest's chromosomes.  Called homing endonuclease genes, this technology promises almost immediate results, unlike the older technology which might take years to take hold.  With this technology it is conceivable, says Gould, to completely eradicate a "bad" insect species. Of course implementation of this technology raises ethical questions, for which scientists will have to answer. If it works, it would be scary powerful.  
  • Have invasive ants finally met their match?  Two 2014 papers highlighted at this year's meeting suggest that fire ants and Argentine ants, two of our worst invasive ant species, have finally been out competed by other ants.  When encountering fire ants, the tawny crazy ant (TCA) covers itself with formic acid which forms a coating that protects from fire ant venom.  Researchers tested the importance of the TCA anal excretions by covering their little ant anuses with nail polish (I'd like to see how they did that).  When anuses were blocked almost half of the ants battling fire ants died.  When not covered, only 2% of the TCA died in battle with fire ants.  Cool.  Similarly the Asian needle ant is out-competing Argentine ants for prime nest sites. They do this by having better cold tolerance than Argentines.  Too bad that both of these new invaders are bad pests on their own.  People living with tawny crazy ants in Texas say they would rather have the fire ants. And Asian needle ants are supposed to have a wicked sting.
  • New insecticide formulations come around less often than new insecticides, but this year Syngenta Professional Products appears to have developed a promising new formulation for ant control. Based on polyacrilamide gel, the formulation consists of water-storing crystals that can hold an insecticide for long periods of time.  Add sugar, or a protein, and you have a product that can be applied dry like a granule, and expand with exposure to water into a highly attractive gel bait.  Imagining being able to bait an entire yard for sugar-loving ants with gel bait in the same amount of time that it takes to put out fire ant bait.  Reported by Purdue entomologist, Grzesiek Buczkowski, this formulation could provide better control of sugar- or protein-loving ants, including Argentine ants, odorous house ants, crazy ants and rover ants, among others.  This product is not yet on the market.
  • Now imagine baiting for bed bugs! Bait technologies have revolutionized cockroach and ant management, but because bed bugs feed only on blood, baits for bed bugs have been seen as impractical. Maybe until now. Research by Alvaro Romero, urban entomologist at New Mexico State University, appears to have solved at least one step in the complex problem of bait development for bed bugs.  Alvaro's group found a synthetic substitute for blood that bed bugs will feed on, and even gain weight with. If an effective method of delivery can be found, this could be a major advance in bed bug management at some time in the future.
  • Ebola virus was the subject of an informal symposium put together at the last minute by Extension entomologist Nancy Hinkle, University of Georgia.  The official line from the Centers for Disease Control is that no insect is a known vector for Ebola virus.  However, after a quick literature review of the potential for insects to serve as Ebola vectors it became clear that the book is not closed on this subject. While some research shows that Ebola transmission from mosquitoes is unlikely, medical entomologists are concerned about the potential for flies to serve as mechanical vectors of the virus.  In Africa, where several species of flies are commonly seen feeding on eyes and wounds of people, the potential for mechanical (carried on the external portions of the body rather than in the saliva or feces) transmission is feasible.  The group also discussed the potential for cockroaches and bed bugs to serve as Ebola vectors.  To date, it appears that no one in Africa, or with the CDC, has specifically investigated these potential vectors. The symposium participants agreed that the issue is important enough to justify writing a letter to the CDC urging funding for research into these pests in the near future.  
  • Speaking of human diseases, one of the more surprising announcements at the meetings this year was research by Brittany Blakely, of New Mexico State University, which showed that bed bugs may be able to transmit Trypanosoma cruzi, the pathogen that causes Chagas disease. If experimentally demonstrated with live animals, this would be the first human disease known to be carried by bed bugs.  But this is still just a theory. What Blakely and her team showed was that when bed bugs were fed on infected blood, the pathogen could be found in their bodies for at least 3 months.  The pathogen also remained with the bugs even through molting. At the same time we were learning these results, Penn State researchers announced last week l that they had successfully infected mice using bed bugs as a vector for T. cruzi. Because bed bugs are primarily human feeders, they would have to first feed on an infected person to become infected. According to the Red Cross, there may be as many as 100,000 people with the parasite in the U.S.  If bed bugs are proved to be capable of transmitting the disease between two humans (which hasn't happened yet), this could be a significant new twist on the bed bug problem.
  • The ACE (Associate Certified Entomologist) program at ESA is expanding this year with the launch of a new International ACE program.  A new test has been developed for PMPs outside the U.S. wishing to become certified.  In addition, the ESA is considering adding an ACE-Public Health certification to its program.  Some of the initial discussions about this option took place last week at the meeting and it appears that the National Mosquito Control Association is interested in the prospect of having ESA develop a test and certification.  
  • Lastly, I can't ignore the buzz about the Twitterverse any longer.  I have to admit that I've been slow to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, but after listening several very good talks last week I think I've been convinced to take the leap. I've been told that if I want to stay in touch with you and other (especially young) pest management professionals, this is something I need to do. Plus, last month at our fall IPM training conference I felt old when our new Extension turfgrass specialist casually put up his Twitter handle at the end of his talk and welcomed people to follow him. Not to be outdone by a young whippersnapper, here's my "handle" @mikemerchant.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter as I try to find my place in this increasingly wired world.



Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A large scale problem

This wax scale-infested holly could be the
key to controlling ants around your customer's
home.
Ask most PMPs who specialize in structural pest control what they know about scale insects, and you'll get a blank stare. Pest management techs are typically taught little about insect pests of plants, especially tiny, non-descript pests that are frequently well-camouflaged from all but the most highly trained observers.

This is a mistake. A well-trained commercial or residential pest control PMP needs to know about plant pests, especially scales and their cousins the aphids, whiteflies and mealybugs. The key reason is that scales are part of the ecosystem surrounding the home or business, and can play an important role in insect life coming indoors...especially when it comes to ants.

You know ants. Only one of the most important pest issues for the industry around the world. The vast majority of indoor pest ants are sugar-loving.  But these ants don't get their sweet tooth from sheer gluttony (like us!); ants have evolved with a heavy reliance on sugary foods in the form of honeydew.

Honeydew is the sweet excretion product of many plant feeding insects, including scales, aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies and others. Most of us have experienced honeydew when parking a vehicle under a tree during the summer months. Those sticky drops all over the windshield were honeydew, or less delicately, insect poop.

Much like our obsession with sugar, ants have an interesting relationship with honeydew producing insects. It turns out that ants have been relying on the scale insects for so long that both scale and ant have become co-dependent. The ant gets a free, long-term, stationary food source. The scales benefit from the ants keeping down excess honeydew and mold on the old leaf, and even get protection from predators like lady beetles and parasitic wasps.

Ants that naturally feed on honeydew include carpenter ants, crazy ants, odorous house ant, Argentine ants, acrobat ants, rover ants and fire ants...and probably several others I'm forgetting at the moment.  If you're battling any of these critters on a regular basis, you might need to know something about why ants are attracted to your accounts in the first place.  In many cases it probably has something to do with the presence of scale insects around the building perimeter.

Sticky, shiny leaves are one tip-off that scale-like insects may
be feeding on your customers' plants.  Also look for waxy crusts
often associated with aphids, scales and mealybugs.  Honeydew
also serves to grow a black mold called "black sooty mold",
another unsightly clue to a problem.
A few years ago when industry giant (at the time) American Cyanamid was searching for an improved bait for carpenter ant control they turned to experts in insect honeydew for insight. Researchers found that mimicking some of the natural constituents of insect honeydew in an artificial bait was a good strategy for designing a more effective bait.

I'm not suggesting that all ants are attracted to your accounts just because of sugar-pooping pests, but I guarantee you that, when present, these insects will contribute to an ant problem. So what can be done? First of all, learn the signs of honeydew producing insects, and how to select some of the excellent control products on the market.

