Friday, January 29, 2010

Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee Meets

The Stephen F Austin State Office Building (1973) serves as home for the programs of the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Structural Pest Control Service
Yesterday I traveled to Austin to meet again with the Advisory Committee for the Texas Structural Pest Control Service (SPCS). As usual, I am posting some of the highlights. This committee was set up as a way to continue to have public and professional input into the SPCS after the dissolution (Sunsetting) of the former Structural Pest Control Board in 2008.

Unlike the former Board, we don't have any authority--our purpose is merely advisory--but the meeting does provide a window into the issues and concerns facing the SPCS.

Maron Finley with SPCS started off the meeting by updating the committee on HB4159 that was introduced last fall into the U.S. House of Representatives. I blogged earlier this month about this bill, which would have the effect of undoing all the work done to date on Texas school IPM laws and regulations. It seems that the TDA, though they can't hold an official stance, is also concerned about the impact of the bill, and their staff is keeping an eye on its progress. The committee decided to draft a letter that would be sent to legislators, offering our take on the probable impact of legislation. A letter will be brought to the next committee meeting in April for committee approval.

Jimmy Bush, Assistant Commissioner for Pesticide Programs at Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), spoke about the ongoing process of assimilating the SPCS into TDA. He noted that at the beginning they had basically "forklifted" the old agency (the Board) into TDA, knowing that eventually the system and processes of the old board would have to be fitted into the agency's existing system. Although he envisions leaving the old Board business model basically the same, his office is working hard to streamline paperwork for pest control licensees and the agency. Part of this is being accomplished by developing a website where licensees could view and even update their licensing information online. This would save paperwork and manpower for simple administrative changes, such as a technician moving from one company to another. Under the new system each licensed technician will have an account that would show their license information, including their CEU count, etc. The SPCS is seeking ideas on what PMPs would like to see in this system. I'm reminded of the new Windows 7 ads: "Windows 7 was my idea!" Now's your chance to write TDA a letter and make the SPCS site "your idea".

Bush said that fee increases are not currently on the table, but there may be some fee restructuring, especially for apprentice and technician licenses. Many of the operational changes, such as migrating licenses to the TDA database system, will be invisible to license holders. The website is one change that should be immediately apparent. Currently Bush hopes that the new system will be operational in 2-3 months.

One of the other behind the scenes activities at TDA is preparation of a 5% agency cut, due to the Legislative Budget Board by mid-February. Most Texas state agencies, including Texas AgriLife Extension, have been directed by the state to plan a 5% cut. The committee then discussed the fate of license fees collected by TDA. Like most fee-collecting agencies in Texas, all fees and fines collected by the TDA must go into the state General Fund. Traditionally, the SPCS and the former board bring more into state coffers than they spend in enforcement and administration.

The committee spent a considerable amount of time discussing how TDA should administer new rules requiring school IPM coordinators (IPMCs) to get 6 hours of continuing education every three years. This was our second time to discuss the issue. At last month's meeting most of the committee elected to allow IPMCs to obtain any CEUs that might be relevant to school pest control count toward the 6 hour requirement. I was uncomfortable with that decision and requested that the committee consider an alternative proposal. Actually there were two alternative proposals discussed: (1) to create a new CEU category for school IPM and require some or all 6 hours to come from that category; or (2) to require all 6 hours to come from an approved refresher course, similar to the courses now offered for new IPMCs. Disappointingly, the committee could not reach consensus on any of the choices, but I think the sometimes lively discussion did serve a purpose. It brought out all the points of view, with pros and cons for the different options. Now it appears it will be up to TDA to sort out the different views and come up with a plan that can be open to public hearings.

Mike Kelly and Jimmy Bush briefed the committee on the department's concerns about WDI reports. Wood Destroying Insect reports remain a low-level, chronic concern to the department--something the SPCS would like to see improved. Last year, Kelly reported, 139 consumer complaints were received by the SPCS for investigation. Twenty-one of the 139 complaints related to WDI reports. I was interested to learn that no one knows how many WDI reports are done in a year, and therefore what the actual complaint rate is. We learned that copies of WDIs are not required to be submitted to the department or any state agency. Also, the number of complaints may be an underestimate, since many disgruntled consumers do not contact the SPCS, but go directly to litigation.

