Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Holiday Gifts for PMPs

It occurs to me that every other profession in the world has holiday gift list blogs, so why not pest control? If I was more organized (and female) I would have posted this blog two months ago, but I figure better late than never. Guys, you can add these ideas to next year's wish list.

I have at least a few ideas. One I saw at last week's Entomological Society of America's annual meeting was an affordable, portable microscope. Now it's only 20X, but I like it better than the little Radio Shack "microscopes" that turn your images upside down and backwards. It is sold by BioQuip Products for $85. It is a binocular dissecting scope similar to most microscopes used by professional entomologists, so it allows for 3-dimensional viewing. A 20X scope is not adjustable (my office Wild scope is adjustable and goes from 6X to 50X), but it should be adequate for most field identification tasks. Also nice about this item is that it has a battery-powered light, making the unit truly portable.

I've decided not even to try and describe the next idea, but if your taste runs to the creative and and you want a really unique gift check out http://www.insectlabstudio.com/?item/291 Suffice to say that you will have to see these pieces of art to believe them.

If you're into artistry in knives, the Tom Anderson "Termite" knife is a nice idea. My friend Grady Glenn gave me one of these knives a year ago and they are pretty cool. Designed to look like a termite, with segmentation, an eye and antennae, this knife makes a nice conversation piece as well as proving handy during termite inspections.

And I believe it's true that nobody in pest control can have too many flashlights. I just got a new mini Maglite LED flashlight which I think is great. It's bright and focusable light is adequate for indoor and outdoor use. It comes with belt holster and is so light you don't know you have it on--a huge improvement over my last model, which doubles as a self-defense weapon, and whose batteries need frequent replacement. Also, for you who have a need to fluoresce rodent urine or scorpions, Streamlight TwinTrak has a flashlight that cycles between white and UV lights, a nice feature.

Benny Mathis

I would be remiss if I didn't pass on the sad news of Benny Mathis' passing this month. The facts are that Benny Mathis, 63, former executive director of the Texas Structural Pest Control Board, died on Dec. 15, after a short battle with cancer.

As reported by PCT Media Group, "Mathis had been involved in the pest control industry since 1968. As Executive Director of the Texas Structural Pest Control Board, Mathis administered the laws and regulations governing pest control operators. Mathis worked diligently on implementing the Texas School IPM program. His active role on the penalty policy, legislative support, speaker of continuing education in major meetings with Texas Pest Control association, Texas A&M and Texas Tech left a major impact on the industry."

What's not reported is the kind of person Benny was. I have seldom seen a regulator afforded as much respect and friendship by people in the industry. He seemed to have a way of making people on both sides of an issue feel listened-to and important. Personally I had a lot of respect for Benny because of the way he embraced school IPM regulations back in the early 1990s. School IPM laws were the classic unfunded mandate, a burden on Benny's agency. The state in essence said, "We're giving you this incredibly challenging new law to enforce, and we want you to do it with your underpaid, overworked staff. See ya."

A lot of bureaucrats would have found a way to do the minimum, skirt the intent of the rules to ensure minimal disruption of the status quo. But Benny worked hard to make sure that regulations were in line with the intent to change how pest control was done in schools, and backed up his commitment with enforcement (even fines!) of school districts that did not play according to the rules. In my opinion, Benny is one of the reasons Texas has a strong school IPM program today.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Correction on Leaf Cutter Ant story

Apparently I jumped the gun last week when I posted the story (now removed) about PTM™ insecticide's supplemental label for leaf cutter ants. I did not do due diligence on the product before posting information about the label that I had received from some of my Forestry colleagues. In my story I implied that the product PTM™ was available for use in sites other than pine plantations and that PMPs might find it useful in their business, should clients have problems with leaf cutter ants.

Initial correspondence with BASF technical specialist, Dr. Bob Davis, indicates that I was wrong about this product being available for urban environments. I plan to issue further clarification after I speak with Dr. Bob, but until then my apologies to BASF and to anyone for whom this caused confusion or inconvenience.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

School IPM Coordinators Rock!

Approximately 200 school IPM coordinators met for the first TIPMAPS meeting in San Marcos TXNot many new associations get started with more than 200 people at their first meeting, but there was little doubt that last month's inaugural meeting was a success for TIPMAPS, the Texas Integrated Pest Management Affiliates for Public Schools. The group, the newest affiliate of the Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO), met for the first time on November 18 and 19 last month at the Embassy Suites in San Marcos.

The group, composed of pest management coordinators for public schools, came from all corners of Texas to talk about hogs and rats and bugs and bats and how to keep schools safe and pest-free using an integrated pest management (IPM) approach.

Pest control may seem an unlikely topic for school professionals, but don't try telling that to any of the representatives of 115 school districts present at the meeting. These folks are on a mission. "IPM is not just what we do," said TIPMAPS president Tom Ohm of Frisco Independent School District, "it is what we are." According to Ohm, IPM is important to maintain the health and safety of children as well as the structural integrity of the buildings which the public has entrusted [schools] with.

"What school IPM coordinators do for schools, while under-appreciated, is incredibly important and increases the quality of life for school children," said Gene Harrington, legislative liaison for the National Pest Management Association in Virginia. Harrington was a speaker and one of several out-of-state visitors who came to see what's happening in Texas. Harrington noted that Texas is a leader in the IPM movement and other states are watching carefully what is happening here.
First TIPMAPS officers (from left) Paul Duerre, Dixie Mathews, Tom Ohm and C.G. Cezeaux
At the closing business meeting, over 50 association members voted to adopt new bylaws and commit themselves to meeting annually in the cause of pest control with IPM. Officers of the new affiliate group include Ohm, vice president Paul Duerre of Killeen ISD, secretary Dixie Mathews of Arlington ISD, and treasurer C.G. Cezeaux of Spring ISD.

The closing of the business meeting was vindication of sorts for me and my colleague Janet Hurley, Entomology Program Specialist in charge of the school IPM program. We have worked for over two years to encourage and seek funding for this event. The conference is an extension of the work we have done for the past eight years to see more complete adoption of integrated pest management in public schools. As I told the meeting participants in the opening session, there was always some fear on our part that school IPM might be just another idealistic fad. But the meeting for us was concrete evidence that IPM has found a permanent place in the way we operate schools in our state.

Congratulations to the new officers and all the new TIPMAPS members. Texas will be a better place for your service to the cause.

Check out our short video with highlights of the meeting below.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Exotic pest problems bug Texas

A couple of weeks ago I made an off-handed joke about the way our state government seems to ignore exotic pest problems like Formosan termites. It's true that it is too easy for all of us, not just state government, to ignore problems...at least until they become our own.

Excuses aside, I need to give our state legislators their due when it comes to exotic pests.

On November 13 and 14 last month I got to participate in the 3rd Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Conference held at Trinity University in San Antonio. The meeting was organized by a new group, the Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council (TIPPC). At the meeting I learned that the 2009 Texas Legislature addressed the issue of exotic invading pests by passing HB 865, established the Texas Invasive Species Coordinating Committee. The committee is composed of representatives from the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Soil and Water Conservation Board, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, the Texas Forest Service and the Texas Water Development Board. It is charged with coordinating state funding for invasive species-related projects. In addition, to just forming a committee the state also appropriated approximately $2.5 million to the exotic pest issue. Public education will be a priority for these funds, beginning with a $250K public education program targeting an important aquatic weed, giant salvinia, Salvinia minima, on four east Texas lakes.

