Saturday, July 19, 2014

Understanding chikungunya

The black and white Asian tiger mosquito is one of the two most common potential vectors of chikungunya nationwide

Fortunately for all of us who live and work in the U.S., insect-borne disease is not rampant in our country. But this isn't something to take for granted either, as we have seen this summer with the rapid spread of the chikungunya (chik-un-GOON-ya) virus throughout the Caribbean.

Over 30 years ago as a graduate student taking a course in medical entomology, I learned about all kinds of diseases spread by insects.  By far, most of these were tropical and exotic-sounding. Chikungunya virus was one of those diseases I memorized way back then, and have since mostly forgotten.

Chikungunya was first described in 1952 during an outbreak in southern Tanzania (east Africa).  The name comes from the Makonde language and means "that which bends up", referring to the contorted, bent-over appearance due to joint pain suffered by those who contract the disease.  Sounds bad, doesn't it?

While not as serious as some mosquito-borne diseases, including malaria or Eastern equine encephalitis, or even the neurological form of West Nile virus, this virus is nothing to sneeze at.  While some people have mild cases, it frequently comes with a very bad headache, joint pain, rash and fever.  There is no treatment for chikungunya, and there is no vaccine to protect you if you go where the disease is active.

When I learned about chikungunya in college, it was found only in eastern Africa and parts of India and Southeast Asia.  That distribution has spread in recent years as outbreaks occurred in parts of western Africa and Europe.  In December 2013 the first epidemic on our side of the world was reported when the disease made the jump into the islands of the Caribbean.  Since the beginning of 2014 the disease has been spreading like wildfire, with more than a quarter million cases, and over 20 fatalities in the Caribbean. 

Chikungunya has been on the radar of U.S. health officials in recent years largely because its vectors are very common in our country.  The principal mosquito vectors of chikungunya are in the genus Aedes. They include the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, and its close relative, the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. These are the species that inevitably bite me whenever I chance a trip outside without repellent in my backyard here in the Dallas area.

Unlike West Nile virus, birds are not a part of the chikungunya disease cycle.  As far as we know, the virus is only viable in mosquitoes and primates.  In Africa, the disease lurks both within humans and non-human primates, such as baboons and monkeys.  For the virus to take hold here in the U.S., it would have to be common enough to reach an epidemic tipping point.  This would occur when enough people were infected to start a cycle from human to mosquito to human again.

We may not have yet reached that tipping point, but we could get there easily.  In July the first locally acquired cases were reported in Florida. These were the first cases where the victims had not recently traveled to the Caribbean, or other places where the disease is endemic. According to the CDC, between 2006 and 2013 the U.S. averaged about 28 cases of chikungunya annually from travelers. In the first six months of 2014 alone there were 243 travel-associated cases in the U.S.  And, according to a July 15 release by the Texas Department of State Health Services, five cases have been reported in Texas so far this summer.

So should you or your customers be worried about chikungunya?  If you plan travel to the Caribbean this year, definitely!  Make sure to carry repellent and use it liberally during your travels to any Caribbean island. At home there is little risk yet; but this could change.  As the number of sick travelers returning from Caribbean cruises and high school missions trips increases, the risk of locally acquired chikungunya will increase.

All of this increases the value and importance of all residential pest control services, especially where Aedes mosquitoes are active. Technicians servicing homes should be on the lookout for any sources of standing water.  These may take the form of storm sewer catchment basins, leaking septic systems, containers or plastic items that catch and hold water, house plant pots with dishes that hold water, bird baths, wheel barrows, boat covers and other items. You may not be servicing your account specifically for mosquitoes, but pointing out mosquito risk factors is an add-on service to your customer and can increase your value in their eyes.