Allison Cuellar, of the SPCS, provided a review of six other state WDI systems. Many states (e.g., Florida, Georgia, New Mexico and Louisiana) have separate license categories for WDI inspectors--Texas only requires WDI inspectors to have a termite license. Arkansas and Florida require the companies who conduct an inspection to provide some form of warranty for their work. Mike Kelly pointed out the need for making more PMPs aware of the existence of the instruction sheet for the Texas official WDI inspection forms. The need for more and better training in WDI inspections was discussed, but no specific recommendations were made. This poses a challenge for agencies like mine to make WDI training available--especially hands-on training. But without a mandate to attend I wonder how many inspectors would voluntarily take it?

Insurance for WDI inspectors also provoked some lively discussion. As I understand it, insurance companies are increasingly requiring their insured to carry both "general liability" policies and something called an "errors and omissions" policy. General liability is insurance coverage for damage a PMP might directly cause to a premise. It is sometimes unclear as to whether GL insurance covers damage that might result from something a PMP misdiagnosed or missed during an inspection. If not, then this sort of loss would be covered by an E&O policy. We were told by home inspector Bob Smith that E&O insurance typically costs a company $600 to $1000 more each year.

Some inspectors blame ambiguous rules, and the SPCS in particular, for not providing more clarity in stating exactly what kind of insurance is required. Personally I can't decide whether this is more of an insurance industry (free market) issue, a problem with the statutory language, or simply a lack of clear communication about what PMPs need by the SPCS. The TDA/SPCS appears to be leaning toward requiring termite companies (and home inspectors) to carry E&O insurance to meet the requirement of the law. The reasoning is that the Texas Occupations Code (part of state law) requires pest control businesses to have insurance that covers "liability for damage to persons or property occurring as a result of operations performed in the course of the business of structural pest control..." (Section 1951.312). If someone misses a pest infestation and damage or loss of value occurs to the home as a result (something that could happen in the course of doing business) many insurance companies require E&O insurance to cover such losses.

I'm a simple entomologist and have trouble keeping track of my home and auto insurance policies. But it seems to me that all PMPs with businesses should have a good heart-to-heart with their insurance agents. Make sure your business is adequately covered.

As the late Ken Myers pointed out in testimony to the committee last year, many PMPs appear to be confused right now as to what sort of coverage they really need. I agree that we need more clarity on this issue.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Office

For some reason that I have not quite figured out, winter is high season for mysterious bug bites. Post-holiday stress, extended periods spent indoors, dry skin, static electricity, low vitamin D... whatever the cause, the number of calls from folks who can not produce any actual pest goes up at this time of year.

Calls from office managers to pest control companies are not uncommon at this time of year. An email I received today is typical:
"We have had several employees being apparently bitten by an unknown pest. We are unsure of what it is; however, they are feeling a sudden pinprick-like sensation on their skin. These tiny painful jabs feel like insect bites and the outcome is itchy welts that look just like insect bites."

"We have had the area exterminated by professionals and treated the area with [two pesticides]. The pest professionals indicated that they don't believe the problem is a bug or insect issue. We are not sure the problem as it could be an air duct/air quality problem, allergic reaction, etc."

