Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Better Mousetrap

Some ideas are so obvious you wonder why you never thought of it. Best of luck to these ladies trying their artsy hands at building a better mousetrap. By turning a mouse trap into a piece of art, pest control becomes almost chic. At least we know now that mouse traps don't have to be an embarrassment.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Insect protection for storm damaged trees

Storms have been rumbling through the Dallas area the past few days, knocking down fences, damaging roofs and snapping tree branches like toothpicks. Similar events, of course, occur throughout Texas and other states during the spring months, leaving many homeowners and property managers wondering how to clean up the mess.Damaged trees and fallen branches are a common sight during the spring stormy season.

One of the often overlooked side effects of wind damage to trees is the subsequent attack of trees by wood boring beetles. Yet it is a relatively simple task to reduce the risk of wood boring insects infesting damaged or weakened trees.

Of first importance is proper dressing of the wound. Pest management professionals should leave all but the most modest jobs of this nature to the homeowner or the professional arborist; but knowing something about the process can be helpful in recognizing whether a proper treatment has been made to give the tree the best chance of survival.

A University of Tennessee publication by Wayne Clatterbuck offers the following advice for dressing broken low level branches:
  • Smaller branches should be pruned back to the point where they join larger ones. Make the cut at a slant next to a bud that can produce new growth. Do not leave branch stubs as they encourage rot and decay.
  • Large branches that are broken should be cut back to either the trunk or main limb. Do not cut the branch flush with the trunk. Instead, cut outside the collar at the base of the branch.
  • When a damaged limb strips healthy bark from the tree, cut the ragged edges of torn bark with a sharp knife or chisel. Take care not to remove any more healthy bark and expose more live tissue than necessary. If possible, the wound left by the cut should be shaped like an elongated football with the pointed ends of the cut running vertically along the trunk or limb.
  • Trees should not be "topped" during the repair process. Topping accelerates shoot growth and promotes branches that are weakly attached to stubs rather than anchored from within the limb. These branches are more likely to break in future storm events.
  • Tree wound dressings (paint, tar and others) do not prevent decay, may interfere with rapid healing and in some cases can serve as food sources for harmful microorganisms.Red oak borer is active during June and July and is one insect that may use wind damage as an opportunity to infest injured trees
What Clatterbuck and others in the horticulture business often fail to suggest is an application of wood borer preventative sprays to the areas around damaged wood. This works because the egg-laying females of most borers search out wounds and areas of damaged bark as places to lay their eggs. By treating these sites with a long-lasting residual spray, the small larvae that hatch from these eggs are killed as they attempt to burrow their way under the bark edges into the nutritious phloem and cambium layers under the bark.

If you carry a Turf and Ornamentals category license in Texas, this is an additional service you can provide to your customers with newly damaged trees. Products normally used include bifenthrin (Onyx®, Talstar®) and permethrin (Astro®). Applications should be made to and around obvious wound areas, as well as around the crotches and base of the tree. It is a good idea to provide a follow-up treatment 6 to 8 weeks after the initial application.

For more information about wood boring beetles see Wood Boring Insects of Trees and Shrubs at the Texas AgriLife Extension bookstore.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fire ants shock homeowners

Pad mounted transformers are the most common way of distributing electricity to several homes.  Unfortunately this equipment is vulnerable to fire ant damage.An incident last month in Carrollton, TX highlights the need for consistent fire ant control, the sort of service residential pest control companies excel at. In this case fire ants invaded a transformer box in a residential area, resulting in a power surge that cost nine surrounding households thousands of dollars. The resulting surge damaged sensitive electronics including garage door openers, dishwashers and microwaves.

Fire ants pose problems for electrical equipment throughout their range in the southeastern US, and now in parts of California. Pad mounted transformers, like the one damaged last month in Carrollton, air conditioning units, traffic controllers, swimming pool pumps and just about any outdoor electrical equipment is at risk.

Why electrical equipment? There are several theories and some data to explain the fire ant's apparent affinity for electrical wiring, switches and equipment. Research done at Texas A&M University in the 1980s showed that fire ants are attracted to the electrical fields that surround wires and especially relay switches. In addition there is some evidence that ants that receive shocks at a relay switch point, for example, release an alarm pheromone that draws other ants into the site. Finally, ground mounted electrical equipment is often warmer than the surrounding soil and probably attracts fire ants to build mounds nearby, especially during winter months. All these things add up to big problems with fire ants (Note: other ant species can cause the same types of problems, presumably for the same reasons).

Why don't utility companies just treat these boxes? Many utility companies do treat any transformers where they find evidence of fire ant activity, but the treatments have a limited life, and the numbers of transformers out there (in the millions) are overwhelming. It is just not economical or practical to treat all electric utility equipment, not to mention every air conditioning unit out there.

