Friday, April 30, 2010

Austin report

Travel in Texas is beautiful this time of year.  Bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and greenthread line the Texas highways, making my trip from Dallas to Austin this week more enjoyable than usual.  The meeting with the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee was enlightening and relatively productive.  Here's a brief recap:
  • The committee voted to recommend to the Department of Agriculture to accept a proposal drafted by Jimmy Bush that sets up the structure for school district IPM coordinators (IPMC) to obtain their mandatory CEU credits every three years.  The draft rules will allow IPMC to meet five of their six required CEUs by attending pesticide applicator training classes approved in the Pest, Lawn & ornamental, Weed control, or General IPM categories.  Alternatively, an IPMC can attend a class that has been approved by the Department to meet all six hours of continuing education.  All IPMCs should be relieved to finally see a decision made about this, as this is an important part of the law change that has been in limbo for the past year or so.  The committee further recommended that the CEU change take effect January 1, 2011.  As with all other CEU requirements on the books for TDA, it will be the responsibility of the IPMC to keep personal records of all classes attended, and to present these to an inspector on request.  
  • Also regarding school IPM, the committee voted to recommend to TDA a proposal to allow IPMCs  put out and check sticky cards and glue boards for the purpose of assessing and monitoring pest problems in a school.  Under this clarification, non-licensed IPMCs will be able to replace damaged monitors and keep track of the progress of pest control efforts between service visits.
  • Mike Kelly of TDA presented a summary of the new PIER (Pesticide Inspection and Enforcement Report) system that all structural pest control inspectors will use in their site inspections of pest control businesses, non-commercial applicators, schools, lawn care companies, etc.  We have been hearing rumors from schools that inspectors are coming with a "100 question inspection".  I counted the questions in the school inspection template and it's more like 60-70 questions, but the idea is correct.  All business and school inspections are being standardized and should become much more consistent and thorough.  The questions in the laptop spreadsheet carried by inspectors have been taken directly from the law and regulations to ensure a more complete and objective assessment of a business's degree of compliance with all legal requirements.  At the end of each inspection the program prints out a summary of the inspection results, showing any deficiencies that have been discovered.  Depending on the significance of the deficiencies, the business or school may be issued a notice of correction, have a follow-up visit scheduled, or a penalty may be assessed.  This is one change that will impact nearly everyone in the pest management industry in Texas. 
  • Review of WDI reports was on the agenda, but discussion was delayed until the July meeting while an industry committee assembled by TPCA President Eric Melass (Killum Pest Control, Lake Jackson, TX) prepares a report.
  • Another interesting agenda item was discussion about possible modifications to requirements needed to obtain and maintain a fumigation license in Texas.  Debbie Aguirre (Elite Exterminating, Corpus Christi) and Harvey West (Coastal Fumigation, Houston) both argued that, if anything, current standards should be strengthened.  The committee had a discussion about the need to tighten requirements on commodity fumigation.  Commodity fumigation jobs in Texas, for example, are not required to have guards and non-certified applicators are allowed to break seals on fumigation tarps.  This seems like a prudent next step for TDA to take, both for agricultural and structural fumigators to reduce the risk of accidents like those that were reported recently in Utah and Texas.
Just an encouragement to get out this weekend and enjoy springtime roads and wildflower displays.  My wife Heather and I will be riding bicycles this weekend in support of research to find a cure for multiple sclerosis.  If anyone is interested in helping sponsor my ride, check out my participant page.  It's never too late to donate for MS.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thanks for subscribing

Last month I put out an almost pitiful plea for new subscribers to break the 100 mark, and you responded!  On April 2nd, Insects in the City recorded 106 subscribers (four of whom apparently decided that they had made a dreadful decision and unsubscribed the next day). : )

As of today, our site has 116 subscribers just shy of two years after wading into the murky waters of the blogosphere.  I am very grateful for all of you who have put up with receiving these posts for much of this time.  In this busy age of email and cyber-overload, I consider it amazing that anyone would willingly allow me to fill their in-boxes with more stuff.  So thank you for reading and thank you for subscribing.