There's a lot to learn about scale insects--more than I can cover here; but if you're interested in learning a little more, check out this link to a PowerPoint presentation I'll be giving this week on the subject.  The topic is scale insects and their control. I hope the pictures and notes will give you an interesting introduction to the subject and a taste to learn more.  Speaking of taste, I think I hear a KitKat bar calling my name.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rats in the news

Norway rats scavenge left-over people food
in a New York city park. Photo by Mailman
School of Public Health, Columbia University.
Perhaps appropriate for the Halloween season, rats and rat mites have been in the news recently. It was reported last week that a study conducted on New York City rats found that rats carry even more diseases than we previously thought.  Scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health identified several bacterial pathogens, including an E. coli, Salmonella, and Clostridium difficile, that cause mild to life-threatening gastroenteritis in people; Bartonella bacteria; and Seoul hantavirus, which causes Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever and kidney failure in humans. The study highlights the prevalence of these diseases in wild urban rodent populations, and the real risk of acute stomach and febrile illnesses carried to people from rodents.

The authors state that the study shows a need for improved pathogen surveillance and disease monitoring in urban environments.  I would add that these results also show the importance of rodent control to human health, as well as the need for pest management professionals to take precautions when handling dead rodents.

Along with the NYC rat report, came coverage last week of rat mites.  One reporter called them a worse scourge than bed bugs... something I disagree with, but a story that is sure to resonate with some of your customers with suspected mite problems.

Rat mites are tiny parasites that principally attack rodents.  The primary homes of rat mites are in the nests of rats and mice; but when the rodents are trapped or exterminated, the resident mite population may abandon the nest in search of other hosts.  Though rat mites cannot live on human blood, they will bite people, often leaving a red mark and blister.

The reason I don't consider rat mites to be as troublesome a pest as bed bugs is that rodent control will ultimately eliminate a rat mite problem--though mite control in a structure may still be needed to clean up residual mites that can linger in a home for several months.

The other, more scholarly story in the news this week is a study that appears to show a connection between rat mites and Bartonella infections in two dogs and a human.  In a study reported by researchers from North Carolina State University, several raccoons were trapped and removed from a New York home.  After removal, the house living area became infested with rat mites, Ornithonyssus bacoti, many of which were removed from the animals and some of which were collected by the homeowner.  Both the dogs and the homeowner subsequently became ill, and blood tests revealed the presence of Bartonella henselea, a bacterial pathogen best known for causing "cat scratch disease".

Bartonella is known to be transmitted from cats and dogs via fleas and ticks, but this was the first time rat mites have been implicated in transmission (It's important to note that the researchers couldn't conclusively prove that the mites transmitted the disease, as ticks were also found on one dog. Also they did not rule out the presence of rodents or fleas in the home, but the timing and series of the events, along with the large number of mites and visible bites on both dogs and the person in the house provide good circumstantial evidence of the mite's role).

I gleaned a couple of points from this paper.  First, although the paper did not in my mind conclusively prove the raccoon as host and source of the mites, the close association of the raccoon removal and mite infestation seem to suggest that rat mites could infest raccoons. Raccoons are a relatively common wildlife invader of homes in Texas and throughout the U.S., and these results potentially impact many pest control jobs.  Second, I was unaware of the potential disease problem associated with rat mites.  The potential for rat mites to transmit disease appears to be low, or else there would be many more instances in the literature; nevertheless, this paper is something we in the pest control industry should be aware of--not only for our customers, but also when treating for rodent or bird mites. If a technician is going into a situation with lots of biting mites, it would be prudent to provide protective gear, including gloves and protective overalls sealed at ankles and wrists.

