Monday, October 30, 2017

A few spots left for Rodent Academy in Dallas

The following announcement is from Janet Hurley, IPM Program Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.  The course is being offered as part of our IPM Experience House educational events and will be held December 5-7 at the Texas A&M AgriLife Center at Dallas. 

The primary trainer for the event is Dr. Bobby Corrigan, rodent consultant and author of the very useful book: Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Management Professionals.  I've known Bobby since our days as grad students in entomology at Purdue University, and he is well worth hearing. He is a rare expert on rodents and pest control, and an engaging teacher. 

Class size is limited to 50 and there are just a few spaces left, so you will have to move quickly to get in. To learn more about the class, cost and how to register, click here

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Fall Pest Management Seminar in Dallas

Everyone needs a day of training to keep sharp. Why not have
fun at the same time, and join us on November 2?
Registration is now open for the Fall Pest Management Seminar, sponsored by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. This is one of the most convenient and cost-effective ways to get your pesticide applicator CEUs in the Dallas area.  To register, go to our AgriLife Conference Registration site.  Early registration is still only $70, and includes lunch.

One big change this year is our location. This meeting, and all training meetings in the foreseeable future will be held at a new address, the Richardson Civic Center. It's a very nice facility and no more hard yellow chairs!  We hope you'll join us and check it out.

The class is designed for commercial and non-commercial applicators with turf and ornamental-oriented licences. Continuing education credits will count for both Structural and Agricultural license holders.  This year's course and speakers includes:

  • Review of the latest Ag and Structural Pesticide Laws and Regulations by Allison Cuellar. Yes, not the most interesting subject, but Allison knows her stuff and will keep you on your toes.
  • Rodent Management by Janet Hurley. Many of you know Janet from her many talks on school IPM and Laws and regs; but she is a rat catcher on the side.  
  • Gary Brooks with Bayer Crop Sciences will present an update on common turfgrass pests. Gary is an entomologist by training and loves sharing pictures and stories about the pest problems he encounters.
  • Raymond Miller with Dow Agrosciences will cover "Best Management Practices for Weeds". Raymond brings years of experience with weeds to help you do a better job managing tough weeds.
  • Dr. Frank Wong, also with Bayer Crop Sciences is a plant pathologist, but has recently been involved with Bayer's pollinator protections efforts.  He will offer suggestions on designing your IPM program to better protect honey bees and other pollinators.  
Brochures with maps and detailed registration and program information are available at the registration website, or by clicking here

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Texas sized mosquito event

Mosquito covered shirt in Port LaVaca, TX. Photo
by Richard Murray on Facebook.
Remember last week when I warned that mosquitoes would be hurricane Harvey's final gift?  Well, mosquitoes are here as seen in this Facebook image, taken in Port Lavaca, TX this weekend.

The giant mosquitoes in this picture are probably in the genus Psorophora, (sore ROFF oh ruh) one of our largest, most painful and aggressive biters.  Psorophora mosquitoes have some impressive chops when it comes to survival.  One of the so-called floodwater mosquito species, they lay their eggs on land rather than water like most mosquitoes.  But not just on any land--eggs are laid at the edges of receding floodwaters, where they will re-hydrate and hatch during the next large rain event.

Because Psorophora are opportunists, taking advantage of brief rainstorms, they must have a quick lifespan.  The larvae of floodwater species like Psorophora are the speediest growers of all mosquitoes.  They need as little as 3 to 3.5 days of standing water to pass through the four molts common to mosquitoes. The pupal stage has even adapted to survive and complete its development on the mud surface of drying puddles.

What we see in this picture is evidence that floodwater mosquitoes were primed at the pump when Harvey hit the upper Gulf coast two weeks ago.  When the rains came, mosquito eggs hatched across thousands of square miles of coastal prairie and marsh, and billions of Psorophora larvae raced through childhood. Add to this that Harvey's rainfall impacted over 400 miles of Gulf shoreline, dumping an estimated 27 trillion gallons of water. The rainfall was epic and completely unprecedented. The city of Houston doubled it's previous all time monthly rainfall record with 39.11 inches (and Houston gets lots of rain). That's 400 miles of Gulf coast prairies producing mosquitoes, also unprecedented, I suspect.

So don't be surprised to read and hear lots of mosquito stories over the next couple of weeks.  If you have to be out and about in this part of Texas, there is protection you can carry. For extreme conditions a mosquito head net will be necessary. Wear light colored, tight knit, long-sleeved fabrics. T-shirts or short-sleeved shirts will not be enough.  Permethrin-impregnated shirts and pants may be worth their weight in gold.  And don't forget to bring DEET repellent. Lots of it.

Thanks a lot, Harvey!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Insects and floodwaters

Fire ant floating colony in Houston floodwaters.
Photo by NBC DFW  @OmarVillafranca
Many in the pest control industry find themselves in the midst of the devastating floods hitting much of south and east Texas this week.  If so, it may be a good time to remind ourselves of some unique pest challenges associated with high water.

Flooding brings all sorts of wildlife into unusually close contact with people, but few critters are more dangerous than fire ants. When floods occur, fire ants exit the ground and float, instinctively linking their legs and forming a floating mat which is nearly impossible to sink. When they inevitably bump into a dry object like a tree, a boat or a person, the ant mass "explodes" with ants quickly exiting the mass and swarming the object.

Diving underwater, or splashing water on the ants, will not help.  The best option is soapy water, which is pretty good at killing the ants and helping drown a floating ant island.  According to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension publication, "Flooding and Fire Ants:Protecting Yourself and Your Family", two tablespoons of soap in a gallon of water, sprayed on a floating mat is effective at drowning ants.  If any of you are engaged in water rescue this week, carrying a supply of soap along with a squirt bottle would be a good idea.

You might not have thought of it, but bed bugs can also become an issue after a public emergency like a tornado or flood.  When lots of people are brought together in an emergency shelter situation, the risk of bed bug encounters goes up.  The University of Minnesota has put together a nice publication on the subject. If you are in a community hosting an emergency shelter consider offering your services to inspect shelters and treat for bed bugs as necessary.  Don't forget the diatomaceous earth and silica aerogel dusts as a means of providing significant control for shelter bedding at minimal risk.

Lastly, after the storm is long gone be prepared for mosquitoes.  The primary mosquito species in the Texas Coastal Bend area are the salt marsh and pasture-land breeding mosquitoes. These are difficult to control at their breeding sites, short of aerial mosquito control campaigns.  But to some extent, these mosquitoes can be controlled in backyards with residual mosquito adulticides. If your company does residential pest control, but hasn't yet gotten into the adult mosquito control business, this may be a good time to start. One good way to educate your customers about the mosquito threat is the Mosquito Safari website.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Murine typhus on rise in Texas

Researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Department of State Health Services recently reported an increase in the number of reported cases of typhus in Texas. Texas historically has had more cases of typhus than other states, but this new study published in the CDC's Emerging Infectious Disease journal  shows that numbers of cases have increased ten-fold in the past 14 years.

When rodents are present in a house, there may also be rat fleas.
The oriental rat flea is thought to be the principal vector of
murine typhus, a disease on the rise in Texas. (Image courtesy
Pest and Diseases Image Library, Bugwood.org)
In addition to a general increase in cases statewide, the data shows that what used to be solely a south Texas problem is creeping into more northerly parts of the state. Houston, for example, which had no cases of typhus as recently as 2007, reported 32 cases last year.  Nueces County, home to the city of Corpus Christi, had the highest case rate in Texas, reporting about 140 cases/100,000 population.