If you have a newsletter or email service to your customers, now's a great time to remind them of the four Ds:
  • Drain and dump standing water 
  • Dusk and dawn are the highest risk times for mosquitoes (though the Aedes mosquitoes are active all day) 
  • Dress in long sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors 
  • DEET is an ingredient to look for in your insect repellent (or another effective choice such as lemon oil of eucalyptus, picaridin, p-menthane 3,8-diol or IR3535). 
For more information about where mosquitoes can breed, and how to identify Aedes and other mosquitoes, see

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A bug by any other name...

A stink bug belongs to the suborder
Heteroptera and is an example of a
"true bug". All true bugs have piercing/
sucking mouthparts, and go through
a gradual form of metamorphosis.
Every student in their first college entomology class gets introduced to the major types of insects, among which is a relatively large group of insects known as heteropterans (formerly referred to as hemipterans). And any entomology professor worth their salt dutifully teaches every student the rule that heteropterans are the only insects that can be considered "true bugs". That's what I was taught, but like most of my fellow entomologists, I've never really known why. So today, when I was asked by a teacher...who had been asked by a 5th grader, I figured I needed to do some research. What I learned was interesting, and even has a very contemporary urban entomology connection.

In my experience Americans commonly use the term "bug" very loosely to mean any very small critter, insect or otherwise. In this way a spider can be referred to as a bug, or a pesky gnat as a bug. This doesn't bother me too much, but sometimes you sense a kind of superiority among some people who use the term "bug" this way. "I'll squash you like a bug!" Or, "It's just a buuug!"

And who in the industry has not been referred to as either "bug guy" or "bug lady" when showing up at a pest control account? Although I like bugs in general, and consider work associated with insects to be important and honorable, I never particularly cared for the name applied to my profession--perhaps because of the inferior connotations associated with bugs in many people's thinking.

It's interesting how language works on a word. The term bug has crept its way into a lot of other uses, including meaning germs that makes you sick, like the "flu-bug".  Or as the verb referring to the act of acting or being annoying, as in the complaint: "Stop bugging me!"

The first "real" computer "bug" is kept at the Smithsonian
National Museum of American History, though it is
not currently on display. 
Maybe one of the more interesting modern spin offs of the term bug comes from modern technology. Computer programmers often refer to a software problem as a "computer bug". Supposedly, the origin of this use of "bug" has historical roots in one of the earliest computer snafus (another word with an interesting WWII origin).  An early electro-mechanical computer, the Mark II, a predecessor of modern digital computers, stopped working one day and the problem was traced to a moth that had gotten stuck in a relay.

But how did the entomological form of the word bug get its start?  And why do entomologists get so hung up on folks who misuse the word to refer to something not technically a heteropteran?

It turns out that the term "bug" probably does have a semi-scientific origins connected to entomology. According to Carl Schaeffer, author of an article on heteropterans (Prosorrhyncha) in the Encyclopedia of Insects, the term "bug" comes from the old Middle English word bugge, which meant "spirit" or "ghost".  According to another favorite reference of mine, Roland Wilbur Brown's Composition of Scientific Words, the word may also be derived from the Welsh word bwg, for "hobgoblin", "spectre" or "sprite".  The word even shows up in some of Shakespeare's writings to refer to bogeymen or other terrifying forces.  Obviously the Welsh and the English were referring to the same thing... but what?

Were bed bugs the original bugge?
Shaeffer supposed that in earlier times when people woke up in the morning and discovered their skin covered in red itchy welts and blood on the bed, they naturally would assume that they had been visited by malevolent spirits, or bugges.  And as you've probably guessed, the welts experienced by sleepers in Merrie Olde England were not likely caused by wraiths or spirits, but by little flesh-and-blood insects that today we call bed bugs.  Presumably the more enlightened Englishmen and Welshmen quickly realized the true cause of nighttime welts and began referring to the insects themselves as bugges.  And eventually, by extension, all relatives of bed bugs were also called bugs--though entomologists apparently decided to keep their use of the term to only the bed bug relatives, today's heteropterans.