Lastly, I was reminded that when a real rodent mite problem exists, it is normally not too difficult to collect mites.  In this case the homeowner had no problem seeing and collecting mites for the pest control company and researchers.  This is not the case with many submitters of "mites" to my office. This year I've received dozens of samples of suspected mites from people who are convinced they are being attacked by mites. In most of these cases the sample submitters have been unable to provide an actual mite specimen. This is often a case of a misinformed customer who has been led astray by poor information on the Internet, or from poorly informed friends. For customers who will not take a diagnosis of no mites, regardless of repeated efforts to get samples, the situation may be one of delusions.

Once again the importance of pest control is supported by scientific research. It's important for you and your employees to remember every day that the service your pest control company provides is important. Rodents simply cannot be tolerated in homes, schools, food plants, businesses or multifamily apartments.  And it's not just a matter of aesthetics. Even when rodents are present but out of sight, remember that many rodent diseases are transmitted by airborne dust from rodent urine and droppings.  It's critical that we are protected not just from seeing rodents, but from being exposed in any form to rodents in our buildings.

If we're talking scary, forget the zombie costumes or Ebola scare stories this Halloween.  A much more real risk is that of unwanted contact with rodents and their mites and diseases.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fall IPM Seminar in Dallas November 6

Rose rosette disease is one of the subjects being
discussed at this year's IPM Seminar
Fall is here, and so is time for our annual Fall Integrated Pest management Seminar held at the Dallas Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center. This program is one I've been involved with since the early 1990s, and I and the staff at A&M take special pride in trying to put together programs with qualified speakers talking on topics that are fresh and not the same old thing every year.

Our goal is to help you to learn things that you will actually be able to put to work in your daily profession as a pesticide applicator.  As always you will receive five CEU credits for the day.  The CEUs are good for either structural or agriculture (3A) licenses. The focus of this training is traditionally on pests of turf and ornamentals; but if you work for a pest control company that does T&O work, you should find this training very useful and appropriate.

This year's speakers include:
  • Janet Hurley providing information about changes coming to EPA labels;
  • Dr. Matt Elmore, will tell us how to tackle tough Texas weeds;
  • Laura Miller, horticulture agent from Tarrant County, will discuss the relatively new rose rosette disease and its management;  
  • My long-time colleague, Dr. Allen Knutson, will provide some background on how biological control has been used in outdoor IPM programs for both insects and weeds;
  • and I will discuss the often tough problem of scale insects and their control.
Over 300 people typically attend the Fall IPM Seminar each
year for the good speakers, CEUs and a good lunch
(in that order, we hope).
I'm especially pleased this year to be able to introduce Dr. Matt Elmore as our new turfgrass specialist, following the retirement last year of Dr. Jim McAfee.  Matt knows he's got big shoes to fill, but is ready and eager to meet all of you in the industry and learn about the challenges of turfgrass management in our part of the country. If any of you get the chance to meet him anytime soon, give him a warm Texas welcome.

Online registration is open for this year's class at https://agriliferegister.tamu.edu/ipm. Just click on Fall  IPM Seminar for online registration.  You can download a copy of the program brochure at the Conference Registration page, or by clicking here

Friday, September 26, 2014

Webinar makes learning about bed bugs easy


Do you service apartment complexes or other multifamily housing units?  Or are you a pest management professional with an apartment manager who needs to learn more about bed bugs? You and your customer might benefit from a recent webinar on bed bugs sponsored by the StopPests Now program for Multifamily Housing (yes, there really is such a group).

I think hindsight will show that multifamily housing, even more than hotels, has been ground zero for the current bed bug epidemic in this country. That's because apartment dwellers often lack the means to hire top notch bed bug control services, apartment management policies often discourage residents from reporting bed bugs early, many residents are limited in their ability to detect and correct bed bugs early, and the close quarters of apartments makes it easy for bed bugs to spread through high density housing. Add to that the high turnover rate of apartment dwellers with bed bugs, and the bed bug's excellent hitchhiking skills, and you have a spreading bed bug epidemic.