The causative agent for murine typhus (the term "murine" is a scientific term referring to rodents) is a rickettsial parasite called Rickettsia typhi. This parasite is always present in rodent populations, both Norway and roof rats, and to a lesser extent mice and opossums.  The primary vector that transmits the parasite from rodent to rodent, and occasionally to humans, is the oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, though other fleas, including the cat flea are suspected to be occasional vectors.

Symptoms of murine typhus include fever, headache and rash. Left untreated, the disease can be fatal in about 2% of cases; but once diagnosed, typhus is easily treated. Numbers of cases peak during the summer months of June and July, but in south Texas there is a secondary peak in cases during the winter.

The typhus pathogen is thought to infect people when they scratch an itchy flea bite. It is present in the flea's feces, which may be rubbed into the site of the bite during scratching.

While the exact cause for the increase in typhus cases is unknown, pest control will play an important role in any solution. Experience with murine typhus in the past has shown that cases peak when flea numbers are highest, and that case frequency declines when rats are controlled, and insecticides applied for fleas.

In 54% of the cases reported in this study, fleas were reported to be present in the home, and 34% of patients recalled a flea bite.  Rodents were known to be present by the victims in about 29% of the cases, and some form of other wildlife was present in 42% of cases.

Good flea control, rodent exclusion and rodent control are among the most important public health services our industry provides. So if you didn't have enough reasons to explain to customers why they need you, you now have one more.




Thursday, August 17, 2017

New resource for ant control

Take some of the best ant experts in the country and ask them to write about their favorite ant pests. What do you get?  The new eXtension Ant Pests page.

This new addition to the eXtension (pronounced EE-ex-TEN-shun) website is the latest contribution to an information repository from Cooperative Extension Service centers across the country. The goal of the site is to provide in-depth biology and control information about important ant pests for anyone who needs it.

And who needs it more than pest management professionals?

So check us out.  And while you're there, you might enjoy exploring other pest management resource areas including fire ants, feral hogs, pests around structures (school IPM plans), and Wildlife Damage Management.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A life saving opportunity

How would you like to save a life today? Through pest control? It's not as hard as you might think.

In the years since Bill Gates retired his position as CEO of MicroSoft Corporation, he and wife Melinda have devoted tremendous effort to battling malaria.  Malaria and the mosquitoes that transmit it is the single greatest killer of humans in the world, accounting for most of the 700,000+ mosquito-caused deaths annually.  But unlike many of the other major problems in the world, solutions to the malaria epidemic are available now.

The Gates Foundation is partnering with the NGO World Vision to give away 100,000 bed nets. These nets protect families from mosquitoes that carry deadly diseases, including malaria. Each one is treated with an insecticide that kills mosquitoes but has a low LD50 for humans.

Insecticide-treated bed nets have played an enormous role in the fight to end malaria. But distribution is a huge logistical challenge. This is where you can help.

If you're willing to take two minutes to learn more about the fight against malaria, and take a one question quiz, Mr. Gates has pledged to donate a bed net on your behalf to a family in Inhambane province--an area in the south African country of Mozambique where malaria is common.  You can do this at the Gates Notes Bed Net Giveaway website.

On a related note, my wife and I recently watched a film about the malaria problem in Mozambique called Mary and Martha, with Hillary Swank playing an American mom who loses a son to malaria.  It's a sad but compelling and uplifting film, well worth watching.  And it shows how a simple thing like a treated bed net can make a world of difference for families in another part of the world.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A loss for Dallas Pest Control

I know that many of the readers of this blog are not from the north Texas area, so sharing news of a local nature may be a turn off for some.  But there is something universal about the loss of a colleague that should cause all of us, no matter where we live and work, to pause and reflect.

Last week the Dallas pest control community lost a friend in Ray Porter.  I knew Ray from several projects we got to do together (meaning he was willing to help me out on some field trials) well over 10 years ago. He was one of the nicest guys I've been privileged to work with, always unassuming and extremely polite. Ray was an account manager for Orkin Pest Control from 1989 -1998 and then with Bizzy Bees Pest Control in Dallas from 1998 – 2013.  He became an Orkin man again when Bizzy Bees was bought out in 2013, until 2016 when he retired. According to his friend Errol Cohen, he was "devoted to his customers beyond belief, and always delivered exceptional service... Always a top performer and a President’s Club member numerous times, Ray went way beyond the extra mile every day."

Ray also went the extra mile for his profession.  He was active for many years in our local pest control association, working to build relationships among fellow professionals and trying to raise the reputation of the industry. In this regard his life should be an example, especially to the newer pest management generation.

It's sad when a good man passes away, but Ray's passing reminds me that we all are privileged to work daily with some pretty great folks. Let's not forget to appreciate them while we have them, and to enjoy the time we are given.  So long Ray, and thanks for your example and inspiration.

I remember being told by a customer in my first job in pest control, that a company is only as good as the people it employs. By this standard, Orkin and Bizzie Bees were definitely winners.  From Ray's obituary:
Raymond Nelson Porter was born August 14, 1942 in Sand Springs, Oklahoma to Harry and Bertie Porter and died peacefully August 10, 2017 at home surrounded by family. Ray was devoted to his wife and family (especially his grandchildren and great-grandson). He was an avid golfer, loved being outdoors and working at Bizzy Bees. Survivors include his wife Yvonne of 28 years; his son Eric Porter (daughter-in-law Stacy, grandson Brandon and wife Molly, great-grandson Luke and granddaughter Tiffani); his son Christopher Porter (daughter-in-law Carol, grandchildren Claire and Nicholas); his son Jason Porter (granddaughter Lindsay); his step-daughter Andrea Hefner (son-in-law Bill, granddaughter Alexandra and husband Colman, and grandson Riley); his step-daughter Stephanie Enriquez (grandsons Steven and Christopher); his sister Sue Orendorff (brother-in-law Ellis); and, his brother Larry Porter.

A Memorial Service will be held Saturday, August 19, 2017, 10:30 am, at Williams Funeral Home, 1600 South Garland Avenue, Garland, Texas 75040.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Chalcid wasps in homes

After identifying an unusual insect for a homeowner today, the thank you email ended with a bang. Because I was able to quickly identify her pest, which her PMP had incorrectly insisted was a "bee", she concluded, "[I guess] it's best I change pest control companies."

Brachymeria podagrica on window screen
Could you identify this insect from this picture? Brachymeria
podagrica
 is a chalcid wasp parasitoid that attacks filth flies,
like those that feed on carrion.
Ouch... I hate to hear that.

Admittedly the insect was an obscure critter. I'm guessing that not one in 100 PMPs has ever heard of a chalcid (CHAL sid) wasp before. But chalcid wasps are common natural enemies of many insect pests. Identified by their small size and giant hind femurs, the Chalcididae family makes up one of the dozen or so "parasitoid" wasp families within the bee/wasp/ant order Hymenoptera.

