Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rasberry crazy ant adds a new home

According to today's news release from AgNMore, the Rasberry ant, Nylanderia sp. near pubens, has now been found near Weslaco, TX in the lower Rio Grande valley.  This marks another geographical jump probably aided by humans.  The first area of infestation just south of Houston, has spread to approximately 12 adjacent counties.  Last summer the ants were reported from San Antonio area, as well as Jim Hogg county.  The Weslaco sighting, in south Hidalgo county, confirms that the ants have made it successfully to far south Texas. 

For more information about the Rasberry crazy ant, see the page at the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology's website.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The great beetle invasion

It's fall, and for most Texans this means principally and foremost, the beginning of football season.  But while high school males are rejoicing at the end of two-a-days and the beginning of cheerleaders, another species is rejoicing in the change of weather.

The sugarcane beetle, Euetheola humilis, is found throughout the South.  First reported as a pest of sugarcane in Louisiana in 1880, it is considered an occasional pest of field corn, rice and sweet potato. In recent years it appears to be becoming an increasingly important pest in Louisiana and Mississippi.  In Texas I have received increasing reports of this beetle from unusual urban situations.  Schools have reported damage occurring to running tracks.  Businesses have reported damage to caulking in sidewalks and around doors of buildings and, last year, a car dealership reported beetles digging their way into rubber seals on recreational vehicles in a sales lot.

Black piles of sugarcane beetles at high school running track, Paris, TX.  September 13, 2010. 
Photo by Sam Adams, Pogue Construction
This week I received pictures showing the most impressive infestation I have seen or heard of so far.  The new high school running track in Paris, Texas has been inundated with these beetles attracted, apparently to stadium lights.  

Such infestations seem to be sporadic, as these beetles are not abundant in all years; but when they are, they are showing themselves to be a formidable pest.  Like crickets and many other occasional pests, sugarcane beetles are attracted to lights at night.  When sun comes up, the beetles' natural instinct is to get out of the light.  What makes this species different is its persistence, ability and strength to dig through rubbers and caulks and other usually tough building materials.  

Sugarcane beetles lift a rubberized running track off its cement base
via their digging activities. 
As with fall cricket invasions, the best and fastest solution is to turn off the lights.  In the Paris, TX high school last night, lights were turned off with a dramatic decrease in numbers.  But turning off lights is not always practical or possible.  In such cases, reducing the time that lights are left on, switching to less attractive sodium vapor light fixtures, or some combination of the two strategies should be pursued.  Pesticides are not likely to provide much relief, though frequent treatment with a residual insecticide may be somewhat useful in emergency situations like the high school where the track is being destroyed.  Early morning sweeping or vacuuming, before the beetles can cause damage, may also be helpful in some cases.  

The only good news about this situation is that such flights are temporary and will probably decline within a week or two.  Football and track coaches, however, may still not be pleased.

The Pros debate green golf courses

A mini-debate has been running recently among the small community of entomologists who work with insect pests of turf and ornamental landscapes. It has to do with the growing emergence of green golf courses and a recent story/video at on the Chambers Bay links golf course on Puget Sound in Washington. The discussion was interesting and reveals some of the subtleties of varying opinions on the green movement.

Chamber's Bay is a sustainable, all-fescue, Scottish-links-style course that was built on a reclaimed gravel pit. The course uses almost no irrigation, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides. It is a showcase for cultural control and how “brown can become the new green.” This course does not look like most of the lush, immaculate courses you see around Houston, Dallas or San Antonio, or for that matter any of the PGA tournament courses you see on television.

Not every one is ready to stand up and cheer for these new courses, however. Not that I know anyone who doesn't support a golf course that uses less water, fertilizer and pesticides; but it's the fear that Chamber's Bay and other courses like it, are being set up as examples for the golfing community, with the implication, "See they can do it. Why can't all courses be like that?"

According to entomologist Dave Shetlar, Ohio State University, "Climate makes all the difference when it comes to having diseases, weeds and insects." Just because a course can be successful using a low-input approach along Puget Sound, it doesn't mean that acceptable course conditions can be maintained in Houston, Texas or Augusta, Georgia, where disease, weed and insect pressure is many times higher.

Shetlar worries that folks who are eager to jump on the “green wagon” will cause trouble for other courses trying to maintain tournament-grade turf. He points to the eastern Canadian provinces, whose governments have recently banned “cosmetic” pesticide and fertilizer use in urban landscapes. The one exception so far has been golf courses. "Now that a couple of courses have claimed that they don’t need fertilizer and pesticides, the government regulators are looking again at the exemption that they gave golf courses [and consider eliminating the exemption]." If this happens, he said, there will be a lot of unhappy golf players and grief among golf course managers. He cites pressure from the PGA, which has stated that they won’t allow play on “sub-standard” courses.

Dr. Dan Potter, Professor of Entomology from the University of Kentucky, has a different perspective. While acknowledging that golf course settings vary widely in climate, soils, water requirements, golfer expectations and pest pressure, the idea that golf courses need not approach visual perfection is the significant issue with Chamber's Bay. Quoting professional golfer Bo van Pelt at the British Open, he said: “St. Andrews [arguably, the premier golf links course in the world] shows that every course doesn’t have to be immaculate, green, watered, manicured. There are different ways to play golf. And this way is great.”

According to Potter, "American golfers have traditionally preferred to play on velvet-green, immaculately-groomed courses. Watching the Masters at Augusta National on a high-definition color TV sure sets the bar high. But socio-cultural perceptions can change... Marketing and consumer education can speed that change."

Potter also notes that today's turf insecticides are much less toxic than many of the older ones, and that insecticides are necessary to prevent turf destruction in some settings.
"[Research has shown that] “organic golf” does not work in many, perhaps most settings. Clearly insecticides are needed in many circumstances. But all over the world there is recognition that water use and other golf course inputs can be reduced without compromising quality of play. The USGA has invested $30 million in environmental research. About 2700 US courses have earned Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status. GCSAA’s Environmental Institute for Golf and USGA/PGA/Audubon International’s 'Golf and the Environment' promote sustainable resource management. ...I’m encouraged that USGA has selected a less-than-aesthetically perfect course committed to sustainable management for its signature tournament."
Potter's point is that if people's perception of what is meant by an attractive golf course can change, then golf course superintendents will feel the freedom to cut back on some of the intensive management practices in use at many courses today. We should cheer, not fear, courses like Chamber's Bay, for leading the PR charge towards a different ideal on the links.

So why blog here to PMPs about golf courses? It has to do with consumer demand. The golf course experience, whether we realize it or not, affects the way professionals are called to manage urban landscapes. Until there were immaculate greens and emerald fairways in north Texas, many Texans were happy with a basic grass/weeds mix, or even (before that) the traditional raked dirt front lawn. I don't think we'll ever go back to black dirt lawns in my community, but I know from seeing them that urban landscapes designed with native trees and prairie plants can be just as, if not more, attractive than the bermudagrass/crape myrtle/holly formal landscapes so common in north Texas cities. On the other hand legislators should be aware that management practices that work in Canada or Washington state or Maine, may not work or be acceptable in the sun belt, home of the thousand plagues. 

PMPs will do well to follow this green debate, as this is affecting anyone whose business includes landscape maintenance.  Besides, it seems like a good excuse to get out on the golf course more.  Chalk it up to market research.