So bed bugs are most likely the original bugge, or bwg, according to Schaeffer. The next time you hear someone seem to dismissively refer to bugs, or the profession devoted to pest control, consider that for many bugs still remain a scary part of life. What entomologists and PMPs do is help keep the bugs and other pests out.  That's a worthwhile service and, not surprisingly, one people will always pay for. And as Shakespeare himself might have put it, "What's in a name? That which we call a bug, would it by any other name... drum up as much business?" Perhaps not.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Temperature: the key to fire ant baiting

soil thermometer
A simple soil thermometer can tell you the optimal times
of year and times of day for fire ant bait application.
Fire ant baits are wonderful tools for managing fire ants.  They are relatively inexpensive, require little labor to apply as broadcast treatments, and are safe for both applicators and the environment.  One of the biggest limitations of baits is that they cannot be used all year round. Instead applications must be timed to periods when fire ants are actively looking for food, foraging in ant worker lingo.

Many years ago a researcher at Florida State University, named Sanford Porter, spent an entire year (three times a day, once a week) monitoring fire ants coming to little bits of hot dog. Along the way he carefully monitored surface and below-ground soil temperatures, relative humidity, time of day, soil moisture, rainfall, and air temperature.  Porter found that by far the best predictor of fire ants foraging (and thus, when they are most likely to find and collect bait) was when the temperature of the soil at 2 cm (a little less than an inch-deep) was between 72 and 97 degrees F.

It makes sense that fire ants would be most sensitive to soil temperatures at this depth, as this is about how deep fire ants travel in their foraging tunnels, where they travel 90% of the time.  In Porter's study, fire ants nearly always found baits when the soil temperature was in the favored range.

This morning and afternoon I went outdoors and took the soil temperature in the lawn surrounding my office in Dallas, TX.  The temperatures at one inch averaged between 74 and 82 degrees, in morning and afternoon. This is the sweet spot for fire ants, and indicates that all day today would be a great time to use fire ant baits.

Typically we suggest fire ant bait applications in north Texas be limited to the months of May through September.  This ideal baiting time will vary from one location to another, but the soil temperature rule of thumb should be consistent.  If you're not sure when to apply fire ant baits, check the soil temperature with a metal temperature probe.

Daily temperature fluctuations

Besides time of year, soil temperature is also influenced by time of day. Right now, on the grounds surrounding my office, anytime during the day would be a good time to broadcast fire ant bait. But as any seasoned Texan will tell you, there's a mighty big difference in temperatures between May and July.  In July soil temperatures, even at one inch-depth, soar well over 100 degrees, effectively shutting down most fire ant foraging during the day.

The best time to apply fire ant bait during the summer months is late in the day, in the evening. Bait applied in the morning hours, even when soil temperatures are still favorable, will quickly be exposed to high temperatures and high UV intensity, both of which are likely to render bait less palatable to ants.  By applying bait late in the day, it will be available to fire ants during their most favored time for foraging, throughout the night.

For more information about baiting for fire ants, see our publications on Managing Imported Fire Ants in Urban Areas and Broadcast Baits for Fire Ant Control.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mentoring of School IPM Coordinators

A group of school IPM Coordinators learn how to conduct
a kitchen inspection during a recent IPM training at Northside
ISD in San Antonio, TX.  IPM Coordinators come from diverse
job backgrounds in school districts.
One of the subjects discussed in last week's Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee, which I didn't report on in my last post, concerned how to better mentor Texas school IPM coordinators.

In Texas, every school district must appoint an IPM coordinator to oversee the pest management program, whether pest control in conducted in-house or by outside contractors. Over the years I've realized that school IPM coordinators are an interesting group of folks. Relatively few of them come into the position with a pest control background. Most of them hold multiple positions of responsibility in addition to their pest control role. Some are superintendents or principals, others are environmental managers or HVAC experts.  Some are experts on indoor air quality and asbestos. Some are in charge of school buses, others tend landscapes. Almost all come into the job with wide-eyes and wonder about what they've gotten themselves into.

