Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Are you and your employees growing professionally?

training class photo by University of FloridaI'm convinced that one of the most important ways to keep good employees is to instill a sense of professionalism and pride in what they do. And what better way to do that than to provide top notch training opportunities?

I know some pest control companies who discourage employees from pursuing continuing education. They fear that if their employees learn too much, they will move on to find a better job or start their own company. Of course this is also the best way to ensure that your employees don't get better at what they do.

In my experience, the best companies embrace training and professional improvement for their employees. I know one company who links commissions their employees earn on sales to their licensing achievments and courses completed. The higher licenses and certifications employees achieve, the more they make. This encourages the good employees to stay and generates a higher level of service at all levels.

Fortunately, there are more continuing education opportunities available to the pest control industry than ever before. One of the highest achievments available to PMPs is the certification program offered by the Entomological Society of America. Seven years of experience is required to sit for the Associate Certified Entomologist (ACE) exam. The test is rigorous, and anyone who qualifies and passes should be justly proud of the achievement. A higher level of entomology certification (BCE) is also available, and is principally sought by degreed entomologists. Decals, patches and the right to use the ACE emblems in company advertizing are available to certified PMPs.

Other courses that are worth adding to an employee training program include the Texas A&M University-sponsored, Philip J. Hamman termite training school. Purdue University offers one of the longest-standing pest control correspondence courses. The University of Florida recently opened Pest Management University, which offers classes designed for anyone in the pest management business, including office staff (Basics classes), technicians (Foundations and Master’s level classes), and certified operators (Foundations, Master’s and Expert level classes).

Companies who service school districts in Texas might want to consider the quarterly training offered by the Southwest Technical Resource Center for School IPM. This training provides an excellent opportunity for your company to become more familiar with the unique laws and regulations affecting how pest control must operate in Texas public schools.

So what kind of pest control company is yours? Is it one that strives to provide customers with the best service by continually training its employees? Or is it one that fears making it's employees too good to want to stay?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Concerns about the new school IPM rules

Capitol building in Austin, TX
Austin, TX. Today the Texas Department of Agriculture meets to hold public hearings concerning the new rules that will guide the Structural Pest Control Service's regulatory activities for the future. The biggest proposed changes deal with rules governing the way pesticides are regulated in public schools.

Texas has one of the longest-standing and most comprehensive set of laws and regulations governing pesticides and integrated pest management (IPM) in schools in the nation. In the course of the past 13 years that the rules have been in effect, schools in Texas have significantly changed the way they do pest control. A study our office completed in 2007 details some of the shifts. For example, in 1994 the two most common insecticides used by nearly all school districts were diazinon and chlorpyrifos (Dursban®). Today, the most commonly used pesticides include a variety of baits, insect growth regulators and lower toxicity insecticides. Granted, diazinon and Dursban® are no longer registered for use in buildings, but their replacements--the commonly used pyrethroid insecticides--are used frequently by only 13% of school districts. This represents an enormous shift for an industry that has often been slow to change.

Certainly, part of the success of the school IPM rules is due to the way the rules gently encourage the use of less toxic pesticides. Under the system, pesticides are categorized into Green, Yellow, or Red based on a variety of criteria that include signal words, acute toxicity and the likelihood of hazardous exposure. For schools, any green category pesticide can be used at the discretion of the pest control technician. Yellow and Red category pesticides require written justification and approval by either the certified applicator or the school district's IPM coordinator.

By making it a little more difficult to use the more toxic products, while keeping all potential pesticides that might be useful to schools still available, Texas has managed over the past thirteen years to successfully balance opposing interests. Those who were most concerned about children's exposure to hazardous substances have been satisfied, while maintenance and pest management professionals have been left with the freedom to use any pesticide product they determine is necessary to control pests in schools.

As evidence of the success of this system, today one can find virtually no environmental group criticizing pesticide use in Texas schools. Fifteen years ago anti-pesticide lobbyists were a common site in public sessions of the Texas Structural Pest Control Board, protesting the use of a variety of pesticides in schools. Today it is hard to interest community activists (in Texas anyway) in school pest management issues, because there have been so few problems in our schools. By this and other measures, the rules have been a success.

Unfortunately, the new rules threaten to upset this balance in several important ways. Specifically, the TDA is proposing to tighten certain requirements and eliminate some pesticides from the green category. For example, pyrethrins and insect growth regulators will no longer be included in the green category.