Parasitoid wasps are certainly one of the most fascinating and wonderful, yet horrifying, of all creatures.  So seemingly cruel in its behavior that theologians and biologists argued over the last 200 years whether the mere existence of insects like the ichneumon wasp (a cousin of the chalcid wasp) served as proof against the Christian belief in a loving Creator-God.*

Parasitoids are parasite-like predators. Like a parasite, they grow up feeding on or in a single host. But unlike true parasites, which weaken but rarely kill, parasitoids invariably kill their hosts. Parasitoids begin their lives as an egg laid by their mother on a soft part of a host's anatomy. Upon hatching the parasitoid larva burrows into the body cavity of its host and begins feeding. The larva knows instinctively to begin with the non-essential parts, prolonging the life of its victim as long as possible. Eaten alive from the inside, ultimately the host dies. Ugh.

It does sound cruel, but parasitoids are also one of nature's most effective population control agents. Without them, crops would vanish under billions of caterpillars.  Flies would breed unchecked. Even spiders would be more abundant than they already are.  Parasitoid wasps possess some of the world's sharpest "noses" (actually antennae), able to sniff out prey even when the prey are vanishingly rare. They are also smart, with some species recently being trained to sniff out illicit drugs and even bombs on the battlefield. Gardeners and farmers, especially, reap the benefits of parasitoid services every day.

The key to identifying chalcid wasps is their tiny size (this is one 
of  the larger chalcids at 5 mm), reduced veination in the wings, 
and swollen hind femurs. This Brachymeria podagrica is further 
identified by its distinctive markings. Photo courtesy Graham
Montgomery via Bugguide.net.
Admittedly we in structural pest control don't have many chances to encounter parasitic insects in our daily work.  Most parasitoid wasps live peacefully out of sight in the natural world, ill at ease in our indoor environments. Occasionally, though, parasitoid wasps make an appearance in a home or business. For this reason, it's a good idea for PMPs to know something about these insects.

The species of chalcid wasp my homeowner encountered "swarming" in her attic this spring appeared identical to other similar wasp pictures I've received recently.  These turned out to be Brachymeria podagricaa parasitoid (primarily) of flies.  Their presence indoors suggests that the source could have been a dead animal full of fly larvae somewhere in the home--a theory backed up in this case by the homeowner's report of a foul stench several days before the little wasps appeared in the attic. Likely they were drawn to the smell of the carcass in search of their blow fly hosts.

When one, or a few, unusual insects show up overnight in a structure, they are often called "accidental invaders". Accidental invaders are chance occurrences, when an insect or spider accidentally enters through an open door or window, or unsealed crack. Such accidental entries occur on a regular basis in residential accounts, but usually with a variety of arthropods.  But when several (or dozens) of the same kind of insect appear inside a home, or when the same insects show up over many days, it usually means something is afoot. Insects always have a story to tell, and they never lie.

Chalcid wasps are not likely to enter an account over and over by accident. If you find chalcids indoors, get a sample and have them identified. Brachymeria podagrica suggests the possibility of wildlife or rodents; however other species of Brachymeria and other species of chalcids are known to parasitize beetle or moth larvae, and might be evidence of a stored product pest infestation.

And remember, if you're ever unsure of the identification of an insect, don't hesitate to bring it to your in-house entomologist (if you have one), or send to your state university or other reputable insect ID authority. And don't just call something strange a "bee" unless you know for sure that it is.

* An interesting discussion of the ichneumon wasp controversy can be found in Stephen Jay Gould's essay on Non-moral Nature in the book Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Asian tiger mosquito a focus of last week's training


Keith Haas demonstrates use of a handheld ULV applicator
for treating adult mosquitoes hiding in dense vegetation.
For which important urban insect pest did 70% of pest control companies get more calls last year? For which pest are 88% of pest management professionals (PMPs) confident that control options are better than they were five years ago?  For what pest do nearly 2/3 of companies have callback rates of 4% or less?

According to a 2017 report by MGK® Co., the repeated answer is "mosquitoes". It appears that pest control customers increasingly want to fight pesky mosquitoes in their backyards, and are willing to pay for it. 

Ultimately, this increased interest in mosquitoes is what brought 15 interested PMPs to the "Practical Mosquito Control" course last week at IPM Experience House. And, as students learned, the driving force for this demand may just be the tiny Asian tiger mosquito (ATM), Aedes albopictus, and its slightly less common cousin the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti.

A fast and opportunistic biter, tiger mosquitoes are relatively new pests, having arrived from Japan only about 30 years ago. When people complain that, "the mosquitoes are terrible this time of year", chances are they're talking about the day-flying ATM. But ironically, despite it's irritating bite, ATM is not currently a public health threat in most areas.

"The one good thing about ATM", said Scott Sawlis, county entomologist for Dallas County Health and Human Services, "is that it reminds people that they need to wear repellent, and thereby protect themselves from the more dangerous disease-carrying species."  In the Dallas area that would be Culex quinquefasciatus, the stealthier, nighttime-flying, southern house mosquito.  Even though folks don't tend to notice the house mosquito as much, it's the one to carry West Nile virus, our most serious mosquito-borne disease. 

Sawlis and fellow instructors (myself and Dr. Sonja Swiger with Texas A&M AgriLife, and Keith Haas, with Central Life Sciences), spent the day explaining to class attendees about the need for mosquito control, and some of the differences between the target species.  At the end of the day we got to practice what we learned in class by conducting an outdoor inspection and spending some workout time on microscopes looking at these tiniest of pests at a bug eye level. 

During our inspection we discovered mosquitoes breeding (naturally) just a few feet from where class took place.  Afterwards, students got to see fresh-caught mosquito eggs and watch mosquito larvae wriggle through murky breeding media.  Haas demonstrated the ability of a ULV generator to go through and around landscape vegetation, and Sawlis demonstrated proper use of a dipper when trying to determine whether mosquitoes might be breeding in a water source.

Although ATM may be one of the best things to happen to the pest control business in the past few years, it does have a darker side. The ATM is very difficult to control from city spray trucks and even from the air.  And it remains ready to transmit the viruses for Zika and dengue fever, should these diseases arrive in our area like Zika did last summer in Miami, FL and Brownsville, TX.  

One of the most effective tools, our class learned, for fighting tiger mosquitoes is the PMP. While county and city mosquito control staff must patrol streets with sprayers that treat city-blocks at a time (a technique that works well for the house mosquito), only the PMP walks backyards, identifies and treats ground-level breeding sites, and precisely targets sprays to ATM resting sites. This puts the pest control technician in an important role to reduce the most frequent mosquito bites, and to fight Zika and other Aedes-borne illnesses, should they arise here.

If you missed last week's class, and would like to learn more about control of ATM and its biting cousins, several regional training classes will be offered over the next few months.  Stay tuned here for more information.  