It is yet to be seen whether any of this money will be directed toward exotic insect invasions, but at least its a start. For those of you in east Texas, especially boaters and bass fishermen, keep your eyes open for the Giant Salvinia Monster (TV spot) and the Hello/Goodbye campaign by Texas Parks and Wildlife. One ad design on this theme will be "Hello Giant Salvinia, Goodbye Fishing Hole", just to give you an idea.

For me, an eye-opener from attending this TIPPC meeting was learning more about exotic weed problems in the state. As campaigns to eradicate some of the newest invaders get started, it's conceivable that the pest control industry may be called on to help. Companies with an interest in weed control, and especially aquatic weed control, should stay tuned to the Texas Parks and Wildlife programs in this area.

Keeping up with bed bugs

I know I've posted a lot about bed bugs over the past year or so, and some of you may be wondering what all the hype is about. Bed bugs are in Texas and are growing in importance, but based on showing of hands at CEU conferences, it's still the minority of pest control companies who have experience with this pest in our state. That will change, I believe.

At last month's (very successful, by the way) school IPM coordinator's conference (more to come on that) I got to spend some time with Bobby Corrigan, the rodent expert coordinating New York city's rat control program. Bobby believes that were it not for bed bugs, the pest control industry would be in a heap of hurt in the Big Apple. Bed bug problems have provided business despite the economic downturn and dropoff in some other pest business there.

Bobby also recommended a website on bed bugs as one of the best. New York vs. Bed Bugs is a bed bug statisticsgrassroots advocacy movement that has created what is considered one of the premier online sites for information about bed bugs. Statistics on bed bug complaints to the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development tell an amazing story. Since the first logged complaints (2) in 2003, the annual number of complaints has risen to over 9,000 a year. According to one lawyer quoted on the site, "Most residential buildings in New York City have had bedbugs."

These guys know their bed bugs. The site is built a little differently than most educational sites. In the form of a blog, it can be a little confusing at first glance. A good place to start (at least for a technically oriented person like me) is the Resources tab. This tab provides links to a huge variety of topics, including research reports on bed bugs. One unusual resource I found here that might prove useful in educating customers is a Spanish-language video from Virginia Tech University. It's very simply delivered advice on basic do's and don'ts for apartment dwellers who encounter bed bugs. In fact there are several Spanish language resources on the site.

Oh, and if you're from Chicago area, Chicago has its own version of this site at http://chicagovsbedbugs.org/.

Another resource I recently discovered is a nice publication from Cornell University with the daunting title, "Guidelines for Prevention and Management of Bed Bugs in Shelters and Group Living Facilities". It seems to be very practically oriented and should answer many of the common customer questions such as, "how do I move and leave bed bugs behind?" It also includes many useful one-pagers such as "room preparation checklist for bed bugs".

Finally, I was pleased to learn that one of the resources I plugged about a year ago has been doing well. So well that Susan McKnight's bed bug interceptor is now being sold on Amazon. The bed bug interceptor is a trap that you install under the posts of your bed. Unlike the more Wang et al. bed bug trapexpensive, high-tech traps like Nightwatch and the CDC 3000, the Interceptor is simple in concept and use.

Using a similar low-tech approach, as reported in NYCvsBB, Changlu Wang and colleagues published some research this year in the Journal of Economic Entomology that describes a simple but effective bed bug trap made with materials available at your local hardware store. It turns our that a little dry ice in a Starbucks mug, a cheap chemical hand-warmer, and an upside-down dog food dish can prove an irresistible attraction to sneaky bed bugs. Rarely do you find a peer-reviewed scientific paper with practical information that you can immediately put to use in your pest control business. How about providing a service to hotels or apartment complexes, surveying vacant units for bed bugs?

You may be yawning and saying "ho hum", we don't do much bed bug work in Texas. But my advice is to bookmark some of these resources. You may need them some day.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"If Kudzu wasn't bad enough"...and other thoughts on exotic pests

images of bean plataspid courtesy University of Georgia
Dr. Dan Suiter and Lisa Ames with the University of Georgia just sent out a pest alert on an insect called the "bean plataspid". I had never heard of a plataspid (pla TASS pid) before, so I looked in my well-worn copy of "How to Know the True Bugs" by James Alexander Slater--a very useful book for relatives of the box elder bugs--but with no luck. A quick check of the Internet revealed that Plataspids are Old World insects--hence not covered by my U.S. field guide.

Suiter and Ames recently received numerous samples of these insects swarming around homes in Georgia. Homeowners there are being repelled by not only the numbers, but also by a foul smell associated with the bugs. Turns out that this was the first known collection of these insects, known scientifically as Megacopta cribraria in the U.S. It is native to India and China, where it feeds on kudzu.

Kudzu covering a Georgia road sign courtesy www.jjanthony.com/kudzu/signs.htmlAt this point many Southerners can be heard shouting "Glory be! A bug that eats kudzu! An answer to our prayers!" If you are not from the South, or are unfamiliar with kudzu, it is an invasive plant nightmare. Originally introduced in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a Japanese government display garden. Planted widely as an ornamental vine for its abundant vegetation and sweet-smelling flowers, it was promoted as a forage plant by the Soil Conservation Service in the 1920s and 30s for erosion control. Bad idea. Kudzu smother trees and other plants under a solid blanket of leaves, by girdling woody stems and tree trunks, and by breaking branches or uprooting entire trees and shrubs through the sheer force of its weight. It grows at a rate of up to a foot a day.

Unfortunately for us, the bean plataspid does not appear to be a good solution to kudzu. Besides being a household pest on the order of the box elder bug or the Asian mulicolored lady beetle, the bean plataspid is a pest of numerous legume crops, including soybeans. The University of Georgia, Georgia Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Agriculture consider it a potential agricultural pest and are partnering to take some regulatory action.

This appears to be the latest assault against the native fauna in our country. It's bad enough to have a new structural pest stinking up our homes, but when a foreign insect crosses the border into the U.S. it's generally forever. The fire ant landed on the sandy bay shores of Mobile, Alabama about 80 years ago and forever altered the ecology of the southern pine forest to the Texas prairies. We still don't know the full impact of fire ants on native wildlife and plant life, not to mention the American economy.

Last week I attended a conference on invasive pests, put on by the Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council, in San Antonio. If there was ever a more discouraging subject for a biologist, I don't know what it is. In one of the talks, a botanist talked about his efforts to catalog and classify all the invasive foreign plants in Texas. He proposed classifying certain plants as some pests as "super watch" plants. "Super watch" plants are those which might possibly be removed from the Texas landscape before they become impossible to control.

I think the concept is a useful one for insects. By classifying certain insects as "Potentially Eradicable" pests, or putting them on some sort of "Super Watch" list, we accept responsibility for going after these pests. It seems to me that under our current system we have little incentive to go after new pests before they can get established.

Take the Formosan termite. We continue to watch helplessly as this pest becomes established in new sites around the South and in Texas. The potential economic impact of the Formosan termite is staggering, as it is at least twice as destructive as our native subterranean termite on homes, and an eater of live trees as well.

Ironically this is one pest that, in my opinion, could be controlled in isolated infestations before it becomes firmly established. We have dozens of sites in Texas where the Formosan termite is established on one or a few home properties. A determined effort to eradicate colonies with termite baits has, in my opinion, a good chance of succeeding in nipping many of these mini-invasions in the bud.

So what does all this have to do with pest management professionals? Knowing where a pest is found and how fast it is spreading is important for decision makers to know whether and how an invasive pest might be eradicated. Suiter and Ames are requesting PMPs in Georgia to report any sightings of the bean plataspid there. Here in Texas we are requesting PMPs to report new sightings of the rasberry crazy ant and the Formosan termite. These reports are very important to us and often form the basis for research dollars to work on solutions for these pests.