School IPM rules are, shall we say, more than a little confusing to most new IPM coordinators.  For this reason, the last time the advisory committee met, the idea of a mentoring program was proposed. Certainly I and my colleagues who train IPM coordinators have seen that one of the best ways to help a struggling new person is to pair them with someone with more experience. No Extension employee can offer as good advice as a colleague who has sat in the same chair.

At last week's committee meeting, Maron Finley, TDA's IPM Specialist, proposed the following draft criteria for mentors.  These criteria are not regulations, but would serve as informal guidance for the mentoring program:

  • Serving as a mentor would be voluntary; 
  • Anyone interested in becoming a mentor would contact TDA/SPCS IPM Specialist (Finley) to initiate the vetting process to be approved as a mentor;
  • Mentors must have experience with at least two routine school IPM inspections which resulted in a "Compliant" or "Validate Next Routine" result;
  • Prospective mentors will comply with a facility inspection by a TDA inspector to demonstrate their ability to successfully implement an IPM program in a school district;
  • Once approved, the mentor may mentor another school district of equal or smaller size using the UIL Classification System.
If you're an IPM coordinator, what do you think?  Is it too tough?  Would you be willing to serve as an official mentor under these requirements?  If you have mentored another school informally, what do you think of the idea of having a TDA authorized mentoring program?

Granted, these criteria do not mention how mentors would be assigned to apprentice coordinators, or how long the relationship would last.  It does not say if proteges would voluntarily sign up, or if there would be mandatory assignment to a mentor.  There are still a lot of questions to be answered.

If you have any comments or suggestions for this first draft, please add your comment via the comment link below.  I will pass your thoughts on to Mr. Finley. Or you can contact him at the TDA directly.  Let's get the dialog going.

TDA told more enforcement needed

Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee meets in
conference room with a great view of the State capitol.
The spring meeting of the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee took place last Thursday at the Austin offices of the Texas Department of Agriculture.  If you've never been to the hub of regulatory activity for pest control in the state, it's a massive square building with a great view, from upstairs, of the "sunset red" granite of the state capitol building.  This quarter's lively meeting focused on enforcement actions--or what some in the industry feel is not enough enforcement action.

The discussion started with a report from Assistant General counsel AJ Wilson and her staff. They reported that the percent of cases referred to the enforcement team that resulted in enforcement action has seen a slight increase.  Last year 54.4% of complaints resulted in some sort of enforcement action, such as a fine.  This was up from 43% and 44% in 2010 and 2011.  Warren Remmey, industry member from  San Antonio, expressed concerns about a need for more investigators, especially for checking up on illegal fumigations. He shared an example of a case from 2013, concerning an unmarked vehicle allegedly carrying fumigation equipment that has still not resulted in any enforcement action.

Later in the meeting, during the public comment period, Debbie Aguirre, of Elite Exterminating in Corpus Christi, expressed concern about what she termed "lax oversight" of illegal operators. "And no place is enforcement more important than fumigations," she said. Harvey West with Coastal Fumigators in Houston, echoed her concerns, expressing his belief that there was benefit to the whole industry and regulators in making examples of people who were blatantly in violation of the law with respect to fumigations. Dale Burnett, former regulator, spoke on behalf of Worldwide Pest Control in San Antonio, noted that administrative penalties during the latter years of the Structural Pest Control Board averaged $100,000 to $200,000 annually. According to a recent Open Records Act request, last year the TDA collected only $20,087 in penalties, though penalties have been increasing, with a more than 230% increase since 2011.

If it seems unusual for industry members to ask a regulatory agency for more fines and enforcement actions, it probably is. But the pest control industry in Texas is not just any industry.  It is sensitive to its reputation, and leading business owners are often split on the need for more, or less, enforcement. Only a few years ago, industry voices were heard in Austin about perceived overly-zealous enforcement, which ultimately led  to the closing of the Structural Pest Control Board and its blending into the Department of Agriculture. Most industry leaders are especially sensitive to the issue of unlicensed operators, however, and few reputable pest control operators seem to begrudge quick and decisive action against businesses that threaten public health and the reputation of the industry. For it's part, the TDA team listened respectfully. Policy dictates that they not comment on ongoing investigations, so there was no opportunity for them to respond to critical comments, only listen.

