Monday, October 27, 2008

The most influential commercials ever?

I grew up in the 1960's watching what are now considered vintage television commercials. I have vague memories of Winston cigarette and Maxwell House coffee commercials from the good old days, but one line of commercials remains permanently stamped in my mind. I remember bits of the old commercials for Raid insect killer as if I had seen them last week.

In those commercials the bugs were all evil villains bent on making life miserable for Helen housewife. But she always got her revenge. Typically the bugs ran into (what they think was) the safety of a wall or other nook, only to be followed by the Raid cloud of doom. They died violently screaming "RAID!" as the deadly cloud descended.

One of the great things about the Internet is the chance it gives us to recall these old trivial bits of our heritage. In this vintage footage from YouTube, the Johnson Wax folks sympathetically provide gravestones for the hoardes of dead bugs.

I'm pretty sure these commercials had a subtle but deep, psychological impact on a generation of Americans. I think we all cherish the notion that even if we can't stop war, or end racial strife, or even silence the neighbor's barking dog, at least we can control the creepy bugs that pester us. Perhaps that's the psychological power behind these old commercials. Whatever the reason, the psychology must have worked because Raid is still with us, and a new generation of updated commercials continues the genre (e.g., the Orkin man commercials).
This way of thinking, however, continues to create problems for those of us today who promote integrated pest management (IPM). To most Americans, pest control means "killing bugs dead" (the old Raid mantra). The idea that it might be more effective to modify the environment to make it less conducive to pests is, frankly, boring, and not nearly as entertaining as the fog of death.

In a twist of irony, the bugs appear to be winning at least one front in the bug bomb war. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control looked at illnesses and injuries caused by TRFs (total release foggers) in eight states over six years (2001-2006). They found over 466 human injuries that appeared to be the result of overexposure to TRFs. Most (80%) of the incidents were considered low in severity, with 2% resulting in severe health impact or death.

The top causes for illness include inability or failure to vacate the premises before the TRF went off, coming back to the treated area too soon, unintentional discharge of the TRF, or setting off too many foggers at the same time. It seem that in many, or most cases, exposures occur because consumers don't follow label directions properly. The CDC notes in their recommendations that "IPM control strategies that prevent pests' access to food, water, and shelter need to be promoted and adopted. In addition, awareness of the hazards and proper use of TRFs need to be better communicated on TRF labels and in public media campaigns."

This is good advice, and something that pest control professionals should pass on to their customers. Doug VanGundy with Zoecon Corporation, a long-time manufacturer of less toxic pesticides (including some foggers) notes that TRF don't get nearly the kind of penetration into pest hideouts that the old Raid ads might suggest. "Today's water-based formulations don't produce the small particle sizes of earlier generation foggers," he said. "Although we believe foggers are still a viable product for consumers, professional application of insecticides via crack and crevice treatments and outdoor perimeter treatments to keep pests outdoors are probably best for most situations."
It's important to remember that foggers are designed principally for flying insects, or those on exposed surfaces. Fogging a home or apartment is just as likely to drive pests temporarily into harborages, or even cause them to spread to neighboring units. This would be especially true for cockroaches and bed bugs, who spend most of their time in cracks and crevices with little air exchange.

The old pesticide ads may be entertaining, but they're not good pest control. Foggers may have a place, but if you misuse them or expect them to solve all your insect problems the insects will be the last ones laughing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Texas carpenter ants are lazy

My entomology career got its inauspicious start twenty-eight years ago when I interviewed for a pest control technician's job in Seattle, Washington. I knew I was interested in entomology at the time, had just graduated from college, and needed a job to help my wife go back to school. Little did I know how much of the next one and a half years of my life would be attending to carpenter ants.

Washington state, I learned, grows two things really well: slugs and carpenter ants. The slugs that fed on my garden tomatoes grew up to six inches long. The carpenter ants were everywhere. As I recall, about 75% of the accounts I carried as a residential pest control technician had something to do with carpenter ants. Carpenter ant damage is to Washington homes, about what termite damage is to Texas homes. I've since learned that the carpenter ant species plaguing Washingtonians is Campanotus modoc, the western black carpenter ant.

Since migrating south I've yet to see good evidence that Texas carpenter ants pose any significant threat to wooden structures. The worst damage I ever encountered was in my own home, where some carpenter ants had hollowed out some galleries in the foam insulation in a bathroom wall. On an athletic scale for carpenter ants, where C. modoc are the Superbowl champs, our wimpy Texas ants couldn't make it past the sofa with television remote and beer in hand.

The Texas carpenter ant community consists of different species than the one that pay the bills for Washington PMPs. Most Texas species have little interest in boring into solid wood, although they will nest in walls of buildings, and can be a nuisance. One difference is that colony sizes of carpenter ants in Texas are much smaller than C. modoc colonies, which may contain over 100,000 ants.