I will be working with Drs. Roger Gold and Robert Puckett this year attempting to delineate precisely where Formosan termites are present in the state of Texas. The research is being funded by the Texas Department of Agriculture and USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. More information about the project will be forthcoming, but if you know of any suspected Formosan termite infestations we definitely want to know.

If only the Formosan termite could be coaxed into preferring kudzu.

Monday, November 16, 2009

New Marketing Approach for the Pest Control Industry

This blog isn't generally for silly stuff, but there are plenty of silly things out there to pass on. Tying advertising banners on large flies and releasing them in a room full of people at a bookseller's convention is certainly ingenious, if hard to figure out how it sold books.

My question is, "How did the pest control industry let a bunch of insect-ignorant booksellers figure this out first?" It's time to take of the gloves and show these bibliophiles who really knows their bugs! How about ribbons tied to bed bugs released in a hotelier's conference? What a great way to drum up business! How about German cockroaches with mini-speakers attached to their backs? Release them at a restaurateur's convention. When they get smashed a little pre-recorded message squeaks out, "You should have hired Joe's Pest Control!"

So it occurs to me, why stop at advertising? For my part I have though how nice it would be to release a bunch of mice or bats into the Texas Legislature while they discuss school IPM legislation. Funny how that works. I wonder how fast the state would appropriate money for Formosan termite eradication if the governor's mansion turned out to be infested? Hmmm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Requiem for a friend

I am sorry to forward the sad news about Ken Myers' passing last Monday afternoon. Today I received information about Ken's funeral which I will pass on for anyone who is interested.

A memorial service is being planned for Saturday, November 14 at 2:00 PM at Beck Funeral Home (1700 E Whitestone Blvd (FM 1431), Cedar Park, TX 78613) outside of Round Rock.

One of Ken's favorite charities was a group called Brown Santa, a community service of the Travis County Sheriff's Department. This is a program that distributes toys and gifts to children at Christmas and food for the Christmas dinner. According to his wife, Jan, Ken would collect toys all year long, choosing a toy for a different age group each week. In December they would bring all the toys to the local dropoff. Jan said this always made him feel fabulous.

It's fitting that Jan has asked that in lieu of flowers, people consider making a donation to Brown Santa. Donations are tax deductable and can be mailed to: Travis County Brown Santa, P O Box 207, Austin, TX 78767-0207, or visit the website and use the Donate button to make a secure online donation through PayPal.

I'm not surprised to learn this about Ken, but I am surprised. Those of us who work with others professionally often develop a sense about the quality of our professional friends; but most of the time we either do not have the time, or take the time to get to know each other on a deeper level. I always consider it a privilege when someone lets me "in" by opening a door into their personal life, revealing a valued hobby or talking about children or spouses. While I don't expect to get to know all of my colleagues on a personal level, it's nice when you get confirmation about the high character of a person you've respected on a professional level.

Ken will be deeply missed by his many colleagues and friends. As a former PMP, and Executive Director of the Texas Pest Management Association, Ken was a true professional, as dedicated as anyone I knew to strengthening the pest management profession in Texas. He was also a veteran of Desert Storm; but when I picture him now I guess I'll see him in my mind wearing a Santa Claus cap. Godspeed Ken.

Monday, November 9, 2009

There's an App for Everything

An interactive map of hotel locations reporting bed bugs from http://bedbugregistry.comMaybe the iPhone does have an "app" for everything. Now there's an app to help the traveler keep a wary eye open for hotel bed bug infestations. Check it out at http://appshopper.com/lifestyle/bed-bug-identifier

If you're not quite sure what an "app" is, the word is shorthand for mobile device application. These are down loadable, mini-software programs that works on mobile devices like the iPhone or iTouch or even Blackberry. Some of these programs are quite ingenious and some are even useful. For anyone who has heard about bed bugs and wants more information immediately, this little program might do the trick.

The bed-bug-identifier app shows pictures of all life stages of the insect, where they are most commonly found in a typical hotel room (in other words, where to inspect your room), safest places to put your luggage when you check in, and even what bed bug bites look like.

Because I don't have an iPhone myself, I am unable to do a critical review of the software--although my Extension colleague from Colorado, Whitney Cranshaw, calls it "very cleverly done". He says he thinks "a lot of people might find it useful-from frequent travellers to motel personnel to others with interests in bed bug detection."

The online description claims that it includes an interactive hotel map...which if I interpret this right, is the central value of the program. Such information is available already online through a site called bedbugregistry.com I don't know how anyone can vouch for the accuracy or currency of this kind of information, but in theory the idea is a good one for travelers. On the downside, I suspect that soon we'll hear of apps like this being sued by hotel owners who have been victimized by travelers seeking revenge for some perceived form of bad service unrelated to bed bugs.

If anyone downloads this $4.99 app, let me and others know what you think.

Monday Morning Update on Ken Myers

Passing on an update on Ken Myers from his administrative assistant, Linda Angerstein:

"Many of you know this already, but we wanted to be sure that every member is aware of the situation. Our Executive Director Ken Myers is currently in critical condition in the ICU at the VA hospital in Temple on life support. He had been undergoing rigorous chemo and radiation treatments for lymphoma and had had several setbacks in recent weeks, including coming down with pneumonia. Plans to remove him from life support Thursday were delayed by a slight improvement in his vital signs and by the emergency at nearby Ft Hood which sent many injured to the VA. His wife Jan just called me and said that she and his sister Nancy are going to meet with his doctors this morning and the decision will be made whether to remove the life support. Jan says things are very touch and go at the moment and that he probably will not recover. She asked that everyone please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers. We will notify you with more details as soon as we know them."

"Thank you to all of you for your support in this difficult time."

Friday, November 6, 2009

A personal note: Ken Myers

Most of us who work in the pest control industry in Texas know Ken Myers, Executive Director of the Texas Pest Control Association. Ken has kept no secret of his recent battle with cancer, and his determination to make it through and resume work as soon as possible. Unfortunately, things have not gone as planned. He recently suffered a setback with a lung infection and has been hospitalized in critical condition. Plans to take him off life support yesterday were delayed by an improvement in his vital signs and by the emergency in Fort Hood which affected the VA Hospital where he is being treated in Temple, TX. Decisions are being made today as family arrives to support him. Those who know and love Ken would appreciate your prayers and support during this time. I will keep you informed when I know more.

Countdown to School IPM Conference

The Embassy Suites-San Marcos is a wonderful conference facilityI just have to brag on the new Texas group, Texas Integrated Pest Management Affiliates for Public Schools (TIPMAPS). The group is so new it doesn't have a web page yet, but this hasn't kept these folks from getting over 10% of the school districts in the state to register for a first-of-its-kind conference on IPM, to be held at the Embassy Suites in San Marcos, TX on November 18 and 19.

As the newest affiliate chapter of the Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO), TIPMAPS is a fledgling group. The conference is their first open event and will focus on a variety of pest management issues facing school IPM coordinators. The concept of an association for school maintenance officials with pest control duties is novel and sets the bar for other states wanting to see IPM take root in their public school districts.

I've just been looking through the list of badges for the meeting and I count 107 different public school districts represented among the approximately 180 early registrants. This represents more than 10% of the approximately 1030 school districts in the second largest state public school system in the nation.

Speakers for the meeting will include some of the state's own school IPM coordinators, along with speakers from industry and the Extension Service. The highlighted speaker for the conference is Dr. Bobby Corrigan, or Dr. Rat, as he's known in New York City where he oversees one of the largest rodent IPM programs in the world.