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Three new Experience House Trainings

Are you looking for pest control training using a practical approach? Do you have a new employee that you'd like to provide with some of the best training available?  Then you might be interested in the three new hands-on classes being offered this summer through the new IPM Experience House in Dallas.  Here are this summer's classes with information on how to register:
IPM Experience House provides a real world
environment where technicians learn by doing.
  • Practical Mosquito Control for PMPs (next week!) July 20, 8:30 am - 3:30 pm. This class provides an introduction to mosquitoes and mosquito biology. We’ll go through some of the basics of mosquito adult and larval identification, learn how to identify mosquito risk zones around the home and how to communicate with customers about risks from mosquito-borne disease. Different insecticide application methods and equipment will be demonstrated. Training will include both classroom, and hands-on and outdoor training at IPM Experience House. Cost for the course is only $20 thanks to partial funding by the Centers for Disease Control. If you are interested, you'll have to hurry. Click here for an agenda and information on how to register today.
  • Introduction to termite control for new technicians. August 2, 8:30 am - 3:30 pm.  This class is designed to orient new termite technicians to the art and science of termite control. Termite control expert, Dr. Bob Davis, will be demonstrating practical field skills for setting up and executing a termite job. He is joined by Dr. Mike Merchant in the classroom to provide some of the basic biology of termites you need to know if you are to be on the top of your game. This is a great opportunity to train new or old employees in the field of termite control. Half of this class will be held in the classroom, and half will be outdoors, conducting a termite estimate and treatment. Cost for the course is $40, includes snacks and water. Click here for an agenda and registration information. 
  • General Household Pest Category Training. August 23, 8:30 am - 5:00 pm. This first-time offering provides the necessary Pest category training for new apprentices and an introduction to general pest control for new technicians. Topics to be covered include: introduction to entomology and the general orders of insects; general insect pests; mosquitoes; rodents and other animal pests; introduction to IPM and pesticides; and equipment used in pest control. This is a great opportunity to train new or old employees in the field of termite control. Half of this class will be held in the classroom, and half will be in the field, conducting pest control inspections at the new IPM Experience House, looking at specimens, and getting some introductory experience with monitoring and treatments. Cost for the course is $50, includes lunch, snacks and water. Click here for agenda and registration information. 
If you've not yet visited IPM Experience House, we are a new training facility designed to provide hands-on training experiences for pest management professionals doing structural pest control in Texas. We are located at 17360 Coit Road, Dallas, TX 75252.  Classes will meet in the Building E classroom (Whitehurst Education Building), and walking to the IPM Experience House for part of the training.  For a campus map, click here.  Additional questions can be directed to Sharon Harris at 972-952-9201.

IPM Experience House is made possible through the redesign of a former dormitory on the Texas A&M AgriLife Dallas campus, the facility is financially supported by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and the Texas pest control industry.  This summer will be a great time to check us out.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The things we do for You

Lab-reared cockroaches being released into a
previously pristine cabinet in the restaurant zone at
IPM Experience House.  Infestation for a good cause!
Last month I did the unthinkable. I purposefully infested a home with cockroaches.

My actions, though, were not criminal and will not harm any homeowner or renter. And the newly infested house is absolutely a good cause.

The cockroach apocalypse took place at IPM Experience House--our new, Texas A&M AgriLife-hosted, training facility for pest management professionals. IPM house is a 1000 sq foot facility with simulated kitchens, nursing home room, hotel room, pantry, restaurant, and attic.  Our vision at IPM House is to pest control trainees a with a safe place to learn their trade (think jet flight simulator for PMPs!).

But how to do this? One idea that has always intrigued me is having live cockroaches (or at least realistic signs of cockroaches) as part of the IPM House experience.

So last week my research technician and I released a hundred or so Blatella germanica in two locations at the House: a kitchen cupboard and a cabinet housing our new soft drink dispenser.  The cockroaches were provided by Doug VanGundy, my friend at Zoecon Labs, a branch of Central Life Sciences.  Zoecon maintains cultures of several key insect pests as part of their research labs in Dallas and generously agreed to provide three ice cream containers full of live cockroaches for our house.

By all appearances, the disgusting little guys we released today were more than happy to escape the confines of their sterile lab culture. Within ten minutes a few of the more adventurous had traveled a dozen feet or more from their release point.

Don't get me wrong. IPM House will not be a yucky place, full of cockroach allergens and creepy roaches. Our plan is to release the cockroaches and let them get comfortable just long enough to leave their telltale signs around the simulated residential kitchen and restaurant zones.  Once we've had enough of them, we'll pursue the infestation with state of the art control tools like dusts and baits.

I figure we've already got these little guys where we want them.  IPM House is pretty clean, and holds little food apart from which we are purposefully providing. Because of its relatively sparse furnishings, there are fewer natural harborages at IPM House compared to the average home. So I'm optimistic the cleanup operation will proceed quickly.  And if a few cockroaches manage to escape our insecticide blitzkrieg, I guess we'll just have a little more realistic classroom.

We want you and your employees to experience IPM House first hand.  Our first General Household Pest technician training is scheduled for August 23. So if you have some new employees who want their first jet simulator ride, have them sign up today. Class size is limited.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER ONLINE


Friday, June 23, 2017

Tips for your elevator speech

PMPs often get the dirty jobs that no one
else wants, including crawling hot attics
for termite, varmint and rodent control.
How many times do you get asked what you do for a job? Or, "What's your company all about?" And when asked, do you have an "elevator speech"?  A clear, quickly delivered "infomercial” about you or your business or other passion?

I thought it might be fun to ask what interesting bits of infomercial-worthy information might go into an elevator speech about pest control. So I've put together some ideas that might serve as an interesting mixture of thoughts and facts to entertain, inform and impress those who have no idea what we do every day in the pest control profession.

  • Pest control is more than a job.  It's a profession that's all about protecting your property, health and welfare. 
  • Pest management professionals help schools, businesses, homeowners and renters manage termites, rodents, cockroaches, ants and bed bugs. And we do it efficiently using the best science-based methods. 
  • Pest control employees not only go through apprenticeships and exams to get licensed; they're now required to get safety- and pest control-related continuing education credits annually in most states.
  • Insecticides are safer and more thoroughly tested today than ever.  The average cost of discovering and getting a new insecticide to market today is over $250 million, about $67 million of which is devoted to environmental and safety testing. Next to pharmaceuticals, pesticides are arguably the most thoroughly tested products used by consumers.
  • We're a modest-sized industry doing a huge job. The pest control industry is estimated to be worth $8 billion dollars a year--about the same as how much Americans spend on Halloween
  • Speaking of Halloween, how scary is it that a cockroach doesn't have to touch you to make you sick? Just breathing the air of a roach-infested home exposes you to cockroach allergens, which can lead to asthma. And over 60% percent of US homes have these allergens (the percentage is even higher for inner city homes--estimates range between 78% and 98%). 
  • Almost 1 million households were treated for bed bug by the U.S. pest control industry in 2016, up 11% from 2015.
  • One of the fastest growing pest control industry segments around the country is mosquito control, battling the deadliest animal in the world (mosquito-borne malaria kills close to 3/4 million people a year). 
  • Rodents chewing on wires and gas lines in attics and walls cause an estimated 20-25% of all fires of mysterious origin.  A PMP knows how to eliminate rats and mice while minimizing the risks of dead rodents in unwanted places.
  • A single house mouse visiting your kitchen in one night leaves behind over 50 virus and bacteria-laden droppings and up to 3,000 micro-urine droplets on floors, on countertops and in drawers. 
  • As U.S. cities grow, and apartment densities soar, the need for pest control is growing now at over 4.5% ($100 million) a year.
Of course, together these facts are way too long for an elevator speech (which should be 25 to 30 seconds, no longer than 80 or 90 words).  So pick one or two things to commit to memory and pull them out when you've got 30 seconds with a prospective customer (or your mother who still doesn't know what you do).