Going into year three I encourage you to consider making Insects in the City part of your community of influence.  We're not really political here.  We're not a gossip page--as fun as that might get.  But I hope the site is more than just an information source.  I would love to hear more of your voices and opinions as we move into our third year.  So hit the comment button, drop me an email, share a story,  tell your friends, and let's make this site a more interesting place together.  After all, there aren't too many regular gathering spots for us bug folks out there.

What is the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee?

The Structural Pest Control Advisory committee meets this Thursday, the 29th at the Texas Department of Agriculture headquarters in Austin.  So what is this committee and what does it do?

The SPCAC met for the first time in March, 2008 following the dissolution of the Texas Structural Pest Control Board.  Members of the committee serve at the invitation of the Commissioner of Agriculture, Todd Staples.  Committee composition is required by law to consist of two members who are experts in structural pest control application; three members who represent the public; one member from an institution of higher education who is knowledgeable in the science of pests and pest control; one member who represents the interests of structural pest control operators and who is appointed based on recommendations provided by a trade association of operators; one member who represents the interests of consumers; and the commissioner of state health services or the commissioner's designee. Experts in structural pest control on the committee include Tommy Kezar (CTN Educational Services) and Greg Orr (Terminix, Houston).  Public representatives include Peggy Caruso (Katy ISD), Johnny Hibbs (Carrollton/Farmers' Branch ISD) and Judge William Roberts (Attorney from Plano). Bill Stepan (Orkin Pest Control, Houston) was selected to represent the pest control industry and Dr. Thandi Ziqubu-Page represents the Commissioner of the Department of State Health Services.  I represent an institution of higher education and a consumer representative has yet to be appointed.

In one sense the Advisory Committee does nothing.  Unlike the previous Structural Pest Control Board, it has no statutory or rule-making authority.  But we do advise, and I believe the Department of Agriculture does listen.  So in essence all of us on the committee are your representatives, to ensure that your interests and the interests of all in Texas with an investment in pest control are represented in the halls of the TDA.

Of interest to schools this week the committee will be revisiting the CEU requirements for school IPM coordinators--a sticky issue for some committee members (including myself).  A draft proposal circulated this week shows that TDA has attempted to mollify different points of view by allowing IPM Coordinators to get their CEUs by either attending an approved, dedicated class designed on school IPM, or by earning CEUs through various conventional CEU forums.  Also to be discussed is a plan to allow use of sticky cards and glue traps by school IPM Coordinators if the traps are being used principally for monitoring and not pest control.  Clarification of this grey area should be welcomed by all parties involved in school IPM.

Other agenda items include updating members on the transition into a new licensing and inspection system, status of evaluations being made of the current Wood Destroying Insect(WDI)Reports, development of a Consumer Information Sheet for Exempted Activities, and discussion of possible modifications of how to obtain a structural fumigation license. Heady stuff, I know.

As always, the meeting will have a time for public comment and input.

If you have an issue of interest with regard to the way the Department administers laws and regulations affecting the pest control industry, here's your invitation. I invite you to drop an email to any of the committee members expressing your concern or input on a subject. I am not suggesting you shouldn't call us, but a clearly expressed email is much more likely to be carried by one of us to the meeting and discussed before the whole group.  The committee meets every three months, so you have plenty of time to compose your thoughts.