So a few weeks ago I was interested to receive this image from Jay Jorns, with JNJ Pest Control in Katy, Texas. It shows the contents of a Sentricon termite below-ground monitoring station (with sensor strip) that had apparently become home to a small colony of carpenter ants.

black carpenter ants in Sentricon termite monitorThe picture interested me because it shows the clean galleries typical of the structure-damaging carpenter ants of Washington and the eastern U.S., and because the station was checked regularly, it was unlikely that the ants had merely moved into termite-damaged wood. It was real wood damage, even if not from a home.

Jay sent me a follow-up sample of these ants, and they turned out to be the black carpenter ant, Campanotus pennsylvanicus. Although range maps show C. pennsylvanicus is found throughout all but the far western panhandle and far southern parts of Texas, it is not a common pest ant in the state, to my knowledge.

On the other hand, this carpenter ant is the principal structure-infesting ant in the east and upper midwestern parts of the U.S., where it is known to do structural damage. So why not so much a problem in Texas? I'm not sure. I'm hesitant to say that the black carpenter ant will never infest indoor homes in Texas, given their record in other parts of the country. But of all the carpenter ants in Texas, this species probably has the greatest potential for structural damage.

For anyone reading this blog, I am interested in seeing pictures of carpenter ant damage from anywhere in the U.S. Send me your images and I will post them online along with information about where the damage occurred (city, state) and your name (O fame!). Anyone from Texas who can show me bona fide carpenter ant damage to sound wood in a structure (not carpenter ants living in old termite galleries), I will send a copy of the very useful booklet, Ant Genera of Texas and praise you for your contribution to science on these pages. I look forward to hearing and learning from you.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wanted: Buildings that build pests out

Anyone who's worked long enough in pest control has come up with bright ideas about how to do pest control better. It's called building a better mousetrap.

My current mousetrap idea is that we need to figure out how to get some of our brightest architects, engineers and code enforcement professionals to sit down together and come up with better ways to build a truly pest-proof building. Furthermore, if we were really smart, we'd market the ideas as part of the current green building movement.

And why not? Once you have a building that is either (1) very difficult for pests to get in, or (2) extremely uncomfortable for the pests that do get in, you should find yourself needing far fewer pesticides (cleaner air) and the cost of building maintenance should go down. Both clean air and reduced building maintenance costs are important to the goals of green design.

So why don't we do this? It's not because of a lack of ideas or know-how.

To pick just one pest challenge, we know a lot about ways to termite-proof a building. A quick Google search reveals, for example, that NCSU entomologist, Mike Waldvogel has a nice online guide to termite proofing a home. Building code experts have struggled with termite-proofing issues for years. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Bureau of Entomology and Pest Control has a publication about Florida's code requirements for new An example of termite-proofing, once the concrete is poured around them, these collars will prevent termites from entering the building through the foam insulating sleeves surrounding copper and PVC plumbing pipesconstruction to prevent termite damage. The National Institute of Building Sciences has an interesting website on a concept they call whole building design. This group secured government funding to develop a web portal on the concept, including information on termite proofing.

The concept should apply as well to all sorts of pests including rodents, cockroaches, a variety of crawling insects, birds, bats and other wildlife.

So why don't we do the things we know work well to save the consumer or business money, and reduce our need for pesticides? I think there are many reasons that pest proofing has not gained greater acceptance in the field of building design. For one, building a pest proof building is not as sexy or high profile as an avant-garde design, or a building with high energy efficiency or even one built using recycled materials.

Another important reason is that there is currently no good venues for pest management specialists and architects and engineers to sit down and talk with each another. Entomologists and pest management specialists traditionally have their meetings, and architects and engineers have their separate meetings. Rarely do paths cross.

Last February our office held a meeting with folks from around the country to discuss some of these issues. About 40 experts in pest management, architecture and engineering participated in a three-day seminar to share ideas on designing pest-proof public and commercial buildings. We discussed how integrated pest management concepts could be blended with green-building designs. Lots of good ideas were shared, but, unfortunately, comparatively few architects and engineers were able to participate.

We hope to try again next year at the 6th International Symposium on IPM, to be held in Portland, OR. If you know of anyone with a special interest in this area, you can tell me about it through the comment button on this post. I am especially interested in connecting with people who have expertise in building engineering, architecture and building codes. It can be a long process to build a better mousetrap, but it's one that's worth pursuing.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Go on a mosquito safari with new website

explore a virtual backyard by clicking on hidden hot-spots that lead to information about mosquitoesWhen it comes to mosquitoes disrupting the backyard barbecue, most of us want to point fingers. We want to blame the city for not spraying, or our neighbors for creating a nuisance. But a significant part of the time, we are our own worst enemies.

That's the subtle message of a new website I've just completed. But no one's pointing fingers, just pointing out the many place that mosquitoes breed and hide out in the average backyard.