You probably have other things for your personal elevator speech.  If so, and you're willing to share, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Bermudagrass stunt mite in lawns

The tufted witches broom symptoms of BSM in
are seen in the stem on the left.  Normal
bermudagrass stem on the right. Photo: M. Merchant.
I don't often address pest issues in lawns and on ornamental plants; but many Insects in the City readers do include lawn care services. So I thought I would address a lesser known turfgrass pest problem that seems to be on the increase.

Bermudagrass stunt mite (BSM), Eriophes cynodoniensis, is one of our tiniest arthropod pests of ornamental plants.  It lives inside the leaf sheaths of grass and is a common (but relatively minor and spotty) pest of home lawns. On golf course greens, where expectations of smooth putting surfaces are high, BSM is a serious pest throughout the southern U.S. According to some experts, the incidence of this pest appears to be on the rise--possibly because of the loss of older insecticides, a trend toward higher mowing heights and less irrigation, and possibly the use of newer, more susceptible grass varieties.

The BSM feeds only on bermudagrass (though there are closely related species that feeds on buffalograss and zoysiagrass). When the mite feeds under the leaf sheaths the leaves start to yellow and twist. As the grass tries to grow, the gaps between the leaves get shorter and shorter, resulting in a bunchy, "witches broom" appearance. Eventually the leaves and stems die, probably as a result of a toxin injected into the grass by the mite.  Look for areas of stunted, green to brown grass, and dead spots in a lawn. You can identify BSM damage by the stunted, tufted appearance of the grass around the edges of the dead spots.

Damage often seems to occur in grass that is stressed from not receiving enough water.  In my own yard for several years I commonly saw BSM damage in the median strip between sidewalk and street. Since upgrading my sprinkler system, however, I see fewer signs of these mites.

Dr. J.C. Chong, of Clemson University, got interested in this mite about 10 years ago, and found no one else studying it.  Today he has devoted as much time as anyone to studying these tiny pests.  His knowledge about BSM is in especially high demand this year, he says.

"I am getting more requests for diagnosis and confirmation from golf courses and high-end landscapes in Florida, the Carolinas and Texas in the past 3 months than the entire [2016] combined."

Damage from BSM appears as brown, dead patches.  Examine the borders of
these spots closely to look for the tufted, stunted plants typical of the mite.
According to Chong, the last time anyone bothered to studying control of BSM was in the early 1980s. At the time, the best insecticide by far was diazinon. Now that diazinon is no longer available due to environmental concerns, we have few comparable products.

Part of the problem is that there are few researchers with time or funding to study BSM.  Another problem common to turfgrass pests is that it is difficult to know if and where mites will show up in a large enough area to design a good insecticide trial.

Bifenthrin is a standard go-to miticide for many in the pest control industry. But experts vary in their opinions about its effectiveness against BSM.  Bifenthrin, lambda-cyhalothrin, and deltamethrin products all carry labels for mite control in turfgrass, and may provide some control.  However, if you are attempting control with one of the pyrethroid insecticides experts advise using a surfactant to help the insecticide penetrate deeper into the leaf sheath. Dr. Eric Rebek, at Oklahoma State University, suggests using Dispatch at 3/4 oz. per 1000 ft sq. Rebek also noted that Dursban provides slightly better control of BSM than the pyrethroid products, but can only be used on sod farms, in road medians, around industrial plants or on golf courses (brand products differ, so check the label).

Chong has had little success with bifenthrin, regardless of timing.  In trials conducted between 2011 and 2015, he found avermectin to be the best treatment after diazinon. He used Avid 0.15 EC at 28 fl oz/acre, at two week intervals. When testing weekly applications, Chong found the best mite suppression came from four weekly applications in June compared to four weekly applications in April.

Another suggestion passed on by many experts is to scalp, or mow the grass to be treated very short, before applying insecticide. The reasoning is that this prunes off and removes many of the infested grass tufts, plus opens the grass canopy to better spray coverage. Bagging your clippings and disposing of them off site will ensure that the mites are not just spread around by the mowing operation.

On golf courses Chong now recommends Divanem (8% abamectin, by Syngenta).  A Restricted Use nematicide, Divanem has a 2ee registration for bermudagrass mite control on greens, tees and fairways (March 2017). Rate is 3.125 to 6.25 fl oz/acre.  He recommends using the high rate if economically possible, and repeating every 2-4 weeks.

Despite several years of field tests, Chong notes that there is still a lot to learn, especially when it comes to combining insecticides with different cultural practices like mowing, irrigation and varietal selection. Experience with BSM demonstrates that, at least for some pests, it's not always easy to come up with reliable management recommendations.  For a pest like BSM, one pest can lead to a career's worth of work for some lucky entomologist.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Fun spider facts PMPs need to know

Cobweb spiders were found in 100% of homes in a recent
survey in North Carolina.  
Last year an article was published by Matthew Bertone and colleagues at North Carolina State University about arthropods found in homes.  The only organism found in 100% of the homes and over 90% of the basements surveyed was spiders.  The only other organisms that came close were flies and ants and carpet beetles.  By contrast, German cockroaches were found in only 6% of homes and fleas in 10% of homes.

What this tells me is that everyone in pest control needs to know something about spiders.  So here are some fun spider facts that you can impress your family and friends with.

  • Spiders consume an estimated 400-800 million tons of prey every year, at least as much meat as all 7 billion humans on the planet (400 million tons of meat and fish annually).
  • The world spider population weighs 29 million tons, as much as 478 Titanics.
  • Most spiders kill and eat prey in forest and grasslands (95%) and only 2% of annual spider prey are eaten in agricultural lands, probably because of the regular disturbances caused by farming activities.
  • Spiders have been around about 400 million years, longer than all but perhaps the earliest insects.
  • Over 45,000 different species of spiders have been described by science.  Only about 3,800 species are known from the U.S. and Canada.
  • Half of the different species of spiders in the U.S. are less than 3 mm (1/8 inch).
  • Spiders disperse largely by parachuting or "ballooning".  Young spiderlings produce lightweight strands of silk to catch updrafts, especially on sunny mornings. 
  • Some spiders have been captured ballooning at altitudes up to 2.5 miles, over 13,000 feet.  It's thought that electrostatic forces assist with flight.
  • Spiders feed exclusively on liquids.  They lack jaws to chew food.
  • Although nearly all spiders likely have venom, only a handful are capable of causing bites that are medically important to humans.  These include the widow and recluse spiders in the U.S.
  • If you ever find yourself walking into an orb-shaped spiderweb, relax.  None of the orb weaver spiders are considered dangerous to humans (For you Hobbit and Lord of the Ring fans, Shelob was more likely a cobweb spider, not an orb weaver).
This post was inspired by a recent Washington Post article by Christopher Ingraham. The fun facts were gleaned from several sources, including the Bertone et al. paper which provided estimates about spider eating capacity; a National Geographic post by Liz Langley;  Evolution of the Insects by Grimaldi and Engel; and Common Spiders of North America by Richard Bradley.  As a handy reference for the common spiders, I heartily recommend the wonderful little book Spiders and Their Kin by Levi and Levi.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Boozy beetle wreaks havoc on lawn mower

The tiny camphor shoot borer with a taste for
boring into gasoline containers. Photo by Adam
Sheffield. 
Every now and then I get a note about a pest so bizarre it's kind of hard to believe. This afternoon I received an email through one of our county offices from a citizen having problems with insects boring into his riding lawn mower gas tank.  He knew it was an insect that made the perfectly round holes, because they were still inside some of the holes, and he was able to carefully extract about 15 of them.