The last day of the conference will include an organizational meeting to discuss membership dues and formation of regional chapters. Online registration is now closed, but it's not to late to attend. On-site registration will be available for $100. To see a schedule and map to the conference hotel in San Marcos, go to the Texas AgriLife Conference Service website.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The most realistic cockroach robot yet

Ever stay up late at night thinking about the sprawled alternating tripod gait of cockroaches? Neither have I. But fortunately for all of us, some brainy folks at the University of California at Berkeley have. They've created DASH, the Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod, certainly one of the most realistic insect robots I've seen. If nothing else, DASH help me appreciate a little more of the elegance of nature. Seeing the simplicity of cockroach running mechanics demonstrated by a machine with just a few basic "moves" gives me a better appreciation for one of our fastest pests, Periplaneta americana, or the American cockroach. It also gives me an appreciation for the advances in materials technology, not to mention the creativity of the folks at Berkeley. I'll never look at a scurrying American roach in quite the same way.

Oh and did I mention it's a little creepy at the same time? Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Everything you wanted to know about bees...

Beekeepers examine a managed bee hive, photo by M. MerchantBees have become a significant source of inquiries from the public, and an important revenue stream, for some pest management professionals in recent years. If you would like to learn more about bees, or if you've always wanted to try your hand at beekeeping, an upcoming workshop might be just what you need.

The Trinity Valley Beekeepers club is putting together a one day class to help people get started in beekeeping. Advertised for new or aspiring beekeepers, "Introduction to Beekeeping" is an all-day seminar designed to get you up and going in beekeeping. Based on his popular college course, Dr. Alan Eynon and others will take you through a year of beekeeping from setting up your hives in Spring, harvesting you honey in the Summer and preparing your bees for the Winter.

The class will be held at Eastfield College (which is where the club usually meets), 8:30am - 5pm on Saturday, November 7th. Eastfield College is in east Dallas, on the north side of I-30 at Motley Drive, just a few miles in from the I-30/I-635 interchange.

According to Dr. Alan Eynon, club president, it will help them a lot if you would register early, so they can plan for ordering lunches and supplies. Early registration is slated to end on Oct 16. If you miss the deadline you will still be able to register, but you might want to drop Dr. Eynon a note to let him know. Cost for the class (which includes lunch) is $45 for non club members. For a schedule or to get registered, click here

Get CEUs at the Fall 2009 Pest Management Seminar

Acorns showing emergence holes of the acorn weevilRegistration for the 2009 Fall Pest Management Seminar has begun. This seminar is an annual event, traditionally held at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas. This year, because we have outgrown our facilities at the AgriLife Center, we will be holding the program in Plano, Texas at Chase Oaks Church on Legacy Dr and Hwy 75. Also, we are offering online registration for the first time. All registrations must be completed online, or via phone with the AgriLife Conference Services. With the new registration system we can also offer more payment options, including check, invoice, or credit card.

The focus of the Pest Management Seminar series (offered in the fall and spring) is on landscape pest management. This seminar's topics include updates on changes in pesticide laws for applicators (TDA and SPCS), insect biology for pesticide applicators, weed control update, diagnosing oak wilt and other tree diseases, and using IPM for turfgrass disease management. Last year's registration was approximately 400 applicators, so if you are interested you should make your reservations soon. Oh, and did I mention that a nice catered lunch is part of your registration?

If you maintain a structural pesticide applicator license, and need weed and L&O CEUs, this is a great place to get them. If you normally get your CEUs from programs that focus on structural pest control, this seminar can provide you with a fresh perspective and a chance to meet new faces. For registration and more information, visit our website at http://urbansolutionscenter.tamu.edu/hot-topics/ipm-seminar.aspx We hope to see you there.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Know your beetles

The caterpillar hunter, in the genus Calosoma, is one of the largest and prettiest carabid beetles.
In baseball the difference in batting average between a mediocre hitter and an MVP is often just a few percentage points. In pest control the difference between someone who comes across as a skilled professional and someone who is seen as little more than a hired "bug sprayer" is in the details--like being knowledgeable about the unusual pests. If you want to build customer respect and loyalty there is nothing better than knowing your "bugs".

New technicians typically get trained to identify the most "important" or common pests: cockroaches, rats and mice, structural ant pests, fire ants, and termites. But as time goes on, alert technicians should be adding to their repertoire of pests that they can diagnose. Many of these will be occasional invaders, arthropods that usually live outdoors but can invade buildings when the weather conditions are right or when populations are unusually heavy.

This week's odd, occasional pest is the carabid, or ground beetle. Rather than a specific type of insect, this is a general name for a whole family of beetles. Carabids are most often considered beneficial predators, patrolling the ground for caterpillars and other larvae, even occasionally snails. Carabid beetles are quite common and diverse with over 2200 types in North America. Carabids vary in appearance, but are long-legged and have thread-like antennae which arise between the antennae and mandibles. The body is usually shiny, has lengthwise grooves (striae) on the wing covers, and most often the color is black.
A handfull of carabid, or ground, beetles.  These beetles were burrowing into sealant around the outside door of a building. Photo by M. Merchant
Some species of ground beetles emit noxious secretions as a type of self defense. This morning I picked a ground beetle off the floor of my home. After disposing of it, my fingers carried a strong vinegar-like smell. While not irritating in my case, some species produce compounds that can be irritating to human skin.

Occasionally carabids cause more serious problems. Two weeks ago I received a sample of ground beetles (above) burrowing through sealant around the doorway of an office. Behavior like this can be puzzling unless we understand more about the biology of carabid beetles. In this case the behavior is not surprising considering the daily (circadian) behavior of the beetles.

Carabid beetles are nocturnal, being active mostly at night. They are rapid runners and rarely fly except during mating season (we'll return to this point). Like all nocturnal insects, carabids are negatively phototaxic during the day, that is their instinct is to move away from light. So while we're rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and picking up our morning paper, carabids are looking for dark crevices or digging down into the ground to escape daylight. And carabids, with their flimsy looking legs are very good diggers. If you don't believe me, try holding one in your closed hand for a few moments. Their power to squeeze between fingers is amazing.

This morning I received a call about an RV dealership who was having a problem with some sort of "beetle" digging into rubber sealant used around skylights on their campers, "just like a mouse gnawing into a box".Damage to sealant around a skylight on a recreational vehicle caused by a scarab beetle (lower right) These turned out to be scarab beetles, a slightly different critter, but one with the same behavior as carabids. Over the years I've received similar calls from high school track coaches dismayed by beetles boring into rubberized tracks, churches experiencing leaks when ground beetles started boring through the waterproof foam material on the roof, and schools and businesses concerned about all the "bugs" on the floor. In all cases these beetles were caught in an artificial setting at the end of the night, and simply did what comes naturally: they located a soft crevice into which they diligently burrowed to escape the light.

So what can be done? First, it's important to remember that ground beetles normally would have no interest in visiting a car dealership, athletic field or home. But they will show up at these places if attracted by nighttime lighting. Although carabids do not normally fly, and are negatively phototaxic during daylight hours, things change during mating season. For a few days out of the year, each species of carabid beetle becomes an active flier at night. Also, like other nocturnal flying insects (e.g., crickets), lights such as outdoor floodlights, athletic field lights, security lights, even lit windows become very attractive during these flights. A bright light, here mounted on a roof and shining on a church steeple, is sure to attract carabid beetles and other insects.Carabid beetles, drawn to the light in the previous picture, burrowed into the foam foundation of this gravel topped roof and caused water infiltration of sanctuary ceiling.