Friday, April 9, 2010

IPM one of the keys to higher student performance

The US EPA recently updated information linking higher student performance in schools to indoor air quality.  So what's that got to do with IPM?  Well, IPM is one of several components that EPA recognizes as critical to indoor air quality.  Not only will a good IPM program minimize the need for introduction of biohazards (in the form of some pesticides) to the indoor environment, it reduces pest risks including their associated bacterial and allergenic contaminants.  I encourage you to check out the EPA report.  It has information you can pass on to your customers about another benefit of the services you provide.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rules tightened on phosphine fumigants

Yesterday the U.S. EPA announced new label changes to aluminum and magnesium phosphide pellets for pest control. A summary of these changes is posted online at

The Salt Lake City Tribune today also reported the action and provides more background on the deaths of the two girls whose front yard was treated with phosphine to control voles.  The deaths, which occurred this past February, were not the first phosphine deaths caused when the product has been used in or around homes.  Many of you may remember that in 2007 a 4-year-old Lubbock Texas girl died in after a phosphine generating pesticide was used in the home, apparently for cockroach control.  That application was made by family members after they purchased the tablets from someone illegally, and in blatant violation of the pesticide label, and Federal pesticide laws. Also in Texas, in 2006 27 horses died after a farmer attempted to fumigate a grain bin with phosphine.  It is generally recommended to wait 10 days between application and when treated feed is presented to animals, but in this case Texas A&M researchers report that the horses fed on the treated grain within 14 hours of application

Phosphine is a toxic gas that is released when aluminum or magnesium phosphide is exposed to air or water.  In the U.S. it has labels for both commodity fumigation and vertebrate control, and is considered a Restricted Use Pesticide.  It is manufactured for pest control by both Degesh America and United PhosphorusCurrent label instructions require at least a 15 foot buffer between a treated rodent burrow and an occupied structure.  It's unclear whether that buffer was followed in the Utah case, but the new EPA label requires a 100 foot buffer.  According to a February article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, the EPA recommended the wider buffer but was frustrated in its efforts in 1998 by intense lobbying from the tobacco industry, which frequently relies on phosphine fumigants in tobacco manufacture.

Such tragedies underscore the importance of following pesticide laws when selling, distributing, and applying any pesticide.  They also illustrate the importance of basing pesticide regulation on good science and thoughtful consideration of risks rather than political pressure.

PMPs and anyone in the pest control business should welcome the EPA restrictions on use of phosphine around structures.  I know that in general our pest control industry uses very little phosphine gas in urban areas, but this should be a reminder to all--dealers, distributors, service managers in charge of pesticide inventories, and PMPs--to treat these products as highly dangerous and to secure them with the highest security from theft and misuse.  Our current regulatory system is not perfect, but it is good; and we should all respect and follow it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Odorous house ants adapt well to city life

Some urban entomology research does not provide practical control solutions, but simply explains more about the evolutionary history or reasons behind the behavior of certain pests.  Such is the case with last week's story from Purdue University. Grzegorz Buczkowski, a Purdue University research assistant professor of entomology, found that odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile) colonies become larger and more complex as they move from forest to city and act somewhat like an invasive species. The ants live about 50 to a colony with one queen in forest settings but explode into supercolonies with more than 6 million workers and 50,000 queens in urban areas.

Buczkowski theorizes that in forest settings, where odorous house ant nests can be small enough to fit inside a hollow acorn, the ants face competitors that force them into literally smaller niches.  In urban habitats, however, the odorous house ant has prospered with little interference from its normal competitor ants.

Marion Smith, a graduate student in entomology in the 1920s first proposed expanding the then common name "odorous ant" to the "odorous house ant" in a paper published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America in 1928 (Ann. ESA 21:307-330).  He noted that during the mid 1920s this ant had become the most important pest ant in homes in Illinois, but that the phenomenon appeared to be of recent origin, hence it deserved being called a house ant. 

While many or most of our indoor ant pests are exotic species, the OHA is an exception.  It's native American heritage shows how adaptable insects are, and how structures can function in some ways as an "exotic land" enabling even native insects to escape their competitors and natural enemies.  This insight may not make you a better PMP, but hopefully will give you a better appreciation of this common urban ant.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Genus name change for the Rasberry crazy ant

In a recent article buried in a journal devoted to the classification of insects, three entomologists have come to a conclusion that changes the scientific name of what we in Texas have come to refer to as the Rasberry crazy ant. The paper (cited as LaPolla, J.S., S.G. Brady, S.O. Shattuck. 2010. Phylogeny and taxonomy of the Prenolepis genus-group of ants. Systematic entomology, 35: 118-131) is not likely to make the Book of the Month Club, but is a good example of how progress is made in the science of insect classification.