Guess where that leaves you as PMPs? It leaves you at the forefront of protecting your customers' homes and property. After working with utility companies and the military for several years on these problems I concluded that the best protection for sensitive equipment is ongoing, thorough fire ant control on the properties where such equipment is located. No other approach works as well.

Residential monthly or quarterly service is an ideal time to provide landscape fire ant control. It's easy for the average homeowner to overlook a regular fire ant inspection and treatment, but building this service into regular pest control treatment provides superior protection against these problems. If your routine pest control service does not provide an option for regular fire ant control you might be missing out on a valuable and useful service for your customers.

It's important to note that landscape fire ant control does not mean treating fire ant mounds piecemeal, only as they are observed. This is the most common, but not the most effective, approach. Landscape fire ant control means using broadcast baits (MaxForce®, Amdro®, Extinguish® and similar products) or granular treatments (usually products containing fipronil or bifenthrin) over the entire area to be protected. Only this approach will control the small colonies that are frequently missed by individual mound treatmens. Only landscape fire ant control will free you and your customers from continually being on the defensive against these ants. For more information about using baits as part of a landscape fire ant control program, see Extension publication B-6099, Broadcast Baits for Fire Ant Control.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sleuthing an unusual insect

One of the nice things about being an Extension entomologist is that I get to hear what's going on out there in your lives without all the hard work of following you around. Specifically, I get to hear stories about you from your customers. This week's story has to do with a not-too-common insect that puzzled several of you recently, and one that had me donning my Sherlock Holmes' cap.

The new homeowners were experiencing an invasion of little larvae in their living room, near a food or obvious source of the critters nearby. I had about a dozen specimens in hand, and the homeowner reported seeing that many every day for at least the past two weeks. At least three PMPs examined the insects; one determined that they were "maggots", another suggested old house borers (the people were finding a dozen or so each day on their hardwood floors), another hadn't a clue.

Can you identify this larva? Image taken with a consumer brand Nikon digital camera held up to the objective lens of my microscopeSince this wasn't a no-brainer for me either, bear with me as I share my thought process used to determine the identity of these insects (see picture). As you read, see if you can guess the final diagnosis.

Like a garage mechanic trying to diagnose an old car, entomologists commonly use the process of elimination and deductive reasoning to explain strange insect problems--of which this industry sees of lot. My sample was certainly an insect, because it had six-legs, but fly maggots (say from a carcass) were out of the question because fly larvae are legless. At first glance at these little guys reminded me of Indian meal moth, the most common, similar sized larva found in similar situations in homes. But my insects did not have prolegs (the fleshy claspers found on the abdomenal segments of moth and butterfly caterpillars. Because of their prominent legs, caterpillar-like shape, and lack of prolegs I knew they were some type of beetle.

I immediately knew they could not be old house borer or any kind of wood-boring beetles because insects that live in wood are usually white and their legs tend to be microscopic--very small, if present at all (legs aren't very useful for inching through dark, narrow galleries in the wood). Also, wood borers never leave their safe galleries during the larval life stage.

Insects emerging from stored products are always a prime suspect in cases like this. Although they slightly resembled hide beetles, they lacked the hairy bodies associated with dermestid larvae. I knew from experience that they did not look like the larva of any other common stored product pests.

So Watson, where does that leave us? Could it be a beetle that sneaked its way indoors around a crack in a window frame, or under a door? Probably not, because there were too many of them to be coincidence, and this is not common behavior for outdoor, plant feeding or carnivorous beetles. If they in fact originated in the house, that left me with two likely remaining sources. They could be some kind of decomposer insect that feeds on dead animals or decaying plant materials. Or they could be an insect that lives in the nests of other animals. With a fireplace nearby either choice seemed likely.

Any guesses? The only obvious, distinctive physical characteristic on these relatively plain beetle were two sets of hooked, horn-like structures on the last segment of the abdomen. At this point a little entomology experience saved a bunch of research time--that, and a quick call to the Texas A&M University entomology museum assistant curator, Ed Riley. Ed and I both had a suspicion, but needed a picture to confirm it. We Googled "hive beetle" and sure enough, at a University-based website (my first choice when faced with hundreds of hits from Google) we saw our culprit.

The small hive beetle, Aethina tumida, is a relatively new structural pest in this country. It's really not considered a structural pest, but a pest of bee hives where it feeds on bee larvae in their waxen nurseries. I have encountered the adult form of this beetle from samples taken in homes before, but never the larva. I suspect that our industry will see more and more of them as time goes on.

My conclusion? The new homeowners had not yet discovered that along with their new home they had also purchased a bee hive, hidden perhaps in a wall or ceiling area. The hive beetles were the only evidence they had seen of this hive, but as Sherlock Holmes could tell you, the evidence never lies.

These kind of challenges keep our profession interesting and even fun. Perhaps it's no coincidence that when Sherlock finally retired, he took up beekeeping as his choice of amusement.

For more information about hive beetles, along with images, check out and