Although one cannot rule out insects or mites as a cause from this description, here were some points I asked my office manager to consider:
  • Possible arthropod causes include fleas (unlikely unless someone is bringing a pet to work) and rodent mites. Rodent mites emigrate from rodent nests and can bite people. They are small (about the size of a period.), but visible and can usually be pulled from the skin with a piece of tape at the time of the bite. Control of rodent mites starts with eliminating rodent infestation. Mite bites are typically limited to a small area of the office near to the rodent (or bird, in the summer) infestation. Rodent mites would be unlikely to be found biting people over a whole office--that would require one big rodent problem.
  • Winter is a time of dry skin and relatively high static electricity, and the number of complaints of “bites” in offices is higher at this time of year. It’s conceivable that floating fiberglass or other sharp fibers in air can be attracted to negatively charged legs and arms to cause prickling, though this is just a theory—untested as far as I know.
  • It’s a known phenomenon that one person’s complaint about “bites” is frequently contagious in office settings. Nearly every pest control professional who has been in the business for any length of time has stories about this. The power of suggestion is very real, and can often be dealt with by assuring employees that the matter is being handled and initiating a monitoring program with sticky cards to verify that there is indeed no real insect issue.
  • If no insects or mites can be collected, its most likely that the problem is imagined rather than real. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to convince employees of this and the best course of action is usually to work closely with the pest control company, even to the extent of spraying water or some other non-pesticide product to assure employees. Shampooing the carpet or installing air humidifiers may also help reduce dryness and static electricity issues in an office setting.
  • Skin welts can arise from a number of issues including skin irritation from fibers, reaction to scratching, allergies, etc. If the welts are minor and disappearing quickly, it suggests that a real insect is probably not involved.
As a professional you need to communicate honestly and fully with your building manager. If you opt to "shoot blanks", say with water or an air freshener, the manager should be fully informed and agree with the tactic.

Don't allow yourself to be pressured into applying insecticides for pests that you don't believe are present. Do use sticky cards to assure yourself that mites or some other unusual biting pest is not present. Fungus gnats, which are also common at this time of year, can often be the trigger that starts office rumors about biting pests; but fungus gnats do not bite and would not cause welts or itching. And please, let's do our part to stamp out the myth of cable mites and paper mites in this generation. There are no such things.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Recreational pursuits of flies

If you haven't seen it yet, a silly new email is going around. The premise of the email concerns what you can do when you're bored at the office (this never happens in my office of course). According to the email, all it takes is a few dead flies, some paper and pencil, a little imagination and a digital camera. I've attached a few of the nine examples.

The email (which I predict may go viral) ends with a question: "Makes me wonder, though: where does someone work that there are this many flies???"

The entomological answer appears to be: "almost everywhere but where I live". The flies in the pictures appear to be cluster flies, Pollenia rudis. These rather large, sluggish flies are identified by the sharp bend in the medial vein on the wing, and the characteristic golden hairs visible on the thorax in some of the pictures. Cluster flies are common in northern areas including Europe, Canada and the northern United States. I first encountered cluster flies as a graduate student at Purdue University in Indiana. They were common there in the fall and winter, sneaking in around the drafty windows of my office in old Entomology Hall. Cluster flies are best known for their annual fall migrations into homes and offices, where they "cluster" in windows and attics similar to the behavior of paper wasps, Asian multicolored lady beetles and other fall invaders in Texas. Curiously, I've not seen a single cluster fly since moving to this state over 25 years ago.

One of the things that always fascinated me about cluster flies is that they are parasites of earthworms. Who knew that earthworms even needed parasites? Don't they have enough to worry about with robins and moles and other predators? And what harm could earthworms possibly cause anyway?

I learned from my mailbox this week that some people, at least, think that earthworms are still a little too abundant, even with all their plagues and problems. A just-published paper by Dan Potter et. al at the University of Kentucky reports on problems with over-abundant earthworms in golf courses and sports fields. Too many earthworms can lead to uneven playing surfaces, and messy turf areas. In Texas we get occasional calls from homeowners complaining that earthworms turn their lawns into mush, making it difficult to push a lawn mower and even walk over the spongy ground. As Potter and colleagues pointed out in their article, earthworms can also pose a hazard at airports by attracting flocks of birds to feed on the oozing populations that creep on runways, especially after a heavy rain.

People ask me all the time, "so what good is that insect?" The cluster fly shows us that even the most humble insect can be invaluable to society. Fighting earthworms and boredom at the same time is no small accomplishment.