And this wasn't the first time.  His neighbor had a similar experience with his mower being damaged by the little pests the previous spring.

Being good at your job doesn't mean that you know all the answers, but it does involve knowing where to go for the answers. In this case I got lucky.  I put out an inquiry about gas sniffing beetles to entomology colleagues, and immediately got several replies.

Some of my colleagues recalled a paper put out in 2011 by Chris Carlton and Victoria Bayless at the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum.  They had published a scientific note describing cases where a small beetle had been found boring into plastic gas cans.  The authors identified the beetle as a type of bark beetle called camphor shoot borer (CSB), Cnestus mutilatus.

One of the gas cans enshrined in the Louisiana State
Arthropod Museum as a testament to the determined
bark beetle that loves its gasahol.  This can had over 150
holes cause by the beetles. From Carlton and Bayless, 2011.
The finding must have impressed even my Louisiana colleagues because, as they reported in their paper, the can is now permanently stored at the Lousiana State insect museum.

The CSB is yet another insect that's not native to this country.  It was first reported in the U.S. in 2004, and is now found throughout the Southeast from NC to TX. It normally feeds on a variety of hardwoods, but especially sweetgum. In Texas it's more likely to be found in the eastern part of the state.

One entomologist pointed out that these beetles are commonly attracted to his alcohol-baited traps used to collect other bark beetles.  Since most gasoline these days contains alcohol, it makes sense that alcohol may be what's attracting these little guys to lawn mowers.

Aside from patching tanks with duct tape, how can we use what we know about this insect to prevent it from ruining lawn mowers and perhaps causing fiery mayhem from Charlotte to Houston?  A glance at the collection data stored on BugGuide suggests that this beetle is active primarily in the spring (March to June).  So protecting gasoline containers in the spring is particularly important.  Storing gas canisters and mowers in enclosed sheds or under some type of tarpaulin may be helpful, especially in the spring. Keeping the outside of the plastic fuel canisters free of spilled gas also might help.

The last solution might involve finding gasoline that doesn't contain alcohol.  But that might be harder than building a new shed for the mower.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Unlicensed applicators in schools?

It has come to our attention that a bill has recently been introduced in the Texas legislature that would eliminate Texas state requirements for persons applying pesticides in public schools to be a licensed applicator.  HB 3590 was recently introduced by James Frank of Wichita Falls. It's a very short bill, and says merely that "a school district employee is not required to hold a license... to apply at a school building or other school district facility, in a manner consistent with the label, a pesticide that is available for purchase by unlicensed members of the public." [my emphasis]

While I and my fellow extension employees will not take a public position on any state legislation, I think it might be useful to make you aware of the issue.  To be clear about what the bill does, it would allow teachers, custodial staff, coaches, administrative assistants, kitchen employees or any other school district employee to apply insecticides at their own discretion in a school or athletic field.  This would bypass the normal process of pesticide approval and the authority of IPM plans as determined by the IPM Coordinator of the district.

As you think about how you feel about this requirement, here are some things to keep in mind:
  • School IPM requirements have been in place in Texas since 1995, and have become widely accepted and followed by school districts throughout the state.  While some school leaders have expressed concern over the IPM restrictions and licensing costs, our data show that safer practices are being adopted by schools and that overall knowledge of IPM and its implementation has increased significantly.
  • Licensing and training ensures that pesticide applicators are aware of the risks and rules governing pesticide use.  Licensed applicators are also trained in pest identification and how to determine the best and safest means of managing any given pest.  The rationale behind licensing is that untrained and unlicensed applicators attempting to control pests are less likely to be successful, and more likely to apply pesticides unsafely or unnecessarily.
  • Current rules already allow for certain unlicensed school employees to apply pesticides under limited "emergency" circumstances; however some verifiable instruction is required to ensure that the employees understand the pesticide label and how to use a product safely.
  • With the exception of a few restricted use pesticides, nearly any professional pesticide product or active ingredient is currently available for purchase by unlicensed members of the public via feed and seed stores, garden centers, hardware stores or online outlets.  Any of these products, if used without discretion or without following label directions exactly, can be dangerous to the health of children and school employees.
  • As was pointed out in a 1999 Government Accounting Office report on pesticides in schools: "Children are at greater risk from pesticide exposure than most adults because, pound for pound of body weight, children breathe more, eat more, and have more rapid metabolisms than adults, and they also play on the floor and lawn where pesticides are commonly applied. Children have more frequent hand-to-mouth contact as well." Concern about the safety of school children and the need for a safe school environment was the driving force behind passage of the Texas School IPM regulations in 1991.
  • In a recent statewide survey, 88% of school IPM coordinators agreed that the rules and regulations requiring IPM helps their school district provide a safer place for children and staff.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Cockroach webinar worth your time

In case you've never heard of him, Dr. Coby Schal is the Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Urban Entomology at North Carolina State University. As one of the most respected researchers in cockroach biology and management, Dr. Schal is a friend of the pest control industry, and a talented communicator to boot. All this to say that if you ever have a chance to hear Coby talk about cockroaches, you should take advantage.

So here's the good news. On March 2, Cornell University's StopPest program will host Dr. Schal for a cockroach control webinar specifically designed for people working in multifamily housing.  While designed for multifamily apartment managers, this session should also be useful for pest management professionals.

Topics covered will include his research on effective baiting techniques, and ineffective controls like total release foggers (bug bombs).

Schal will talk about how cockroach allergens have been linked to the development and increase in symptoms of allergies and asthma in cockroach sensitive individuals. You'll learn how allergen levels can be significantly reduced with good pest control alone, and how gel bait treatments have revolutionized cockroach management (all good selling points when talking with apartment managers about their need for pest control).

Dr. Schal's work shows how an integrated pest management (IPM) approach with intensive, targeted cockroach control can lead to both dramatic reductions in cockroaches and clinically significant declines in cockroach allergens.

You can register for the webinar at the StopPests Now website. Email instructions will follow after you register.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Benefits of cockroach control

Before starting graduate school in entomology I worked as a pest control technician out of college. My accounts included a sprawling, multi-story public housing complex in Seattle, WA. These visits were frustrating to me, because of the difficulty (impossibility) of putting much of a dent in the well entrenched German cockroach population that scurried back and forth among these apartments.

One of my visits, however, was the home of a single mom. It was a short encounter, and I'm not sure I ever saw her again; but I'll never forget the mother's gratitude for my efforts to battle the cockroaches plaguing her and her daughter.  The woman's apartment, unlike many in the community, was uncluttered and very clean. It was obvious she was doing her part to keep cockroaches at bay, something that made my job a lot easier and more effective. Despite the feeling that I wasn't putting much of a dent in the overall cockroach problem in those apartments, I went home that night feeling a little better about my job in pest control.

Improved technology

Two major changes have occurred in cockroach control since the early 1980s.  First, we've learned a lot more about the health impacts of cockroaches over the past 25 years. Besides being unsanitary and capable of spreading disease pathogens, we now have solid evidence to show that cockroaches are major contributors to asthma morbidity, especially among children living in infested homes.  Indeed, the feces and shed exoskeletons of cockroaches have proved to be among the most important indoor asthma causes we know of.  Children who grow up in cockroach infested apartments have higher rates of asthma, more missed school days, and more doctor visits than do their more affluent classmates from cockroach-free homes.