The Mosquito Safari website will take you on a virtual tour of your backyard, encouraging you to see your property from the tiny perspective of a mosquito. Did you know that an old tire makes the perfect mosquito home? That garbage cans and garbage lids are one of the most common breeding sites for mosquitoes? What about bird feeders and bird houses in areas where West Nile virus is common--does attracting birds to your backyard make the risk worse?

These and many other questions will be answered as you take the time to explore this site. Topics covered include mosquito biology and life cycles, risks of mosquitoes to humans and pets, how to identify the most common mosquito pests, and the steps you can take to reduce mosquito bites in your own backyard.

If you visit, be sure to turn on the sound, as much of the site is narrated.

For pest management professionals, the site might be a good way to reinforce the messages your technicians are giving your customers about the things they can do to reduce their risks. New technicians? Mosquito Safari can provide at least a half hour of training time for trainees.

Of course a site like this is not developed by just one person. I want to acknowledge the Dallas County Health Department, and former entomologist there, Scott Sawlis, for invaluable help and guidance in design of the site. Dr. Mark Johnsen, mosquito expert with Texas AgriLife Extension in College Station, was also very helpful providing advice and support. One of my desires was to make the site visually interesting and graphical in all aspects, and for this I thank the number of people willing to contribute images of mosquitoes and mosquito-related topics.

Please check it out and let me know what you think.

The mortgage crisis and West Nile virus

mosquitoes like hot tubs tooJust when you think the news couldn't look any more bleak, we learn that home foreclosures are sparking a rise in cases of West Nile virus. Huh? Yes, the CDC's online publication Emerging Infectious Diseases will be publishing an article in November that provides convincing documentation that an increase in home foreclosures (and accompanying abandoned swimming pools) in Kern County, California has resulted in an increase in Culex mosquito breeding in suburban neighborhoods.

Kern County has been especially hard hit by the mortgage crisis, with the number of mortgage defaults increasing 300% from 2006 to 2007. During the same time the number of human West Nile virus cases there increased by 276%. Aerial surveys confirm the high number of abandoned or neglected pools, jacuzzis and hot tubs, as evidenced by their green algae-rich color. It's bad enough to live in a neighborhood of foreclosed homes, but it's worse when those backyard pools turn into mosquito factories.

Several species of mosquitoes, including the principle vectors of West Nile virus, thrive in fish-free water rich in algae and bacteria. In California, both Culex quinquefasciatus and Culex tarsalis larvae have been collected from pools. The situation is similar to what was seen after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with thousands of scummy pools in abandoned backyards after the storm.

The situation does not appear to be limited to California. According to an online article in even Senator Hillary Clinton has become aware of the issue. She recently asked the CDC to look into the possibility that the foreclosure crisis and vacant homes on Long Island, NY are leaving pools of stagnant water where the virus-carrying mosquitoes breed.

So what's all this got to do with the pest control industry? If your company does residential pest control, you should alert your technicians to the potential health threats posed by abandoned pools. Technicians should report abandoned or neglected pools to customer or the local health department. Health departments should be interested in contacting the owners of such sites as a potential public health nuisance.

If a dirty pool or jacuzzi belongs to a customer, and you have permission, temporary control of mosquitoes is possible by treating pools with Bacillus thuringiensis or methoprene-containing products labeled for mosquito control.

If your company is located in one of the hurricane zones in Texas, noting and reporting potential mosquito breeding sites is even more critical. And if you've been looking for a way to help out in your community, providing chemical or biological control of mosquitoes in backyards might be one of the most important things you could contribute to the re-building effort. If your company is doing something along these lines, let me know. I'd be honored to spread the word about your efforts.

Friday, October 3, 2008

New option for kids with fire ant allergies

red imported fire ant stings on a young handA recent story from Reuter's reports on a new, rapid treatment method to desensitize young children with severe allergic reactions to stings from fire ants. According to a study in the September 2008 issue of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, three children were successfully desensitized in a one-day "rush" protocol, consisting of 10 injections given over an 8-hour period.

Rush therapy is considered better than conventional desensitization therapy, because of the quick immunity it provides. This is especially important in areas where fire ants are common (endemic) because studies show that 38% of children aged 16 years or less are stung at least monthly by fire ants.

The study was the first to show the effectiveness of rush therapy on children. According to the authors, rush therapy has previously been shown to be effective on adults. However, this research provides evidence that young children, who are twice as likely as older children to experience allergic reactions to fire ant stings, may also benefit from this therapy. Results should be considered preliminary because of the small number of children tested.

One of the things I appreciate most about the profession of pest management is the health benefits we provide to individuals and the community. And let's not undervalue the benefit of educating customers about the latest in research and health impacts of pest. If you have a customer whose children have allergies to fire ants, consider informing them of the medical option of desensitization therapy. You might just make a difference in a family's health and peace of mind.