School IPMers get organized

Just a quick note to congratulate Lenny Carley and the first semi-formal gathering of Houston area school IPM Coordinators. Yesterday 12 folks from 9 school districts took time out of their busy schedules to get together to discuss how to make their school IPM programs better. According to Lenny they had "great discussions on rodent control, ant control (both fire and Raspberry crazy ants), the future of fipronil, especially as it regards to the over the counter version of Top Choice called Over’n Out!, and many, many other topics."

Lenny admits that his inspiration for starting the group came from the recent organization of TIPMAPS at the statewide conference in San Marcos. The group decided that getting together was worthwhile, especially as TIPMAPS is beginning to organize and support local groups. The group as yet has no formal name or organization, but has tentatively decided to do it again. They have tentatively decided to meet on the third Thusdays of January, April, July and October. Lenny says that anyone interested in joining them should contact him at Houston ISD at his office 713-867-0818. He is looking for different districts to host the events.

Tom Ohm, TIPMAPS President, informed Lenny that every IPM Coordinator in the state should be receiving “TIPMAPS membership applications and brochures in the mail sometime in February.

Keep up the good work folks!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When a termite is not a termite

Ever since entomology has existed as a science, termites have been honored with their own taxonomic Order. To explain, under the current system of taxonomic classification devised by Linnaeus and his proteges, all plants and animals (and other living things) are assigned to a Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and species, in increasing taxonomic specificity. A house fly, for example belongs to the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Arthropoda, Class Insecta, Order Diptera, Family Muscidae, and Genus and species: Musca domestica. The last two taxa, genus and species, together make up the scientific name of the insect.

Under this system, termites have always been viewed as distinct from other insect Orders, and assigned the well-known name "Isoptera". For many years it's been recognized that the "IBM" orders (Isoptera, Blattoidea, and Mantoidea: the termites, cockroaches and mantids), share Nymphs of Cryptocercus obtain nutrition from the anal secretions of the adult.  Image from Grimaldi and Engel, Evolution of the Insects, Cambridge University Press.many characteristics and are likely very closely related. A cockroach genus called Cryptocercus, for example, lives in a primitive colony with pale nymphs that resemble termites. These nymphs feed on the liquids exuded from the anus, like termites. Most interesting is that the anal feeding allows sharing of primitive protists (microorganisms) that reside in the hind gut and enable these cockroaches to digest cellulose.

In 2007, several Brits from the Natural History Museum in London published a paper, dramatically titled: "Death of an Order: a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study confirms that termites are eusocial cockroaches". The paper claims to have proven that termites are, in fact, cockroaches...or at least their ancestors and all their closest relations are what we usually call cockroaches--in the Order Blattoidea.

Over the years I've heard pest management professionals and entomologists alike grumble about such taxonomic musical chair games. Vague mutterings like, "fools in ivory towers... just want to get their names on a paper... just want to mess things up... and this will all go away..." But, I'm sorry to report, there is method in this madness and it will probably not go away.

We all will need to get used to the old classification schemes being refined forever. The reason for the change is DNA--the same molecular tool that enshrined the CSI franchise and gave biologists new muscle. In addition to being a powerful anti-crime tool DNA has allowed us to infer the past in ways we never dreamed possible a few decades ago.

In the last couple of decades biologists have developed a number of sophisticated techniques for poking around in parts of DNA from animals and plants, reading the codes and using statistics to imply relatedness among organisms. The idea parallels theory that says your DNA is more likely to be similar with someone you are closely related to, say your cousin, than someone from another race who is only distantly related, going back much farther in human history.

These DNA-based studies allow today's systematists (those who study the evolutionary relationships between organisms) to build "family trees" for any animals they want. In the case of termites, systematists constructing the family tree for the IBM orders found that termites are direct relatives of cockroaches and fall squarely within the cockroach Order. An Order that is wholly contained inside another Order is called polyphyletic, and is not acceptable under a natural classification scheme.