Second, with the discovery of effective baits, we have much better tools for cockroach control today. The insecticides available to me in 1980 were mostly residual sprays and dusts that had to be applied directly to cockroach hiding places.  If counter-tops were not cleared and covered, or cupboards not emptied before I arrived, there was little I could safely do with my Ficam®, diazinon and malathion sprays and dusts.  In addition, many of these sprays were repellent to cockroaches, something that I learned later in grad school greatly reduces their effectiveness against insecticide-avoiding cockroaches.

Today pest management professionals and even homeowners have access to technologies that are safer and vastly superior to the old insecticides.  Containerized and gel baits, in particular, have revolutionized our industry's ability to manage cockroaches.  Although sanitation is still important for cockroach IPM, baits have shown an ability to suppress cockroach numbers even in cluttered and poorly maintained living quarters.

A number of studies have shown over the past 20 years that cockroach control and sanitation efforts could significantly reduce the quantity of cockroach allergens in apartments.  Indeed, the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program recommends reducing cockroach exposure as a critical step to take in reducing asthma risk.

Research news

A new study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology out this week is the first to show that cockroach baiting by itself can result in measurable improvements in the health of children. The researchers looked at the apartments of 102 children (aged 5-17 years), all of whose homes had some level of cockroach infestation.  Half of the children were assigned to homes that would be treated by researchers with cockroach baits, and half of the homes were left untreated by researchers.  All of the homes were sampled for cockroaches using Victor® Roach Pheromone Traps, and health indicators were measured for all the children (such as number of school days missed, medication used, days of wheezing, number of nights where children woke up, etc.).

Treatment of homes consisted of placing either Maxforce® FC Magnum, or Advion® cockroach bait gels in areas with evidence of active cockroach infestation.  Those who put out the bait were not trained PMPs, but were research staffers instructed to place baits in the back corners of kitchen cabinets, behind kitchen appliances, and inside bathroom vanities.  No other control methods were used.

The median cockroach numbers were significantly lower in treated homes vs. untreated. By the end of the study none of the baited homes had evidence of cockroach activity, compared to a 20% infestation rate of the untreated homes.

Interesting to me was that after the study began cockroach numbers in the untreated homes went from 100% infested to only 20% infested.  The authors of the study attributed the drop in untreated homes to "study effects".  People whose homes did not get treated, but were being monitored for cockroaches, took extra pains to clean up before the research team arrived, and they conducted additional cockroach control on their own, apart from insecticide baits applied by the researchers. This lead to an almost 85% reduction in trapped cockroach numbers in the control homes.

So it's even more remarkable that, despite the cockroach reductions in homes not receiving bait treatment, researchers still noted significantly better cockroach suppression with bait-treated homes and significant improvements in children's health.  In treated homes, for example, children had 47 fewer days a year with asthma symptoms compared to homes that were not treated with baits. Children in treated homes also had improved lung function and significantly fewer doctor visits compared to untreated homes, despite the relatively small sample size and relatively low cockroach levels in untreated homes.

These results should be carefully noted by the pest control industry.  With readily available, high-quality cockroach baits, and relatively easily taught skills, pest control technicians today can make a significant impact on the health and well-being of customers. In fact, I'm sure that the benefits of a highly skilled technician applying baits would accrue even faster and be more significant compared to untrained applicators.

When I consider how far cockroach control has come since my days with a B&G sprayer, these results are truly amazing.

I've said it before, and will say it again: the work you do as a PMP is very important.  Cockroach management in multifamily housing may not be very glamorous, but few other accounts provide the opportunity to better your customers' lives more.  And that's something that should make you feel even better when you go home at night.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Spring IPM Seminar in Dallas Next Month

Continuing education doesn't have to be a painful experience.
Last fall's IPM Seminar attracted nearly 400 applicators.
If you're a pesticide applicator in need of CEUs this year, I have some good news: no more yellow chairs.  For years, pesticide applicators have come faithfully to the Texas A&M AgriLife Center in Dallas for continuing education training.  And for years one of the consistent evaluation remarks we've received is that we need to "do something about" the hard, 1960's era Fiberglas chairs.

Starting next month we're no longer going to be sitting in those chairs for pesticide training. Instead, this spring the IPM seminars will be moving off campus to the nearby Richardson Civic Center.

The 2017 Spring IPM Seminar is scheduled for Thursday, February 23.  We have an excellent line-up of speakers, and offer a good lunch.  Cost will remain the same for 2017.

To register for the 2017 event, go online to http://agriliferegister.tamu.edu/IPM.

For a copy of the program, including directions to our new location, click here. This year's speakers and topics include:
  • Michael Kelly, with the Structural Pest Control Service/TDA in Austin, will speak on Pesticide Rules: What's new and what it means to you.
  • Sam Kieschnick, with Texas Parks and Wildlife in Dallas.  Urban Wildlife, including biology and behavior of bobcats and other troublesome mammals.
  • Dr. Casey Reynolds, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, will talk on Herbicide Selection, including understanding how different herbicides work, and how to select the best product for your needs.
  • Doug Van Gundy, Zoecon/Central Life Sciences, will talk about Pesticide formulations and their uses, also important for selecting the right product.
  • I will speak on Control strategies for the crapemyrtle bark scale, an important and difficult to control pest of the most common flowering shrub in north Texas.
If you attend, I can't guarantee that the new chairs will be any better (they won't be any more durable). The new facilities, however, will be great. We'll have more space, in a more comfortable environment, and bigger screens.  I believe you'll appreciate the change.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rabies and the PMP

Last August I was out for an early morning run when a stray dog rushed me from an alleyway and knocked me down.  In light of other dog attacks in Dallas last summer, at least one of which was fatal, I feared the worst as the dog clamped onto my ankle.  But as soon as I recovered my wits enough to defend myself, the dog was off.  The whole incident probably took no more than five seconds.

Bonnie and Clyde. The dog on the left bit me in August and is still on the
loose. 
Uncollared, stray dogs are a rabies and public health risk, and should be 
reported to animal control. PMPs who encounter stray dogs or work with
wildlife should consider getting the rabies vaccine series. Photo

courtesy Plano Animal Services. 
Thus began my education about rabies and rabies vaccinations.  I've known a long time about the seriousness of the rabies virus: how when it takes hold of its victim it is almost certainly fatal; how a victim's last days are spent in convulsions, wanting and needing water but unable to swallow due to spasms of the voicebox; and how death from respiratory failure usually takes place within 3-5 days of when symptoms begin.

Although my bite was shallow, I knew enough about rabies to realize I shouldn't ignore it.  On the other hand, I wanted to make sure I really needed the shots (I hate shots).  I learned within a few days that the same dog had been responsible for biting others in my community, and that the local animal control was working hard to catch it and its partner. I hoped that perhaps the animal would be caught and would test negative.  In fact, several days after the attack I spoke to the head of animal control in our town who was very familiar with these criminal dogs. He told me that in his opinion, given their behavior, they were likely not rabid. He explained that almost always a dog that has become infectious will show symptoms of rabies including abnormal behavior, partial paralysis, or lethargy within five days.