Pyrethrins are organically derived compounds that are very commonly used during inspections as a tool to flush insect pests out of hidden harborages. They are also used to provide fast knockdown of a variety of pests including cockroaches, ants, bees, wasps, flies and stored product pests. Their toxicity is in the low range for humans (LD50 values above 1500 mg/KG) and they break down very quickly, making them widely used in restaurants and food manufacturing plants.

Similarly, insect growth regulators are low toxicity (commonly used IGRs have LD50 values greater than 2000 mg/kg) products with a variety of useful applications. They are among the few low-toxicity sprays for long-term population reduction of cockroaches in kitchens, and they provide some of the lowest toxicity control options for fleas, fire ants and mosquitoes. Over 21% of all schools in our study used IGRs on a regular basis.

In addition to restricting the use of these former green category pesticides, the TDA proposes to restrict entry of all non-pesticide applicators into all treated areas for 6 hours after an application is made. What's new here is not that students are required to stay out of treated areas, but also employees of the school. To keep non-authorized personnel out of treated areas, the areas will need to be monitored or secured by fence or lock and posted for six hours.
This requirement goes far beyond EPA standards for re-entry into treated areas (usually until sprays have dried), and will make it significantly more difficult and expensive for schools to treat sports fields, grounds, kitchens and hallways for pest problems.

There ought to be a reason for adding regulations to an already-heavily regulated industry. In this case there appears to be no smoking gun, no pattern of complaints, no illness reports, just a regulatory agency that wants to add rules that no one in the community is asking for.

Before TDA can formally establish and begin enforcing these rules, the state requires the agency to publish them for public comment for 30 days, ending August 3. If you have an opinion on these matters, you will never have as much opportunity to influence the shape of these rules as you do right now. For more information about the rule changes and how to respond, see my July 16th post.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Two New Ants for Texas: What They Can Teach Us

A version of this article appears the August 2008 issue of Texas Pest Control Association Magazine

by Mike Merchant and Jason Meyers

Just when you think you’ve got the technical side of the pest control business all figured out, things change. New pests emerge, old ones develop bad habits, and familiar pests get harder to control. Texas pests have a way of keeping things interesting. Just when you think you know all the bad characters, new ones show up. In this article we’d like to look at the emergence of two relatively new ant pests and consider what lessons we can take away from our experiences.

Crazy antspile of dead crazy ants along a treated building foundation is typical of more heavily infested sites in Baytown, TX

Certainly one of the biggest pest surprises in recent memory is the crazy rasberry ant, Paratrechina sp. nr. pubens (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Formicinae). Other published names for this ant include the Caribbean crazy ant, hairy crazy ant, and the brown crazy ant. There has been much confusion about the true identity of this recent Texas invader, discovered in 2002 by Houston pest management professional, Tom Rasberry. Originally it was thought that our Houston area-based, crazy rasberry ant might be one of several species that were distinct from, but closely related to, the other Caribbean crazy ant, Paratrechina pubens, established for many years in Florida. The lack of similar reports of densities in Florida also placed into question the validity of the Texas and Florida populations being the same species. However, recent collaborative work using molecular identification suggests that both our Texas and Florida crazy ants came from South America. Whether or not our crazy rasberry ant came from South America, the Caribbean, or an as yet unknown origin, is an important question. The answer could help us prevent further introductions into Texas and other coastal states.

Since the first infestations of the crazy rasberry ant were discovered in Pasadena, TX in 2002, this ant has spread to at least seven known counties along the Texas coastline. Chances are good that there are more undocumented cases of this pest in this part of the state. It’s important that PMPs throughout the state keep alert for this ant.

Crazy ants spread by “budding”, or nest division, rather than the more familiar process of mating flights (like the red imported fire ant). Budding behavior often results in super-colony formation, which, in turn, can produce unusually high foraging populations. Crazy ant nests are often associated with human dwellings and inhabit soil or almost any object on the ground. They move their nests frequently and may infest potted plants, garbage, discarded boxes, and even motor vehicles. This makes it easy for these ants to be unwittingly transported around the state by people. We still don’t know the potential of this ant to spread and thrive in more northern, cooler areas. However, without better quarantine and public education efforts, their spread to new counties will likely continue.

Rover antssmall rover ants in the genus Brachymyrmex have become a growing pest in Texas over the past four years

Another ant that has taken PMPs by surprise recently is the so-called rover ant, in the genus Brachymyrmex (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Formicinae). Brachymyrmex are very small, approaching the size of Pharaoh ants, but generally darker in color. Under magnification, they have only one node between the thorax and abdomen, a small circle of hairs around the anal opening and 9 antennal segments. According to The Common Ant Genera of Texas, a handy field guide to Texas ants published by Texas AgriLife Extension, only two species of Brachymyrmex are considered native to the U.S., and both are found in Texas. The same publication says that these ants are rarely considered pests.