All of this is more complicated than I can explain in a blog, but the end result is that most systematists today believe that termites don't deserve their own Order. Phooey. There is, however, disagreement over the level of name that termites deserve. For example, an Australian, Nathan Lo, and colleagues posted a rebuttal to the "kill the termites" paper listed above. They pointed out the long term acceptance of termites as an Order and the chaos that would ensue from demoting termites to lowly Family status. Apparently the issue has not been fully resolved, but will probably end up with termites being classified as something less than an Order, but higher than a Family.

I feel a little like Andy Rooney when I say that I hate unlearning something that I learned when my mind was fresh and impressionable. What I object to most, however, is how these new, molecular-based classification schemes don't help us learn insects in the real world as readily as the old system created by entomologists who actually watched and collected insects in the field. The gifted "gene jockeys" drawing their sophisticated "trees of life" sometime seem oblivious to the important biological and economic differences between termites and cockroaches. It's just easier to think of termites as different Orders and not as a superfamily or epifamily within an Order.

As for me, I am opting to put an asterisk next to the Isoptera titles in my slides. And I'm still calling them termites.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Be careful what you wish for

Many of you know that for more than 15 years many committed people in our state have worked very hard to bring meaningful change to the way we conduct pest control programs in Texas public schools. In 1990 the Texas legislature passed a school integrated pest management (IPM) law requiring all schools to practice IPM by allowing pesticides to be applied only by certified applicators, appointing a trained IPM coordinators in each school district to oversee pest control, and set up a system for encouraging the use of less-hazardous pesticides. Since then, the law has succeeded, in my opinion, through diligent attention to careful and wise rule-making (aided by lots of public and professional input), daily enforcement activity by our structural pest control regulatory agency and lots (and lots) of training.

Today Texas has one of the best records in the country at getting schools to change the way they do pest control. The result has been not only reducing reliance on scheduled pesticide applications and encouraging the use of safer pesticides in schools, but also better pest control. All of these things work together to make schools safer, more pleasant places to work and study.

The process of change has been painful at times, and there have been mistakes made along the way, but it has been satisfying watching people pull together in the spirit of wanting to do the right thing for kids and schools. Part of the satisfaction many of us feel about school IPM in Texas is that we made it work, it is our program, and it works for us in our state with all its glorious fire ants, giant waterbugs and other unique pest challenges.

Meanwhile, other states around the country have struggled to bring an IPM approach to public school programs with varying levels of success. Progress has been slow enough that some have called for a national school IPM program. I agree that some form of federal legislation could be useful in encouraging school IPM implementation--after all state legislation has been the driving force for change in Texas. Such legislation, if passed, should require schools to follow IPM principles, establish training and certification criteria for those who conduct pest control and apply pesticides on school facilities, and let the states figure out the rest.

But that's not what H.R. 4159 the School Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) of 2009, introduced by U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) looks like at all. This bill provides an object lesson in the old warning to be careful what you wish for. The bill is a modified version of bills that have been repeatedly introduced over the past several congresses, and which have never made it out of committee... for good reason. Among other things, the bill bypasses the regulatory label approval process used today by the U.S. EPA. It will essentially eliminate the right of schools to use most (I would guess more than 95% of) registered pesticides that are currently in use. It requires schools to notify parents every time a pesticide is used that is not on the (highly restrictive) list of "least toxic pesticides". It will essentially eliminate the ability of schools to use herbicides on grounds or sports fields. It (inexplicably) prohibits schools from using synthetic fertilizer, forcing them to use only more expensive organic fertilizers. It will establish a federal advisory committee that has the power to create a list of approved pesticides for all states. And it does all this without authorizing Congress to appropriate money to spend on IPM education or administration of the program, or for states to pay for enforcement of what will be highly unpopular regulations.

In my opinion, the approach taken by this bill will hurt the progress we've made in Texas on school IPM, and will likely set back progress toward IPM implementation in other states as well. In nearly all aspects of its construction, bill H.R. 4159 is more restrictive than Texas's laws and regulations. Supporters of the bill claim that it will not preempt existing state school IPM regulations, but that is only true when federal law is less restrictive than state law. The fact is that no state or school district in the U.S. have school IPM regulations stricter than this bill.