Webinar presenters, Dr. Dini Miller and entomologist Molly Stedfast, have been conducting research of bed bugs in multifamily housing for ten years.  They share results of this research, along with basic information about bed bugs that any PMP or apartment manager needs to know. Dr. Miller, especially, is a straight shooter who has strong words for apartment managers, in particular, those who would just as soon not have to deal with these difficult pests.

Don't let the hour and twenty minute run time deter you. Thanks to the fast talking presenters, this webinar doesn't drag, and has been edited to eliminate most of the down time associated with most webinars.  So kick back, grab a cold beverage and click on the video above. I think you'll find that the time you spend in this training well worth it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bargain reference books for your business

The venerable Mallis Handbook is a great
resource for pest control businesses.
I am frequently asked (especially by prospective ACEs studying for their certification exam) what reference books I recommend.  There are many of course, but one of the essential resources for any pest control company is "Mallis".

Arnold Mallis passed away in 1984, but the book he pioneered and first published in 1945 continues to get updated and republished by the Mallis Handbook Company and GIE publishing.  Many PMPs today don't realize what shaky ground, scientifically speaking, PMPs were on prior to giants like Arnold Mallis and Walter Ebeling and a few university leaders who saw the need for good, science-based information for the industry.  Mallis remains one of the standard sources to go to for scientifially sound information about structural insect pests and pest management.

Don't get me wrong. At 1600 pages, this is not pleasure reading... unless you're looking for a book to help you fall asleep at night.  But as a reference book, the Handbook of Pest Control is excellent. I wish every pest control company had a copy.

The reason I decided to say a few words about the Mallis Handbook is that Pest Control Technology just announced a moving sale. If you don't have a copy of this book, for a limited time you can buy a copy for half the normal $149 price.  If I didn't have a copy of the Tenth Edition already, I would jump on it. In fact many of the books in the PCT bookstore are on sale, and there are some good ones.  Other favorites on sale include Bobby Corrigan's Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Mgmt Professionals, and any of the PCT Field Guides.

A wise professor of mine once told me that the savviest professionals aren't the ones who know it all; they're the ones who know where to find the answer.  And believe it or not, not all the best information can be found online. Sometimes nothing beats having a good, old-fashioned book at your fingertips.


Monday, August 25, 2014

New Extension urban entomologist hired

Last week the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M hired a new extension urban entomologist. After a national search, Dr. Robert Puckett was the successful candidate for what is essentially a new position designed to serve the public and the pest control industry in Texas.

Many of you already know Dr. Puckett through his position as Dr. Roger Gold's Associate Research Scientist, a position he has held since 2012.  Robert got his BA and MS in biology at Sam Houston State University and came to Texas A&M in 2003.  He earned his Ph.D. in Entomology in 2008, studying the biology and ecology of fire ant-attacking phorid flies.  After that he joined the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology in 2008 as an assistant research scientist.

Robert has a great balance of research and extension experience, and a strong desire to work in the extension field. So, what does an extension entomologist do?  Robert will continue to seek funding and design research projects relating to urban insect pests, much as he has done in the past.  But he will also assume some key extension education duties related to the structural pest control industry.  For example, he will largely run the annual Texas A&M winter pest management conference held in College Station.  He will also assume leadership of the Philip J. Hamman Termite Training School, and the Orkin termite correspondence course.  He will also be available to respond to speaking requests from your associations and other continuing education providers around the state.

In many respects, Robert's position is similar to mine, but based in College Station. He will hold an office in the new Center for Urban Entomology labs, and will be expected to work very closely with Dr. Ed Vargo after Dr. Gold's retirement in January 2015. The new position was intended, in part, to take some of the extension-related duties that Dr. Gold shouldered for many years, and free the new Endowed Chair to engage more completely with his research duties.

For those who worry that the Endowed Chair will be less accessible, I think you will find the opposite.  I know Dr. Vargo is very interested in engaging with the industry, perhaps with more use of social networking software like Twitter and Facebook.  But the bottom line is that this new position is more evidence of Texas A&M's commitment to adequately support the urban pest control industry with the best research information and service.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Puckett to his new position.