Like crickets, the first step in solving a heavy carabid beetle problem is to reduce or eliminate outdoor lights during these nocturnal flight periods. The good news is that each species of carabid typically has a short flight period--a few days to a week or so. Even reducing or eliminating lights for a week may be long enough to get beyond the flight period for a given beetle. Pesticides are not likely to be an effective solution to these insects because the beetles are exposed for a relatively short time to spray residues and the damage is done quickly.

A more permanent solution for carabid beetles and other nocturnal flying insects is to look at positioning or type of lighting. Lights should not be shined directly on doorways or windows (or in the case of our RV dealer, above valuable vehicles with rubber seals). Some lights are less attractive to insects than others; for example, sodium vapor lights tend to be less attractive to night-flying insects than mercury vapor or halogen bulbs. Also, using lights with proper shielding to prevent light pollution has a side benefit of being less likely to attract insects from long distances.

Even knowing what's bugging your customer may not bring them full satisfaction. In the case of ground beetle "invasions" there's no quick fix apart from turning out the lights. But a quick identification and explanation (or prompt delivery on a promise to find out), you will certainly gain the appreciation and greater respect of your customers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On the Road Again: crazy ants and their imposters

Molly Keck, IPM program specialist for Bexar County, was impressed by her first observations of the Rasberry crazy ant in San Antonio. She described her encounter with the ants as cool. Despite thorough treatment with fipronil sprays, there were still lots of activity in the medians and around mulched trees. The commercial property on the west side of San Antonio is the only known location where RCA has been detected in Bexar county. But this site won't be the last; and non-entomologists will not think these ants are cool.

To see Molly and a video clip from WOAI Channel 4 TV about the San Antonio infestation click here

On the road againWilly Nelson
Making another leap from its homebase around Harris county (Houston), the RCA has also been officially identified from Jim Hogg county in far south Texas, just north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Unconfirmed reports have also been received from several sites scattered from south Texas to the upper Gulf coast. According to Danny McDonald at Texas A&M University, Chambers county, just east of Galveston, also has a confirmed infestation.

If all of this makes you a little nervous (or excited, depending on your perspective), it should. The RCA is not an ant that spreads quickly on its own. Winged forms of the ant are unknown, and the speed of colonization on the ground is relatively slow. But they do appear to be exceptionally good at hitching rides with people. At least that seems to be the only plausible explanation for this rapid spread. Hay bales, potted plants and any soil-containing object that can be picked up and moved is a threat.

Crazy ant imposters
On the other hand, we shouldn't be seeing RCA behind every bush. I just received an ant sample from Hill county this week from someone who thought they might have crazy ants. The ants were fast and erratic-moving and were very abundant. The ants turned out to be a species ofpyramid ants have a distinctive node on the rear thoracic segment (see arrows) pyramid ant (Dorymyrmex sp.), a common native ant that makes little crescent-shaped mounds. Pyramid ants are not known to be structural pests, but can on occasion be extremely abundant outdoors. One client last year sent me pictures of a yard full of pyramid ant nests, complaining he couldn't pick vegetables in his garden without becoming covered with the swarming ants. Unlike crazy ant, which is relatively bristly, and has a ring of hairs around the anal opening at the tip of its abdomen, pyramid ants can be identified by their single node, slit-like anal opening, and raised node at the back end of the thorax (see picture).

Another ant that can be mistaken for crazy ants is the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile. These ants are infamous for their large colonies. They are difficult to control with liquid baits for this reason. Large colonies can drain bottles of baited sugar water within a matter of days. Also, fast moving, Argentine ants are distinguished from crazy ants by their smooth, almost hairless cuticles and by their slit-like anal openings.

If you think you might have crazy ants, and own a microscope, compare the features I've listed above for pyramid and Argentine ants. If, after checking them out, you still think you might have RCA, send your sample to Danny McDonald at the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology.

Friday, August 28, 2009

When life hands you maggots...

Soldier fly, Hermetia illucens, adult. Photo by Mike MerchantOne of the odder occasional invader pests PMPs can encounter is the soldier fly, Hermetia illucens. The adult soldier fly is relatively obscure and unlikely to attract much attention. The mature larva, however, is a creature from a bad sci-fi movie. Unlike most fly larvae, the soldier fly is leathery and grey or brownish in color--well adapted to crawling longer distances away from its moist larval habitat. It's just odd enough that a customer who sees one is sure to save it in a jar for you, the pest control guy, to identify.

Soldier flies in homes are most likely to be associated with decomposing animals, especially those in later stages of decomposition. But soldier fly larvae are also associated with compost bins or any wet accumulations of vegetable debris.
Soldier fly larvae from ProtoCulture LLC at http://thebiopod.com/pages/pages/bsf.html
A new phenomenon worth being aware of, especially among your green customers (you know, the ones who drive Priuses, install solar panels on the roof and want your "organic" program) is vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is a faster and safer way of disposing of kitchen scraps. Vermicomposting bins may consist of wooden or plastic bins (plastic sweater boxes are commonly used) layered with newspaper and kitchen scraps. It uses certain types of worms, especially red wrigglers, to help compost the food quickly with minimal odors. Occasionally soldier flies find their ways into these bins and can partly take over composting from the worms.

A new, entreprenurial twist on vermicomposting is "soldier fly composting". One enterprising young company is trying to sell America on the concept. The BioPod™ is a specially designed plastic container that makes soldier fly larvae (or, to use the company lingo, BioGrubs)easy to rear. If this vermi- biogrub- movement catches on, PMPs may see a lot more of these critters escaping from their compost bins and crawling through homes and apartments.

See a quick video about "Biogrubs"

My entomology colleague and fellow blogger, Kim Schofield, entertains and instructs hundreds of school children each year with, of all things, maggot art! She simply takes a few soldier fly larvae, some non-toxic paint, and a piece of paper. Dip the maggots in the paint, have the kids drop them on the paper, let them crawl for awhile, and viola! Art! Don't believe me? Well of course there's a website for everything, so check out http://www.maggotart.com

All this new interest in soldier flies is great proof of the human ability to make the best of an otherwise yucky deal. One could say if your customer hands you maggots, make maggot art! Or at least know what they're handing you.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Newest news on Colony Collapse Disorder

You may soon be hearing about the conclusions of the latest research on origins of colony collapse disorder in the news. Briefly, researchers with the University of Illinois are pointing the finger at viruses again, but this time with a twist. The suspected culprits are called "picorna-like" viruses. This viruses specifically attack ribosomal RNA, part of the cell's genetic machinery that produces proteins the bees need for protection against stress, disease and other assaults.

What's interesting about these new studies is that they rely on cutting-edge techniques and information that have never been available before. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the team say they used "whole genome microarrays" to compare cells from bees' guts. According to lead scientist May Berenbaum from the University of Illinois, the research was possible only because of the prior publication of the bee genome (basically a complete roadmap to all the genes in honey bee DNA) in 2006.

The team's genetic analysis of the bees' guts failed to reveal elevated expression of pesticide response genes; however the new techniques did reveal an unusually high amount of ribosome fragments in the guts of CCD-affected bees. The data are consistent with damage caused by picorna-like viruses that, in effect, “hijack the ribosome” of bees to take over these protein factories. The deeds of these viruses are apparently difficult to trace with traditional techniques. Affected bees from CCD hives had “more than their fair share” of infection with these viruses, according to May Berenbaum, of the University of Illinois, who led the study.
The results, if confirmed, would seem to make sense of many previous studies' findings or lack of findings. Weakened bees could be more susceptible to stress, disease and other assaults.

