Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Biking for charity

Cross country biking may sound glamorous, but at least half the time this is the view
Some of you have probably already heard about the Jenkins brothers' bicycle ride for charity. Bobby, Raleigh and Dennis are owners/managers of three different ABC Termite and Pest Control offices in Austin, Houston and Dallas, respectively. For many months they have been planning a bicycle ride from Austin to Calgary, Alberta, Canada to benefit their favorite charities. Bobby is riding for Caritas of Austin, an organization that helps low income families and individuals with food and housing assistance, Dennis is riding for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society and Raleigh is riding for the National Kidney Foundation of Southeast Texas. They started their trip on Sunday and will be keeping a blog of their exploits at http://www.goanteater.com/blog/

I don't know about you, but I admire any family who loves each other well enough to spend a vacation together, much less a cross country bicycle trip with saddle sores and all the other accompanying pains and irritations. As a bicycle rider myself (my wife and I did the Dallas MS 150 ride last year) I have even greater appreciation for the challenge these three guys are facing.

Hurray for the Jenkins brothers, and for all of you finding creative ways to give back to your communities. Anyone wanting to contribute financially to what these guys are doing can go to their website. Let's all wish them godspeed and safety on the road.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bombs Away

Aerosol spray canister invented by USDA researchers--the first bug bombA highlighted quote in PMP magazine's Buzz Online caught my eye today. Alexis Barbarin is a graduate student at Penn State University studying bed bugs and their effects on low income households. Speaking of her insect study subjects, she noted that,

"If you set off a bomb in your room, [the bedbugs will] just move to your neighbors' rooms. It's like date night for them."

Alex's colorful simile underscores one of the common mis-perceptions of what many people refer to as "bug bombs." The warlike term, bug bomb, does have military origins. In 1943, two Americans, Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan, designed the refillable spray can that became the ancestor of today's household bug bombs. Goodhue's and Sullivan's portable can enabled soldiers to spray the insides of their tents for malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the Pacific during World War II. Perhaps with the marketing assistance of Raid® television commercials, people today tend to think of bug bombs (or more accurately, "total release aerosols") as the ultimate in pest control, with an almost uncanny ability to search-and-destroy.

While consumer aerosol generators may flush some insects from shallow hiding places into the open, they are in no way magical in their killing action. Aerosols are most effective at killing flying, or crawling insects on exposed surfaces. Insects inside walls, furniture or even deep in carpet pile are not well controlled with these devices.

The chemicals in aerosol generators are generally short-lived, remain airborne for a limited time and must be carried on air currents if they are to reach into corners and hidden areas in a room. It is unlikely that typical bug bomb products flush and kill many pests who are well protected in furniture, mattresses, behind baseboards and even picture frames, per Alex's bed bug observation. Because of the repellent nature of some of the active ingredients in aerosol generators, if anything insects are likely to be driven deeper into their hiding places or into adjacent rooms, businesses or apartments.

To address another misconception, aerosols are completely different from fumigation. Fumigation involves using a toxic gas, like methyl bromide or sulfuryl flouride, to penetrate food products, buildings or furniture to kill hidden pests. In contrast to fumigants, aerosols consist of very tiny liquid particles that are dispersed into the air via pressurized gas, combustion, or mechanical dispersion. Typical aerosol particles range from 5 to 50 microns in diameter (a typical human hair, by comparison, is approximately 100 microns in diameter). Fumigants, on the other hand, consist of molecules so small that they easily penetrate many substances, including solid wood.

The term "fumigation" should never be used by a professional to mean the same as "spraying" or using a bug bomb. Fumigation is a highly specialized branch of pest control that requires a special license and highly specialized skill and training to perform. Fumigation typically takes place in structures, boats or vehicles that are taped and/or draped with special gas tight tarps.

Another type of application used commonly in pest control is the ULV, or ultra-low volume application. Commercial ULV applicators, like the Actisol and Whitmire Micro-Gen generators, produce particle sizes in the 0.1 to 5 micron range, and are useful for treating voids and cracks not easily reached by sprays or crack and crevice aerosols. Hollow legs of kitchen equipment and voids above ceilings and in walls are excellent places to use ULVs. To avoid problems with repellency, research is being conducted today with low-repellency insecticides in ULV applicators.

Pest management professionals should be aware of the uses and limitations of aerosol and ultra-low-volume applications. Neither are panaceas for tough insect problems. Both should be used in combination with other sanitary and mechanical control methods. And special care should be used to place them directly into pest hiding areas. We want to avoid sending pests on a free date night in the next apartment or business.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mother's Day Termites

Formosan termite alates can be identified by their light brown or yellow coloration, hairy bodies and nocturnal activityHistorically in many parts of Texas and the South, Mother's Day marks the beginning of swarm season for Coptotermes formosanus, known in this country as the Formosan termite. And right on schedule I had my first Formosan termite report of the year yesterday, the day after Mother's day. In the process of working with the PMP who submitted the sample, I learned something that I believe is worth passing on.

When termites swarmers are reported from inside a home, the traditional diagnosis says that the house is infested and needs treatment by a termite control professional. When Wendell Daniel, of All Pest Solutions, brought in yesterday's sample it consisted of wingless Formosan termite swarmers. My diagnosis was that the home in question was likely infested and needed professional treatment, quick.

The problem was that this home had been treated before, in 2006; and a few Formosan swarmers had been found at the home annually since then. What made this especially puzzling was that only a few swarmers were found each year, and they were always de-alated (wingless-making diagnosis more difficult). The neighborhood where the home was located has a known population of Formosan termites. The homeowner has never seen any damage, and Mr. Daniels has never been able to detect any sign of activity at the home apart from a few indoor swarmers each year since 2006.