At this point I had a big advantage of knowing someone in the Texas Department of State Health Services.  Dr. Shelly Stonecipher, at my local DSHS regional office was very helpful, answering my questions for over an hour, and advising me that the emergency room was probably my best, and most affordable, option.  My county health department, I was told, should have the necessary vaccines on hand, but would not take insurance and would have to charge the full wholesale cost of the vaccines.  This was my first big shock.  The health department cost for the first shot alone would likely be around $2,000.  The emergency room would be more expensive, but at least it would be covered by my health insurance.

Dr. Stonecipher explained that post-exposure treatment of rabies is very effective, but to work it needs to be given before symptoms occur (some sources say vaccination should take place within 1-6 days, other sources 10 days or more...a disturbingly loose margin of error). The treatment consists of five shots.  The first shot, called the human rabies immune-globulin shot, is given only if a bite has taken place and infection possibly already occurred.  The purpose of this shot is to confer rapid, though shorter lived immunity to the rabies vaccine.  This was the most uncomfortable of the injections, though not as bad as what I was told rabies shots used to be like (painful injections to the abdomen were the standard treatment up until the 1980s). I was told by my emergency room doctor that at least half of the 10 ml immune-globulin shot is supposed to be administered as close as possible to the site of the bite.

One online source says this shot should be given the day of the bite.  However, in my case, no one I talked to in the medical community seemed especially urgent about my getting the shot immediately. I thought I could wait up to 10 days, the quarantine time for some domestic animals.  This would, I'd hoped, buy some time for the dog to be caught [It never was caught and is still, six months later, on the loose in my community--our neighbors now refer to them darkly as Bonnie and Clyde].  As it was, I waited eight days; but if I had to do it over I probably would not have waited more than five days.

The next part of treatment is four rabies vaccine shots given in the arm--one the same day as the immune-globulin shot, and the others on days 3, 7 and 14 after the first shot.  Rabies vaccine confers longer term immunity via antibodies.  But the vaccine may not work quickly enough to prevent rabies if someone has already been bitten by a rabid animal. That's why these are given in combination with immune-globulin.

The vaccine shots were easy and painless compared to the monster immune-globulin shot.  This rabies vaccine series is what anyone wanting pre-exposure rabies prophylaxis would receive.  After getting my first immunization at the emergency room, I was told that the most affordable and convenient way to get the rest of the series was through one of the local clinics that specialize in vaccines for travelers. Luckily there was a Passport Health office near my workplace.  Also, I discovered that some hospitals carry rabies vaccine shots which you can get by making an appointment and thus avoiding the emergency room.

I was surprised by two things regarding my dog attack.  First, no one I spoke with seemed to care or really have strong opinions on when or whether to start the course of treatment. Some medical offices seemed not to know a lot about rabies treatment. Websites had conflicting information about virus incubation periods. In other words, I was on my own to figure out what to do about my health.

My second surprise was the cost.  Even with insurance, my out-of-pocket cost for the vaccine series alone was close to $1,000.  Even more appalling, the following month the bill from the hospital arrived.  The overall bill to myself and my insurance provider for an immune-globulin shot, first vaccine, and 15 minutes of an ER doctor's time, came to $10,179.  The itemized bill (which I had to request) listed the immune-globulin shot as the biggest expense, $8,318!  According to the hospital, after "discounts" and insurance contributions I personally still owed over $1,800.  All this to say, saving your life after a bite from a rabies infected animal is expensive--even with insurance. Estimates of cost of rabies post-exposure treatment on the Internet are highly variable, but my sticker-shock experience does not appear to be unique.

Advice for PMPs
Fortunately, human rabies cases and deaths in the U.S. are relatively rare, averaging 2-3 people a year.  This low rate is due to the wide use and effectiveness of the rabies vaccine, but it doesn't mean that precautions are unnecessary. The CDC recommends that veterinarians and staff, animal control and pest control professionals, spelunkers, and rabies laboratory workers be offered the rabies vaccine.  The vaccine should also be considered for any one whose activities bring them into frequent contact with potentially rabid animals, and for international travelers who might come in contact with rabid animals (treatment may not be readily accessible in all foreign areas).

My ten pieces of advice for anyone in the pest control industry concerned about rabies:
  • If bitten by a stray animal or any wildlife known to be a potential rabies carrier, don't ignore the bite. Talk to your personal or ER doctor to assess your risk, and determine whether you need treatment for rabies. Wash the wound site from any animal bite as soon as you can with soapy water and iodine based disinfectant. 
  • If possible, take steps to have the offending animal, like a bat, captured for testing. It could help you avoid expensive post-exposure prophylaxis. Care should be taken not to damage the head of the captured animal, as this may prevent laboratory testing for rabies. Your doctor or veterinarian, or in Texas any of the Department of State Health Services regional offices, can assist with instructions on how to submit an animal for testing. 
  • Don't attempt to feed wildlife or touch any stray or feral animal.  Use proper protective gear, including double plastic bags, when picking up dead animals. 
  • Make sure your own pets and livestock, including horses, dogs, cats and ferrets, are up-to-date on their rabies vaccines.  
  • If you work under conditions that bring you into close contact with bat roosts, do bat removal, or do urban wildlife control, getting the pre-exposure rabies vaccination series is highly recommended. It is much cheaper and easier than post-exposure treatment.
  • Even if you are pre-vaccinated, you may still require a series of two post-exposure vaccine boosters after a bite from a possibly rabid animal.  This is still much cheaper than post-exposure treatment. Check with your doctor.
  • When working around bats, bites sometimes go unnoticed. Bat bites may be extremely small and generally painless. ANY unprotected physical contact with a live bat puts you at risk for rabies--another good reason for rabies pre-exposure vaccine.
  • If you must handle a live bat, use thick leather wildlife gloves.  
  • If you must enter areas of large bat colonies consider wearing a fit-tested respirator. Rabies is thought to be contracted only through bites; however there is some circumstantial evidence that urine or feces might on occasion be capable of aerial transmission, especially in areas of dense bat numbers. 
  • If you've been bitten recently by a dog or other wildlife and not gotten the post-exposure treatment, consider getting it.  Rabies virus can incubate in humans quietly for months after exposure. Although ideally its best to start the shots very soon after the bite, the post exposure prophylaxis can be effective as long as it is given before symptoms appear.  

Given that Bonnie and Clyde are still healthy and on the loose in my town, I'm pretty sure that my emergency room visit and bills last summer were unnecessary.  But if it happened again, I wouldn't do anything differently, except possibly start my treatment earlier. The risk of rabies is nothing to take lightly, and I feel better knowing that I have a pre-exposure protection. 



Animals at risk for rabies
Rabies is found only in mammals, especially carnivores and bats.  Animals that can and do get rabies include:

  • Skunks are among the highest risk mammals, especially in the south. 
  • Raccoons are the most commonly infected wild animal in the eastern U.S.
  • Bats, have low levels of infection throughout the U.S.
  • Foxes, especially in the Southwest and eastern U.S. may be infected with rabies
  • Coyotes, are infected in rare cases
  • Unvaccinated dogs and cats can be infected with rabies. According to the CDC, dogs are responsible for 90% of human rabies exposures and 99% of human deaths from rabies worldwide.
Rodents and rabbits rarely get rabies--the woodchuck, Marmota monax, a rodent, is an exception. Other low risk animals include oppossums, armadillos, shrews, and prairie dogs. Livestock and horses can get rabies, and because of their close association with humans vaccination is recommended.