I have to admit that this is technology that I didn't learn about in graduate school. Hence I must wait in the wings to see how the drama plays out among those researchers who thrill to talk of pico-viruses. In any case, it seems that these result continue to support the idea that pest control is unlikely to be the source of the honey bees' woes.

A look back in time

My monthly National Geographic magazine arrived in the mail yesterday. The cover carried an intriguing computer rendition of how Manhattan Island likely looked in 1609, next to its appearance today. This stuff is fascinating to me, as I have always wished I could travel back in time and see our country as it might of appeared to the pioneers or native Americans. I love to squint my eyes and try to imagine landscapes without power lines and pavement and people, two hundred or more years ago.

The Mannahatta Project people, who supplied National Geographic with the computer renderings, have done this. According to their website these folks have been working for over a decade, looking at historical maps and records to recreate the 17th century landscape. In one sense it is a wonder to see what "man hath wrought" in a couple of hundred years, sculpting the land to make it habitable and creating marvels of engineering. On the other hand it is sad to virtually see the beauty that once was, and is no more. Lakes that provided water for Indians, first polluted, then filled in and eventually paved over. Rich fisheries that have declined, and scenery transformed to blight.

Interestingly, PCTonline.tv just posted a video by Bobby Corrigan showing rodent activity and behavior in lower Manhattan. Norway rats are not native to North America and, as Bobby points out, lower Manhattan island was likely one of the first places in the continent where rats made landfall.

For better and worse, we humans have made our mark on this fair land. One of our biggest ecological sins, in my opinion, is the way we have redistributed a variety of plant, insect and vertebrate animals to places they did not evolve and do not live peacefully with native ecologies. The landscape of Manhattan island is now honeycombed with the warrens and runs of Rattus norvegicus. Prairies of Texas are now populated with Solenopsis invicta, the red imported fire ant, to the harm of native quail and snakes and myriad insects.

It's important that the public and, more importantly, our children know these things. There are still pests to keep out, and there are still plenty of places that resemble 1609 Manhattan, and there is a need to have both our New York cities and our wild places. Kudos to the Mannahatta project and all those people working to instill an appreciation among kids for our native landscapes. Now if we could just keep crazy ants and fire ants at bay.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Climate change and changing times add up to new challenge for PMPs

One of my favorite anecdotes is about the famous British architect Christopher Wren. According to Wikipedia, "Wren designed 55 of 87 London churches after the Great fire of London in 1666, including St Paul's Cathedral in 1710, as well as many secular buildings of note." The story goes that Wren approached a man who was working on one of the buildings he had designed. When asked what he was doing, the man replied, "I'm laying brick." Wren approached a second construction worker engaged in the same work and repeated his question. The second man looked up and smiled and said, "I'm building a cathedral."

Every so often I think it's important that we stop focusing so closely at what we do, and look at the larger meaning and impact of our life's work. What kind of business are you in? Is it a business to make money? Is it a job to kill bugs? Or is your business helping people to lead healthier, safer and more pleasant lives? You may be running a residential route, or servicing commercial clients, or making sure your employees remain productive, but if you are in the pest control business, your job is more than just controlling pests.

I was reminded of the importance of our profession thanks to a note this weekend from Steve Baker, of International Exterminators in Fort Worth. Steve send an article from the Wall Street Journal on the increasing frequency of new diseases being seen, especially along the southern border with Mexico. Much of this has to do with changes in immigration patterns, but some of the concerns focus on spread of new pests into the U.S. Although data is still scarce, some people believe that climate change may be encouraging the spread of insect vectors of disease further north. In a response to a letter about a recent article on the impact of climate change on insects, University of California entomologist John Trumble notes that the ranges of more efficient vectors of this disease may be spreading north, even as the parasites follow immigrants across the border.

In Texas a major concern of health officials is the spreading incidence of the mosquito-borne disease, dengue fever. Warmer temperatures and increases in dense, low-income housing favor the spread of this disease. Caribbean (Rasberry) crazy ants, fire ants, argentine ants, and numerous plant-feeding insects are all likely to be favored by current trends in climate change.

Of course all this adds up to the growing need for pest control. How about if today, when you wonder if it's all worth it, you think about the bigger picture? You and your employees are not just killing bugs, you keeping your friends, neighbors and customers safe and healthy. Having people take a pest-free home or pest-free business for granted is a sign that you are doing your job well.
Christopher Wren would be proud.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Plague, prairie dogs and pesticide policy

Prairie dog town in Wichita Mountains, OklahomaUrban pest control encompasses an incredibly wide range of organisms including insects, arachnids, birds, bats and a smorgasbord of urban wildlife. I was reminded of this yesterday with a call from a PMP seeking help with flea control in prairie dog towns. It seems there is a plague epidemic among the prairie dogs living in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Since plague is not a common phenomenon in the United States, a little background might be helpful. Plague is a disease caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. The bacterium can be transmitted through the bite of an infected flea, through handling or skinning an infected animal or through the air from an infected human (or more frequently, cat) similar to flu. The term "plague" stirs most people because of its association with the black death of Europe, when dozens of millions died over a 300 year period starting in the 14th century.

There are two ecological forms of plague: urban plague, spread largely by commensal rats; and sylvatic plague, which is spread largely by wild rodents in rural areas. Both forms of plague remain a threat in this country, though the last outbreak of urban plague occurred in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Most recent U.S. cases of plague, 10-15 a year, are sylvatically transmitted and occur over scattered sites in the western states, including a few in Texas.

Rodent control by PMPs has, without a doubt, helped keep urban forms of plague rare over the past century. But effective pest control for public health is still needed to control of sylvatic plague in some areas. In the current Santa Fe epidemic, for example, one of the affected prairie dog colonies is adjacent to a school playground in an urban neighborhood.

Unfortunately, some citizens and politicians appear not to appreciate the seriousness of arthropod-borne disease. Perhaps this is because of our success in keeping arthropod-borne disease rare. Maybe it's a need for better public health education or a lack of understanding of science and medicine. Whatever the reason, in recent years I see more instances where vague health and environmental concerns seem to be trumping well-documented and real concerns about insect-vectored disease.

In Santa Fe, citizen pressure in recent years has led to schools and the city replacing effective conventional pesticides with generally untested, organic alternatives. One specific consequence of this approach is that city workers are being encouraged to use diatomaceous earth for control of Xenopsylla cheopsis, oriental rat flea, in prairie dog burrows. In a cursory review of the literature I could find no information to justify use of diatomaceous earth for flea control in prairie dog burrows. I was, however, able to quickly find peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of field applications to prairie dog burrows of several other insecticides including carbaryl, DDVP, permethrin, deltamethrin, and pyriproxifen.

While it can be argued that none of these products provide an ideal, long-lasting or inexpensive solution to plague-bearing fleas, they do provide significant, quick control of fleas. They can also rapidly prevent or eliminate plague outbreaks in prairie dog towns. And at least some of these tested products should be acceptable to the staunchest pesticide critics. Pyriproxifen, in particular, is a low toxicity insect growth regulator that has shown excellent flea control in prairie dog burrows with minimal ecological disruption. Highly specific oral vaccines for prairie dogs are also being tested with promise for providing a longer-term solution to plague outbreaks.

On the other hand, my own work several years ago with cat fleas showed that although diatomaceous earth can control fleas under dry laboratory conditions, the addition of moisture to treated soil quickly renders treatments ineffective for control of adult and larval fleas. This casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of field applications of diatomaceous earth dust into damp underground burrows. At the very least it points out the need for field testing before recommending such treatments.