Over approximately the past four years rover ants have been reported as an emerging household pest by PMPs from Dallas to Corpus Christi. At my home (MM) in Plano, TX, this ant has been a nuisance kitchen pest for the past three summers. In contrast to the almost-certainly exotic Caribbean crazy ant, these new rover ant pests were originally assumed to be one of our native species gone bad. But that picture may be changing.

New evidence suggests that sudden emergence of Brachymyrmex as a household pest may actually be the result of invasion by a new species of ant. A South American ant, Brachymyrmex patagonicus, was recently recognized as an emerging household pest in much of the southeastern U.S. (see online paper by MacGown, J. A. J. G. Hill, and M. A. Deyrup. 2007. Florida Entomologist. 90:457-464; at http://www.fcla.edu/FlaEnt/feissues.htm ). Confusing taxonomy and relatively few experts trained to identify these tiny ants are the reasons for slow recognition of this problem. Although no careful collection and analysis of rover ants has yet been undertaken in Texas, patagonicus has been identified from Smith (Tyler, TX) and Val Verde (Del Rio) counties by Dr. Joe MacGown at Mississippi State University.

Should its identity be confirmed, the “dark rover ant” (a name proposed by MacGown et. al) would make an interesting example of how some exotic species can spread very quickly over a wide geographic area. In contrast to the Caribbean or rasberry crazy ant, which has spread over only five counties in approximately the same time period, reports of rover ant problems seemed to appear almost simultaneously from north to south Texas. The reason for this difference is not immediately evident, and may never be known without more basic research into the biology of these two species.

A Lesson to be learned?

The emergence of these two new pests underscores the importance of ongoing urban entomology research, the importance of rapid communications, and the importance of effective training for PMPs. A strong research program is one of our industry’s best tools for quickly recognizing, understanding, and developing solutions for new pests. A rapid communications network is essential for reporting unusual problems to our state experts and for spreading the word about exotic pest threats. Training opportunities, like the Texas A&M winter workshop, the numerous TPCA conferences and industry-sponsored training courses are essential to keep technicians, training directors and owners on the cutting edge of science.

Together, our research, communication and training networks form an infrastructure just as essential to the success of our industry as our highway and road systems are essential to our American way of life. Unless we continue to invest in this infrastructure, through support of university and Extension programs, associations and workshops, this network can not sustain itself. Imagine a working world where new pests arise and become more difficult to control, and where solutions are the product of guesswork. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson crazy ants and rover ants are trying to teach us.

If you suspect you are having problems with either crazy rasberry ants or dark rover ants, we’d like to know. Send a sample of the suspect ants (up to a dozen, if possible) in a small amount of ethyl or rubbing alcohol to us. Be sure to include the city and county of collection, date collected, your name and phone number or (preferably) email address, and any other information you think important (e.g., whether collected indoors or outdoors, notes on abundance, and whether it was seen as a pest problem by the client).

For crazy ant specimens, mail to: Dr. Jason Meyers, Center for Urban and Structural Entomology, Texas A&M University, MS 2475, College Station, TX 77843-2475

For rover ant specimens, mail to: Dr. Mike Merchant, Texas AgriLife Extension, 17360 Coit Road, Dallas, TX 75252-6599.

Dr. Jason Meyers is a recent graduate from the Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University (jmmeyers@tamu.edu). He can still be reached in College Station at the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

News about rule changes at Texas Department of Agriculture

Last year the pest control regulatory establishment in Texas, the Texas Structural Pest Control Board, was abolished by the legislature. The event brought a mixture of horror and glee to the pest control industry in Texas as it contemplated what life might be like under a new regulatory agency, the Texas Department of Agriculture, or TDA.

This month provided the first glimpse of what this new life might be like. The TDA just published the amended rules governing structural pest control in Texas. They can be found online at the following link:


People interested in commenting on these new rules have until August 3, 2008 to get their letters in. There will also be a public hearing on Monday July 21, 2008 at 2:00 p.m. at the William B. Travis Bldg., 1701 North Congress - Room 1-100, in Austin. The Public Hearing Notice can be viewed at the following link:


If this all seems a bit hasty, it is. The TDA is anxious to get the new rules in place by September, and will have to hurry to make this self-imposed deadline.

Meanwhile, if you have interest in life under this new agency, now is the time to let your voice be heard. Written comments sent to the department via USPS (snail mail) will probably have the greatest impact. Emails, and even testimony at the public hearings, will probably carry less weight in the final analysis than a thoughtfully written letter.