In other business, Randy Rivera reported on upcoming changes to regulations affecting pesticide applicators holding Agriculture (3A) licenses. Most of the proposed changes will be administrative updates, and designed to harmonize TDA and Structural pest control regulations.  Definitions for Lawn and Ornamental (formerly Plant and Turf), Nursery Plant Production (formerly Greenhouse Plant Production) and Landscape Maintenance (formerly Plant Pest and Weed Control) categories have been added to the rules.  There will also be a new proposed rule requiring TDA decals (not numbers) on vehicles being used by non-commercial applicators, including those who use non-restricted use insecticides.  If you carry a TDA applicator's license, you should expect to see publication of these proposed regulation changes in the Texas Register by mid-May.

The status of continuing education regulations for school IPM coordinators was requested, and the committee was informed that the proposed rules outlining CEU requirements should come out as a package in May with the other proposed (3A) regulation changes.  State law mandates that school IPM coordinators begin obtaining 6 CEUs every three years, but enforcement of the law cannot take place until actual rules are in place.  Janet Hurley, my colleague at Texas AgriLife Extension who works with school IPM programs, also offered a comment on the need to waive the 48 hour posting requirement for insecticide baits and gels. This would take the regulations back to an earlier standard, under the rationale that baits and gels, unlike sprays, pose little or no drift hazard to passersby.

The next meeting will be held July 24 at TDA headquarters in Austin. Anybody with an interest in pest control is welcome to attend.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

BIG Changes at A&M

Architectural concept for the new Center for Urban and
Industrial Entomology at the College Station campus of
Texas A&M University
Many of you are aware of some of the big changes taking place in the urban entomology program over the next year at Texas A&M University. But I'll bet  few of you realize how sweeping these changes will be. One of the biggest is construction of a new $4 million building to house the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology  near the intersection of Agronomy and F&B Roads on the Texas A&M campus in College Station. Another huge change is Dr. Roger Gold's recent announcement that he will be retiring as Endowed Chair for Urban Entomology at the end of January, 2015. As if that wasn't news enough, today the Department of Entomology announced his replacement.

According to an email today from Entomology Department Head, Dr. David Ragsdale, "Dr. Ed Vargo from NC State has accepted our offer to become the next Endowed Chair in Urban and Structural Entomology at Texas A&M starting officially on 1 December 2014." This start date will give Dr. Vargo an opportunity to overlap his time with Dr. Gold, and assist with a smooth transition.

Dr. Ed Vargo was announced today as
the next endowed Chair in Urban
Entomology at Texas A&M
Dr. Vargo is currently Professor and Interim Department Head of the Entomology Department at North Carolina State University, and in my opinion is a great match for our department and the Texas pest control industry. He has a long history of working with the industry and is genuinely interested in having close ties with PMPs.  He is nationally and internationally known for his expertise in social insect biology (termites and ants, especially), molecular ecology and practical insect control.  To read more about Dr. Vargo and his current projects at NCSU, I encourage you to check out his website.

In an email I received today, Dr. Ed said, "I am excited about the position and look forward to working with [the industry in Texas] and continuing to provide the scientific and educational leadership for their industry that Dr. Gold has so ably furnished for the past 25 years."

As I see it, the entomology program at Texas A&M has never had a stronger commitment to urban entomology. In addition to refilling the Endowed Chair position, the department will also be creating a new Extension entomologist position to work closely with the new Chair. This entomologist will be based in College Station and will serve as a major bridge between the urban entomology lab and the industry. This person will manage the annual Texas A&M University Urban Pest Management Conference and Workshop, oversee the termite training school in Bryan, and conduct applied, industry-sponsored research.