So why would a respectable community persist in requiring an untested, most-likely ineffective pesticide to control plague-bearing fleas? In this case it seems to be because anti-pesticide advocates, armed with little more than an easily-transmitted fear of technology, are able to persuade policy makers that "natural" is always better and safer. The same strategy is being used in my community to spread fear about the responsible, professional use of mosquito spray campaigns in areas of high West Nile virus risk. The big problem here is that untested recommendations are being taken seriously by government and public health.

It is one thing to choose to use untested home recipes in a backyard garden, where the worst that can happen is for the gardener to lose a few of his or her own plants. It's another thing to pressure communities to stop using proven pest control technology against pests that threaten community health. It make sense that before a community switches from a proven technology, advocates should provide (1) proof that the current technology poses an environmental or health cost that exceeds the value of the benefits provided, and (2) evidence that alternatives are both safer and equally effective as the current technology.

Decision-makers at the school, local and state level need to understand both the science and the stakes involved before restricting the kinds of pesticides that can be used by pest management professionals. This is what I believe is wrong with the growing crop of local ordinances banning municipal governments from using certain classes of pesticides in parks and schools and other public places.

You will get little argument from me that pesticides pose their own share of unique environmental and health challenges, but the problem is often less than the public is led to believe. And in many cases, the negative impacts of pesticides can be blunted by keeping them in the hands of professionals and using them in the context of a well thought-out IPM program. Our ability to control pests quickly at reasonable cost, often with a high degree of selectivity and environmental compatibility, means that pesticides will continue to be a valuable part of pest control in the foreseeable future.

I do not live in Santa Fe, and cannot speak to all the issues and circumstances of their plague management program there. But if I were a parent with a child in school next to a prairie dog town with a known plague outbreak, I know I would want a control option that had been tested and shown effective.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Crazy ant findings spell bad news for San Antonio

I guess the crazy ant video posting from last week was timely in an unfortunate way. This week we have an official confirmation of the Rasberry crazy ant from west San Antonio, as well as the first confirmed site in Galveston county. Molly Keck, IPM program specialist from Bexar County, is concerned about the find, which was made by a PMP during a service visit to a commercial customer. According to Dr. Roger Gold, the identity of the ants has been confirmed by the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology at Texas A&M University.

One of the things I learned from the workshop last week was that humans are the main agents responsible for dispersal of this species of ant. By themselves these ants seem to spread relatively slowly, much slower than fire ants when they were invading Texas. According to researcher Danny McDonald, highlighted in last week's video blog, winged females have yet to be observed in this ant, so spread may be limited to the ground... unless humans help out.

We believe crazy ants are being spread in Texas through soil, hay bales and possibly vehicles or equipment that are stored on the ground. Moving potted plants or woody plants with root balls is likely a principal means of transport. Because this ant is not yet considered a quarantined pest, there is currently no inspection process or certification of nurseries or soil transporting operations. Advising a client with Rasberry crazy ant infestation to avoid spreading the problem by moving such articles will provide a service to the community.

As new counties are added to the list of confirmed counties with infestations, the BASF expanded label for Termidor (allowing expanded treatment zones around structures) will be amended by the TDA. If you have what you suspect might be a Rasberry crazy ant problem, send specimens to the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology using the Identification Request form on their website.

Monday, August 10, 2009

One more try...

Please excuse my inexperience with posting videos. The crazy ant workshop video is now public and should be visible to anyone. You can click on the video from yesterday's post, or go directly to the crazy ant report at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80UbzvlQB0U

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rasberry Crazy Ant Workshop

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a day-long workshop on the so-called Rasberry crazy ant. Sponsored by the AgriLife Extension Service and held in the small town of West Columbia, TX, it attracted about 50 extension specialists, regulatory officials, Fish and Wildlife Department officials and community representatives. Rather than report in writing I thought I would try my hand at a video report, since still pictures and descriptions seem inadequate to convey a feel for what this ant does and is.

For more information about this ant and what we can recommend about its control, check out the site sponsored by the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology's site at http://urbanentomology.tamu.edu/ants/exotic_tx.cfm

Friday, July 31, 2009

Advisory Committee gets briefing on TDA issues

Yesterday the Structural Pest Control Service Advisory Committee (SPCSAC) held its summer meeting with Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) to hear updates and offer input on current activities of the agency that regulates commercial pest control in Texas.

Much of the meeting was devoted to a review of changes resulting from the recently ended legislative session in Austin. Two bills that passed this session will limit the activities that can be regulated by TDA. Falconers with permits, who use raptors to control or scare away pestiferous wildlife, are now clearly exempt from needing a pest control license (H.B. 693, sponsored by Vicki Truitt, House District 98, Keller). A more expansive bill, (S.B. 768, sponsored by Glen Hegar, Senate District 18, Katy) added falconry (repetitive with H.B.693), chimney sweeps, use of live traps, mechanical weed removal, and installation of "non-pesticidal barriers" to the list of people and activities that are exempt from requiring a pest control license.

The most significant legislative event for TDA this year was passage of the Sunset Bill (S.B. 1016). In Texas every state agency is required to go through Sunset Review every 12 years. A Sunset committee exaustively reviews all agencies up for review to ensure that the agencies are still needed, are performing their jobs properly, and that laws and regulations governing the agencies are up-to-date and operating efficiently. The result of this year's sunset review is that TDA has been reauthorized. Also, a number of sections of the Agriculture and Occupations Codes have been revised to make sure that the regulations governing the agricultural and occupational (pest control) parts of TDA's regulatory authority work efficiently together.

Some of the key changes resulting from the 2009 Sunset Bill include:
  • An increase in the maximum fines the Agency can impose for violations of the Agriculture or Occupational Codes. Previously the agency could fine violators $2000 per infraction per day for a maximum of $4000. Now the Agency can impose fines of $5000 per infraction per day with no limit to how many days the fines can accumulate.
  • Clarifying language that allows the agency to modify license renewal dates for ag and pest control licenses, harmonize testing procedures for both ag and pest control areas, and adjust length of terms for various licenses.
  • Agency is now required to conduct regular analysis of its records of complaints and pesticide violations for analysis and planning purposes.
  • Agency may conduct unannounced inspections during regular business hours (Assistant Commissioner Bush assured the committee that unless there is a good reason, the agency plans to continue its policy of providing notices of inspection ahead of time).
  • Clerical employees and manual laborers who are not directly involved in pesticide applications for a pest control business are no longer required to have a pesticide applicator's license.
  • The need for pesticide applicators who perform pest control on growing plants, trees, shrubs and grass to obtain a nursery-floral certificate to qualify for agricultural licensing is now eliminated. Such applicators can be licensed through either the agricultural code licensing or the occupational code licensing programs.
  • Allows the TDA to appoint a consumer representative to the SPCSAC without the specific recommendation of a consumer's group (TDA could get no recommendations from a Texas consumer's group when approached last year. So this provision will allow them to quickly fill the remaining slot on the SPCSAC).
  • Authorized TDA to enter into reciprocal licensing agreements with other states (for CEUs, certain testing requirements, etc.)
  • Changed multiple rules that required applicators to for "give" or "provide" or "leave" pest control information sheets with workplaces, schools, apartments and other customers. Now the applicator is required only to "make available" the consumer information sheets to such customers. The significance of this change was discussed at some length, with some of us expressing concern that this change would encourage applicators to neglect informing their customers of the availability of these sheets, and result in fewer consumers knowing about their rights and who to contact in the case of complaints. Assistant Commissioner Jimmy Bush said that it is their hope that there is little change people receiving the information. The intent of the change was to reduce the need to provide repetitive paperwork everytime a service visit is conducted and encourage electronic notifications. The essence of the discussion seemed to be that TDA is going to take a more relaxed attitude towards applicators providing consumer information sheets at every service visit.
In addition to updates from the legislative session, the committee discussed the new plans for CEU requirements for school IPM coordinators (SIPMC). Under the recently updated regulations that went into effect July 7, SIPMCs are required to obtain six hours of department-approved CEUs every three years. General discussion points included the question of whether a certain number of CEUs would have to be on laws and regulations, whether each CEU could be obtained separately, what criteria TDA should use in determining whether a course would qualify for a SIPMC CEU, and how the CEUs would be enforced.