The authors reached their conclusions after sifting through the DNA sequences found in five genes in 50 closely related ant species.  All but one of the ant species formerly called Paratrechina, were reclassified into three new genera.  The sole remaining Paratrechina species is one that PMPs in many parts of Texas are well acquainted with.  The true crazy ant, Paratrechina longicornis, was the first ant to be called Paratrechina (type species).  DNA analysis shows that P. longicornis was not directly related to all the other ants that have since been given the name Paratrechina.  So because it was named first, it gets to retain its genus name under rules of priority, while all the other species are renamed.

Most of the ants with new names, including the Rasberry crazy ant (133 species and subspecies in all) are now classified in the genus Nylanderia.  This means the Rasberry crazy ant will now be referred to as Nylanderia species near pubens.This change is confirmed by Danny McDonald, the graduate researcher who has taken over the study of N. sp. nr. pubens from recent grad Jason Myers, and who is in the process of defending his dissertation proposal on the "fecundity, vector potential, foraging activity, bait preference, and human mitigated and natural population growth of Nylanderia sp. nr. pubens." Good luck Danny...sounds like you'll need it.

If, like me, you find it a little hard to digest all these Latin names, perhaps a little haiku will make it easier:
Glistens, furtive among leaves
on the forest floor.

Feelers like jointed threads;
Loves it hot, runs crazy-fast;
Blue reflective hints.  
Written by James Trager, the last person to attempt a large-scale revision of the Paratrechina, and shamelessly swiped from the Myrmecology Ant Farm Forum. Thank you Dr. Ant!

LaPolla and colleagues note that they will be continuing work to revise the genus Nylanderia.  I hope this means that they'll quickly figure out whether the Rasberry crazy ant is the same as, or a different species, from the other tropical crazy ant, Nylanderia pubens.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Help Insects in the City break 100

If you read and enjoy the Insects in the City blog, you can help spread the word.  We only need three more subscribers to read the 100 subscribers mark. One hundred subscribers would be laughable to most big name bloggers, but I'm honored that nearly 100 of you take the time to glance at Insects in the City every week.  I hear from many of you when I give presentations and appreciate very much the feedback you provide.

Many people I talk to in the pest control industry are either still not sure what a blog is, or think that it means reading about what someone ate for breakfast.  I shared much the same opinion, until I started reading blogs and tried my hand at writing one myself.  In the process I've discovered value in blogging, both for myself and others.

I'm convinced that blogs serve a useful purpose--and not just for teeny boppers following their favorite star.  Especially for professionals, blogs can help us sort through the tsunami of information that bombards us daily, and make some sense of it all.  As a professional entomologist I have to sift through gobs of stuff on a daily basis to keep myself informed. In the process I keep my eyes open for things that I think might help you in your business.  When I find something worthwhile, I share it.  I find that it even makes some of the reading and sifting more interesting and rewarding.

Of course a blog is very subjective and represents the perspective of one person.  But that's OK too.  I encourage you to find that handful of people you respect, and who have something to say to you, and follow them online.  It's a valuable service in this age of information overload and can help you tremendously in keeping up with your job, your interests, your community. And, I hope, it can help you feel more a part of the professional pest control community.

If you're a first time visitor, or just visit the site occasionally, I invite you to sign up as a subscriber.  Subscribers receive Insects in the City posts as emails as they are written.  All it takes is typing your email address in the little subscribe box on the right.  And tell your friends.  It will make my month if we can exceed 100 subscribers in April. 