Last, but not least, fund-raising for a new hands-on pest control training facility in Dallas is well underway. This month I began working with the Texas A&M foundation to raise funds to build a hands-on training facility for PMPs at the AgriLife campus in Dallas.  This will be an exciting new venture for me personally, and one that I hope will bring new energy and higher quality to our efforts to train new (and old) technicians in the art and science of pest control.  To learn a little more about this project, check out the new IPM Experience House website.  There is a lot going on here, and I will be sharing much more with you over the next few months.

This year is truly an exciting time for pest control and urban entomology in Texas. And none of this would be happening without your help, the help of your state and local associations, and the many pest control support industries around our state and country.  But this column isn't long enough to brag about y'all today.  More about you later too.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Moby Rat

A pretty hefty roof rat in a picture send by Keller
ISD impressed me, but not so much the expert
from New York City.
I can tell you that fishermen aren't the only ones to exaggerate when it comes to biggest-catch stories. I've heard lots of tales. "I swear that cockroach that flew at me was 6 inches long!" "That rattlesnake was as big as my leg!" And, maybe most impressive, "The rats in our neighborhood are as big as cats!"

Nearly everyone and their brother's got a story about the biggest rat.  "Moby rats" they might be called.  Or "super rats".

A picture of one big roof rat sent recently by one our Texas school districts got me thinking.  What is a really big rat?  And what would it take to impress someone who has worked most of his life with rats?  Someone like Dr. Bobby Corrigan, the rat expert who consults on rodent control for New York City?

I decided I would send the school picture to Bobby and see what he thought.  He did not disappoint.  In his methodical way, he analyzed the image, and shot back a series of questions:
  • "Is that a scrotal sack under the tail, or possibly enlarged female genitalia?  Hmmm...don't see any teats." [This blog post is going to get lots of strange Google hits]
  • "Was the tail long enough to be pulled back over and beyond the head?" [Knowing what species is critical for the Guinness world record book--roof rat tails are generally longer than the body... otherwise it would be a Norway rat.]
  • "How long was it dead?" "If it was dead for a few days in a ceiling," he explained, "...the body begins to decompose, the skin gets stretchy when held by the tail, and they can appear much larger than what they really are. Too, the body gases inside will begin to bloat the cavity and the whole end result is a very large-appearing rat." [Never thought of that!]
  • Last but not least, he asked, "How much did it weigh?" [It takes more than a picture... you gotta have real data to impress a rat expert.]
Of course the upshot of all this was that I felt a little sheepish.  I should have thought to ask those questions before I even sent the picture. Duh! And who knew that you could rig a big rat competition by letting Fatty stew in his own juices a few days?

My last question to Bobby was, "What would it take to impress you?  What's a really big rat?"  

He answered quickly. "Any rat 2 pounds or over." "But it has to be fresh," he added.

According to Bobby, the heaviest live Rattus norvegicus on record is 1.8 lbs (29 oz) or about 820 g. Most “big boys” weigh in the 775 g range, he said.  And according to his book on rodent control, wild Norway rats over the years have been measured up to 19 inches.

By the way, compare these stats to what might be the world's fattest cat weighing in at 39 pounds. And an average healthy cat, I'm told, runs 8-12 pounds. No contest between rats and cats there. And chances of seeing a rat as big as a full grown cat is nil.

Of course Dr. Corrigan couldn't leave things gentlemanly.  He had to add, "Texans claims that everything is bigger in Texas.  You guys should own up to the bragging."

I'd say those are fighting words, Texas PMPs. So here's a challenge. The next time you find what you think might be an impressive rat, check the sex and species (lots of sites online for how to sex rats), weigh it, measure the length, and take a photo and send to me.  If you come up with anything approaching 1.5 lbs for a Norway Rat, or or 3/4 pound for a roof rat, I'll post  your catch on Insects in the City. And if it's a really big, record rat, and your office manager or spouse allows it, throw your double-bagged catch in the freezer--for proof. Bobby says he's waiting. Are we going to let him get away with that?