The committee agreed that some of the CEUs should include laws and regulations, most of us thought that at least 2 CEUs should come from this category. The committee seemed to agree that CEUs should be available to be obtained individually, and that obtaining them electronically would be a cost-effective and environmentally sound alternative to face-to-face meetings--especially for small, isolated school districts. Some of us, however, felt that at least some CEUs should be obtained through face-to-face training--something that Jimmy Bush said could be worked into the rules. One suggestion was that the CEU requirements might be vetted through the new SIPMC association that will be organizing in November in San Marcos.

The topic of use of pesticides as part of school curricula was brought up briefly, with Jimmy Bush stating that TDA would have no objections to exemptions to the school IPM rules for pesticides used as part of school lessons or laboratory experiments. Pesticides in such cases would be handled by schools in a manner similar to any other hazardous material in a lab.

Insurance remains a hot topic between the industry and TDA. At issue is whether the current requirements do enough to protect the consumer from errors and omissions that might be made by a licensed applicator. Although some insurance policies include provisions for errors and omissions made by an applicator (e.g., not noticing a termite infestation during a wood-destroying insect (WDI) inspection), many do not. The TPCA objects to making E&O insurance a requirement due to increased costs. Apparently the only other occupation regulated by the state that is required to have E&O insurance is home inspection, a profession that has many similarities to pest control, especially WDI inspectors. Mike Kelly of TDA noted that inspectors have been instructed not to review insurance policies during this time, until the department can determine its position on the kinds of liability insurance it will require for licensed businesses.

Poor or illegal termite pre-treatments is a chronic problem that numerous committees and regulators have struggled with over the years. A subcommittee of the SPCSAC began meeting after this session to start discussions on how to improve regulations of termite pre-treatments without overly burdening honest operators. If you have thoughts on this subject, you should contact me or (even better) one of the members of this subcommittee (Bill Stepan, Greg Orr, or Tommy Kezar).

These meetings are long, but very informative in knowing what is going on in the state with respect to regulations. The meetings are always open to the public. The next meeting will take place October 29 in Austin at TDA headquarters.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

School IPM summer updates 2009

Lobby of Embassy Suites in San Marcos is comfortable and conducive to informal get-togethersI'm trying to make up for lost blogging time in July today, as things are starting to happen on the school IPM front. Today a new registration page was posted for the first ever school IPM coordinator conference in Texas. I say Texas, but this is probably the first conference of its kind anywhere in the U.S.

The meeting is scheduled for November 18-19, 2009 at the Embassy Suites San Marcos Hotel, Spa & Conference Center in San Marcos, TX. I have been to see the site and it should be an excellent location for a conference like this. It is centrally located, new facilities with excellent amenities at a reasonable price. The speaker lineup should be excellent, with keynote speaker Dr. Bobby Corrigan, and a variety of other pest control, public school, regulatory and other experts on the tentative schedule. Fee for early registration is only $75.

Registration for the conference is through the AgriLife Extension Conference Services office, but this meeting is being organized by school IPM coordinators for school IPM coordinators and those who do pest control in schools.

The meeting will be unique in that it will be the largest scale effort to date to establish a professional organization for school IPM coordinators. A group of Texas school IPM coordinators is currently working to establish their own professional group called the Texas Integrated Pest Management Affiliate for Public Schools (TIPMAPS). The group is forming as an affiliate chapter under the Texas Association of School Business Officials. The first official meeting of the group will be held at the end of the second day of the conference to discuss membership issues and other future plans.

As an extension specialist who works with schools pretty frequently I know that there are some excellent, dedicated PMPs and school maintenance professionals laboring in Texas public schools (and elsewhere) who don't get the recognition and professional support they deserve. This meeting is an attempt to change that by providing a place where school IPM professionals can come and be supported and learn from one another. I hope we will see a lot of you in November--school IPM coordinators, PMPs and vendors.

In other school IPM news, the national pest management strategic plan (PMSP) I wrote about in April has met additional opposition since that time. In addition to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment), the Association of Structural Pest Control Regulatory Officials (ASPCRO) has since communicated with USDA and EPA about a list of concerns. A group of extension professionals that I belong to, the Southern Regional Working Group on School IPM, also drafted an extensive critique of the plan. In response to these concerns, the drafters of the PMSP are planning to meet in August to review and revise the document.

In our view, the wording of the plan tended to be more divisive and critical of pesticides as a whole than we felt was necessary or justified by scientific evidence. We hope that the revised plan will continue to promote IPM and the benefits of good pest control without overstating the case against pesticides as a whole. More on this later.

Finally, a new Internet resource for urban IPM (special emphasis on schools) was released this week through the e-Xtension project (pronounced E-extension). A news release announced the new feature, the latest addition to the website that is billed as a national clearinghouse for extension information for consumers. Janet Hurley and I from Texas have both been involved in development and review of the urban IPM site. It should become a good place to go for information about a variety of pest problems related to schools and other structures.

Mommy Power and Pest Control

I'm an entomologist and not a marketer, nevertheless I wanted to share an intriguing marketing-related news item that I learned about on the radio yesterday. The radio story was on a relatively new online player (at least to me) called "mommy bloggers".

Now I've been blogging for well over a year, but have remained ignorant of a growing movement of what are called "blog-hers". In fact, like every other group larger than three people and a cat, they even have their own national conference and networking website. The BlogHer '09 conference in Chicago just concluded with over a thousand attendees. Next year's meeting in New York City is certain to attract even more, if writers like Austin American Statesman's report Omar Gallaga are to be believed. In fact, a recent survey by Nielsen Online concluded that online women aged 25-54 with at least one child make up about 20% of the active online population.

So what's this got to do with the pest control business? For one thing, according to Jessica Hogue, of Nielsen Online, "Mom blogs today are the epicenter for products reviews." One of the things mommy bloggers love to do is talk about consumer decisions they have made or are considering making. This makes sense if you consider that the woman of the house is often the key decision maker when it comes to significant household purchases, repairs, etc. Many retail manufacturers are acutely aware of this and are quickly recruiting mom bloggers into their marketing programs.

It should come at no surprise, then, that astute marketers with some of the larger pest control companies appear aware of this fact. A quick search of the terms "pest control" and "exterminator" on www.blogher.com reveals that Terminix and Orkin and other big name pest control companies are featured prominently on the site. My same search revealed hundreds of hits on these topics on different mommy blogs. Pest control is one of many things that are of intense interest to moms.

In many cases marketers are now providing freebies and samples to mommy bloggers in hopes of inducing them to blog (favorably) about their products. I'm not sure exactly how these techniques might relate to local pest management companies; but if you've been, like me, blissfully unaware of this growing online phenomenon, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

A starting point might be to visit www.blogher.com and search for mommy blogs in your community. You might discover some influential networks you didn't know existed. You might even persuade some of them to provide links or ads to your business.

On a more sober note, you might ask yourself, "is my company providing the best service possible to moms in my community?" With the growth and maturity of internet networking, bad reputations are as likely to spread as quickly as the good.

One thing I know, you want to maintain good relations with these moms. As the bumper sticker says, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!"