I'm not a full time blogger, so my posts will probably never come daily--takes too much time.  And if you get a lot of email like me, that's probably one good thing about Insects in the City.  Instead of volume, my goal is to provide you, as pest management professionals, with accurate information that is both educational and interesting. 

And I promise I'll never blog about what I had for breakfast.

Be careful what you joke about today

I was tempted to try to pull off some kind of April Fool's joke on the blog today.  But then I thought about a presentation that I attended at the Entomological Society of America last fall.  One university entomology department learned the hard way that online tricks can backfire.  I can't now recall the specific details of the hoax, but it involved Adobe Photoshop and doctoring some pictures to look like a new pest that infested people's bodies.

Of course once you let something loose, especially about creepy animals parasitizing humans, it never dies.  The entomology blog's post went viral and the picture ended up in lots of scary places with no April Fool's dateline or explanation that it was just a joke.  It's one way that urban legends in the age of cyberspace get started.

Instead I thought I might briefly share just a few of the urban legends that I've encountered.  These are stories and myths that are already going around, so keep in mind they didn't start here.
  • The daddy longlegs is the world's most poisonous animal.  False.   First, we'll ignore the problem that the moniker "daddy longlegs" is one of those unfortunate common names that are difficult to connect with a real arthropod, illustrating the value of scientific names.  Depending on what part of the world you're from, "daddy longlegs" can refer to a long-legged fly (Tipulidae), a true spider (cellar spider, Pholcidae) or one of the Phalangiidae (also called harvestmen), eight-legged arthropods that are not true spiders.  The latter creatures are what I learned to call daddy longlegs growing up in the Midwest.  See the University of California at Riverside for more information about this urban myth.
  • Women die after being bitten by a spider that lives under toilet seats.  False, but imaginative and really scary.  Every few years this hoax gets perpetrated on a new generation of gullible email recipients.  Called the "American blush spider" in one version, the story usually goes that three women have recently died under mysterious circumstances.  Investigation traces a common thread among the women back to a restroom visit at a specific restaurant.  Health department inspectors collect a spider under the toilet seat called "Arachnius gluteus" that supposedly has an extremely toxic, delayed action venom.  The emails always end with the ominous warning, "It's now believed that these spiders can be anywhere in the country.  So please, before you use a public toilet, lift the seat to check for spiders.  It can save your life.  And please [here's the kicker] pass this information on to everyone you care about."  It's hard to understand someone who gets their kicks thinking about all the people they've persuaded to lift toilet seats and convince their friends to do the same.  For the full hoax see the article.
  • Earwigs are so-called that because they crawl into people's ears at night and gnaw into your brain.  False, well at least the eating into the brain part. This is a hybrid of two common myths: the myth of the earwig and the more generalized myth of earwigs, ants, cockroaches, flies, etc. entering someone's ear and chewing their way into their brain.  The origin of the name "earwig" is a little cloudy, as explained by this article by May Berenbaum, University of Illinois.  But it may go back as far as early, first century writer known as Pliny the Elder.  Though insects do occasionally crawl into, and get stuck in human body orifices, there appear to be few verified cases of "brain drain" caused by insect invasions through the ear, especially by earwigs.
  • There's a new Star Wars laser device that zaps mosquitoes in the bedroom.   Partly true.  My entomology colleague, Salvador Vitanza, told me about this one this week. At this year's TED conference, researchers from a group called the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory demonstrated a  laser gun designed to track and shoot mosquitoes in flight. Incredibly, the device was crafted from parts purchased on eBay by scientists at the laboratory. Presenter Nathan Myhrvold, of IVL, showed the conference a video depicting mosquitoes being zapped for real in flight. The device is not yet commercially available but their goal is to design something that could be produced cheaply enough to make it practical for malarial infected villages in places like Africa.  Personally, I'm still skeptical that technology will ever be practical, but check out this spoof video from YouTube for a good April Fool's Day laugh.
So, enjoy your April Fools, but don't do it on the Internet.