It seems to me that chances for passage of H.R. 4159 are slim, given the cost and burden it will pose on the nation's schools. Nevertheless the persistent return of this legislation year after year suggests that the blanket anti-pesticide advocates (those who oppose nearly any and every pesticide regardless of its usefulness or benefits) are not ready to give up. The shift in the balance of power in Washington, however, means that what has happened over the past several years may not be a faithful guide to what will happen this year. It is important that professionals who understand IPM read this bill and make their opinions known.

By the way, it's never been easier to read and comment on federal legislation. After a simple registration process, you can make comments on this bill at the Open Congress website at . Using this site you can register your support or opposition and even write your legislators about any bill with a click of the button.

Club soda for your ants, Sir?

One of the constants in the pest control business is the endless stream of supposedly sure-fire cures for this or that pest problem. Placing crushed mint leaves around the house to keep ants out of the home is one that will make your house smell nice, but won't do a lot to discourage ants. Another favorite old-time cure is putting hedge apples (fruits of the osage orange, Maclura pomifera) around the home to discourage cockroaches. Although some recent research suggests that a component in hedge apples may have insect repelling properties (most plants produce secondary plant compound that serve as insecticides or fungicides), it is highly unlikely that any aromatic plant oil could be dispersed throughout a home in high enough concentration to kill or repel a pest like a cockroach or household ant.

A recent email making its way around cyberspace concerns use of club soda to control fire ants. It runs something like this:

"An environmentally friendly cure for fire ants has been announced by Walter Reeves on his Georgia Gardener radio program. Testimonials that it REALLY WORKS are coming in.

"Simply pour two cups of CLUB SODA (carbonated water) directly in the center of a fire ant mound. The carbon dioxide in the water is heavier than air and displaces the oxygen which suffocates the queen and the other ants. The whole colony will be dead within about two days.

"Besides eliminating the ants, club soda leaves no poisonous residue, does not contaminate the ground water, and does not indiscriminately kill other insects. It is not harmful to your pets, soaks into the ground. Each mound must be treated individually and a one liter bottle of club soda will kill 2 to 3 mounds."

First of all, the Internet watchdog site reports contacting the horticulture specialist Walter Reeves, who denies ever recommending club soda for fire ant control. He did ask listeners to let him know whether they had any success with the treatment, and so far the consensus appears to be negative. To date there is no published research that supports the effectiveness of club soda, nor does the concept seem likely to work given the size of the average fire ant colony gallery and the amount of CO2 that would have to be injected into the ground to saturate a nest with this admittedly toxic gas.

The fire ant section of the e-Xtension website is an excellent resource for all things fire ant. This site also takes the position that this method has not been demonstrated to be effective.

On top of this, one of our own Texas Extension entomologists, Wizzie Brown (whose blog is listed here), tested club soda in a replicated study this summer and got no control. "It's impressive though, when you pour it onto a mound," she told me this morning. Lots of fizzing! Unfortunately the fire ants were not overly impressed.

Being from Austin, TX (whose citizens have proudly adopted the slogan "Keep Austin Weird"), Wizzie is uniquely qualified to test these more unusual remedies. In recent studies she also tested wet and dry molasses (no control) and aspartame (no control) for fire ant control. She takes pride in the fact that her research is also cited in the current article debunking aspartame as an ant poison.

It's important to realize that commercial insecticides are usually the best way to go after serious pests like fire ants or German cockroaches or biting mosquitoes. Fire ant baits remain the most effective, inexpensive and low risk way to control fire ants in backyard- to city park-sized infested areas. Individual mound treatments, no matter how effective, will never provide as good area-wide control of fire ants as an effective broadcast treatment.

There may be some effective home remedies out there, but commercial insecticides are almost always more effective, and often cheaper to use than that "sure-fire", REALLY WORKS, 100% SAFE remedy you hear about on a mommy blog or over the radio waves. Add to that your expertise as a pest management professional, and you should never get too concerned about losing your job to a hedge apple.