Puzzled, I called Dr. Rudi Scheffran at the University of Florida Research Center in Ft. Lauderdale--the termite capitol of the U.S. Besides being one of the leading termite experts in the country, Rudi is always willing to help and just one of the nicest guys to work with. After confirming with him that the termites I had were indeed Formosans, Rudi told me that even a first year colony in a home will typically launch a couple of hundred swarmers. Putting two and two together, we finally concluded that the termites being found indoors likely entered the home (accidentally) from outdoors, something that would rarely if ever be expected to happen with Reticulitermes, our native subterranean termites.

The reason an accidental indoor collection of Formosan termites is a more probable occurrence than for our local species is that Coptotermes are nocturnal. Being nocturnal they are highly attracted to outdoor lights. In our problem house the homeowner had gone in and out of the front door the night before, a streetlight (the only one on the street) is outside this home. The fact that the same pattern had occurred for four years in a row with no increase in swarmer number helped convince us that this home may not have been infested after all.

My lesson, at least with Formosan termites, is that I shouldn't jump to conclusions about an indoor infestation when one or a small number of swarmers are found indoors. As I thought about it, the very first record I have of Formosan termites in our area in 1999 came from a sharp-eyed homeowner who noted these large, suspicious looking winged insects on her kitchen window screen. These are not your ordinary termites, and the old rules don't all apply. It is not unusual for a nearby colony in a tree or railroad tie or other site to put out large numbers of termites. For several years we monitored swarms outside a north Texas home. It was not unusual for us to collect several gallons of termites in a week during swarming season.

Any termite swarming reports over these next few weeks should be checked out very carefully. Although Formosan termites are not common in Texas away from the upper Gulf coast, they have been reported from scattered sites throughout central, east and north Texas. If you find a suspicious or confirmed case of Formosan termites, please let me know. I do maintain a database of all known sites of Formosan infestation. As Dr. Scheffran so gloomily predicted yesterday, "in 50 years they will probably be all over". But in the meantime I'd like to know where they are, in case our state ever wakes up and determine to something about this very important new pest.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pest control stock pick of the year

It's funny, but I was thinking this morning how, in light of the current bed bug epidemic and my retirement portfolio's lackluster performance this year, I wished I had stock in a good mattress encasement manufacturer. In cleaning out my email box this afternoon a headline from a PMP's Direct-to-You newsletter caught my eye. The December 8, 2008 issue of Furniture World magazine reported that mattress encasement sales are soaring on the flood of bed bug infestations in New York City. Unfortunately, this company doesn't seem to be listed as a publicly traded company, but it brings up an interesting question. Knowing what I think I know about the future of bed bugs in the U.S., would it be insider trading to invest in Protect-a-Bed?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Some bed bug do's and don'ts

Adult bed bugDr. Dini Miller, of Virginia Tech University, is one of the principal researchers on bed bugs in the U.S. Yesterday I had the chance to visit with her about some of the latest in bed bug control, and thought I would pass along some of her current advice.

The art of bed bug control continues to evolve, even as bed bugs continue to adapt to the pesticides being used against them. For this reason, one of the essential steps in any bed bug service is to make the home environment less hospitable to the insects. "Clutter removal," Miller says, "is essential." Unnecessary household items should be bagged and, if possible, removed from the home. Clothing should be tightly bagged and restored to drawers and closets out only after the home or apartment has been treated and clothing washed (the heat from driers is sufficient to kill all life stages of bed bugs).

Mattress encasements are a good first line of defense for bed bugs. "Unfortunately, bed bugs can escape from most mattress covers," said Miller. She recommends Protect A Bed bed bug encasements as one brand that is truly bed bug-proof. "One common mistake is covering the mattress, but not the box spring," she said. Box springs, especially the undersides, are excellent hiding places for bed bugs.

Insecticides for bed bugs are one of Miller's special areas of research. According to Miller more and more populations of bed bugs are appearing with resistance to the commonly used pyrethroid insecticides. She offered the following tips when dealing with tough bed bug problems:
  • For mattresses and box springs, a good low-toxicity option is Steri-Fab® insecticide. Steri-Fab® is a combination of isopropyl alcohol and a short-lived pyrethroid insecticide called phenothrin. It kills all life stages of the bed bug only if sprayed directly on the insects and their eggs, so good coverage is essential.
  • For general residual treatments you will get better control when using a microencapsulated pyrethroid. Insecticides made with this formulation tend to stick to the insect and therefore prolong the time that bed bugs are exposed, increasing kill.
  • Dusts should be used in void areas and inaccessible sites. Because of its low toxicity, diatomaceous earth can even be used on bedding and furniture. Pyrethroid dusts should be applied only to those areas where people will not come in contact with residues. Dusts carry the same advantage as microencapsulated formulations--they stick well to the insect, increasing time of exposure.
  • The aerosol formulation of Gentrol® provides superior kill over liquid formulations. Miller believes this is due to the higher concentration of the aerosol (0.36%) compared to sprays mixed from concentrate (0.07%).
Miller also noted that at a recent EPA conference she attended on bed bugs a hot item of discussion was whether states should consider adding a special certification category for bed bugs. The idea is similar to the requirement that PMPs must carry a termite certification category on their licenses if they wish to do termite control in Texas. There is a general perception around the country that too many pest control companies are providing bed bug control with too little training or understanding of essential principles of bed bug control.

The fact that this is being discussed seriously should serve as a wake-up call for the pest control industry and for education providers (like me). The message is that bed bug training should be a priority if our industry wants to maintain a reputation for dependable service among consumers. To paraphrase H.G. Wells, when it comes to pest control, as in all nature, it's "adapt or perish".