Monday, August 23, 2010

Beautiful ant pics

Brachymyrmex ants from Alex Wild, North American ants.
If you've got a good microscope and occasionally get unusual ants to identify, you might benefit from this site from Alex Wild, a photographer and biologist from Illinois.  If you've ever tried to photograph ants you should have special appreciation for the beauty and clarity of these images.

The pictures do not take the place of a good key and identification guide, but never underestimate the power of good pictures in helping identify insects.  If you are from Texas, another excellent ant ID reference is Ant Genera of Texas, available through the Texas AgriLife Bookstore.

Friday, August 20, 2010

NPDES legislative update

Earlier this month I sent a long post trying to summarize the latest legal developments concerning the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and commercial pesticide applications.  I'm not going to be long-winded today, other than to say that there has been a lot of opposition to the court's decision to consider label-approved pesticide applications to, or over, water as a discharge of pollutants.  As a result, legislation was introduced on August 5th to explicitly exempt pesticides from other permitting requirements when pesticides are applied according to an approved label.  If passed, the bill would essentially side-step the legal ruling that declared certain pesticides as pollutants and requiring them to obtain an NDPES permit.  According to Senator Lincoln (D-AR), the bill's sponsor,
“Our legislation is very simple: as long as a producer is complying with FIFRA, then no Clean Water Act permit will be required. During the more than 35 years since the enactment of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has never required a permit for the application of FIFRA-registered crop protection products. Our bill would extend this common-sense approach and avoid duplicative, unnecessary burdens on our farmers, foresters, and ranchers.”

I've not had time to study response to this legislation, but I thought I would let you know about it before it's old news.  Here's a link to the bill at govtrack.  It's interesting that the drafters decided to amend FIFRA rather than the Clean Water Act.  This strategy is likely due to the hope that the bill will receive a more sympathetic hearing in the Agriculture Committee, and is therefore more likely to be passed out of committee. Stay tuned for more developments in this lively bit of pesticide history.

Save that skin! Snake sheds can be useful for ID

The southern copperhead snake, Agkistrodon controtrix, with its
banded pattern blends in well with the forest floor.  Note the
triangular-shaped head.
A client came into our office last week with what was for me an unusual sample.  Snake skins (or sheds, as they are called) are not commonly brought to entomologists, though I suspect that most pest control businesses see snake samples regularly enough.  The shed in this case was discovered under a sofa in a home, and the alarmed homeowner wanted to know (reasonably enough) if it was from a poisonous snake.

Now it might not immediately occur to most people to worry about worry about what species of snake they have in their home.  A snake skin mysteriously appearing in the living room would be cause enough for total panic for most people, regardless of species.  But wanting to know whether a shed is from a venomous snake or not is a sensible request.  Shed skins can provide excellent clues to the identity of a snake and, if nothing else, can comfort a customer by relieving them of the worry that a fanged, potentially-lethal reptile might be lurking in the laundry basket.

To recognize venomous snakes, it's first important to know which snakes are venomous.  There are dozens of species of venomous snakes in the U.S., but it's relatively easy to recognize the three major genera and four major kinds of venomous snakes.  If you can recognize these snakes, you can recognize any of the bad players you're likely to encounter in this country.
  • Coral snakes.  The only North American members of the infamous snake family Elapidae, which includes the cobras, mambas, kraits and tiger snakes (found only in the Old World).  Coral snakes are relatively secretive and less likely to be encountered around residential areas.  They are strongly ringed with red, yellow and black; although there are several more common snake species that share this color characteristic.  What distinguishes coral snakes is that the two warning colors, red and yellow, touch each other.  Other, non-venomous mimics (like milk snakes and king snakes), always have a black band separating the yellow and red bands.  Hence the old Boy Scout rhyme really works: "Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack". 
  • Copperheads.  Copperheads, water mocassins and rattlesnakes all belong to the family Viperidae, subfamily Crotalinae.  All pit vipers have triangular-shaped heads that are wider than the neck, and specialized facial pits between the nostril and eye that are used for sensing the body heat of prey.  Copperheads are brownish in color with bell-shaped markings on the sides (see image) and are difficult to see amidst dead leaves on a forest floor.  Copperheads are one of the more commonly encountered snakes around homes near wooded areas in the eastern half of the U.S. 
  • Cottonmouths (water moccasins).  Cottonmouth snakes belong to the same genus as copperhead snakes (Agkistrodon), but are associated with aquatic habitats.  One of the most feared venomous snakes, they are often confused with harmless water snakes.  Their pit viper characteristics, often aggressive behavior and white mouths help distinguish them from water and other dark-colored snakes. These snakes are less likely to be encountered by PMPs, unless the account is close to water and in the southeastern quarter of the U.S.
  • Rattlesnakes.  Two genera of snakes are classified as rattlesnakes, so-named because of a series of loose, horny segments born at the tip of the tail that make a rattling sound when vibrated.  Various species of these snakes are found throughout the contiguous U.S. These may be common around homes, schools and businesses in certain areas, especially in the more arid parts of the western U.S.
One way to distinguish most venomous from non-venomous snake sheds is to examine the scale pattern on the underside of the tail section.  Most snakes with double rows of scales from the anus to the tip of the tail can be assumed to be non-venomous (except for coral snakes).  Such scales should be visible on a complete shed snake skin.  Illustration taken from Roger Conant, A Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America.
All snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, shed their skins several times a year.  Snake sheds may remain complete and intact, or may frequently come off in sections.  Sheds may show up in a yard, under a home, or even occasionally indoors.  If a customer calls to report finding a snake skin, ask them to keep it until you can visit.  Nathan Haislip of the Fort Worth Zoo's Department of Ectotherms (a fancy term for insects, reptiles, and amphibians) was kind enough to share his advice on how to recognize whether a shed is from a venomous or non-venomous snake. He suggests:
  • If the head section is present and intact, look to see if it's arrow-shaped (triangular) or if you can detect a pit located just below an imaginary line between the eye and nostril.  These two characteristics identify a snake as a pit viper, the most common family of venomous snakes in the U.S. The coral snake is the only other venomous snake in North America without these characteristics.  
  • If the head is missing or damaged, another character to look for is the pattern of scales on the bottom of the tail, behind the anus or ventor.  If the scales form more than one row, the skin is not from a rattlesnake, copperhead, or cottonmouth. 
  • If there is a tip to the tail of your snake skin, then you definitely know you aren't dealing with a rattlesnake because the tip is the rattle and the shed doesn't continue past the rattle. 
  • Looking for color patterns left behind on the skin can also be helpful.  Copperhead sheds, for example, may show the characteristic banding patterns of that species.  Diamondback rattlesnakes should have  the distinctive diamond pattern visible, depending on the quality of the shed. 
  • If you have access to a local herpetologist or zoo with a reptile collection, you may be able to get more precise on the identification from a skin alone.  Put the shed into a protective box and save it for an expert to evaluate. 
 All this illustrates why pest control is such an interesting profession.  You never know what kind of questions, or samples, you will encounter on a given day.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Treating fire ants in electrical equipment

Fire ants and other ants are attracted to the warmth and electrical fields associated with outdoor electrical equipment.  This electrical insulation has been chewed and wires bared by fire ants.
Although I blogged about fire ants and electrical equipment over a year ago, it's a subject that deserves repeated attention, especially during these hottest days of the year.  This is the time of year when damage to electrical equipment, and especially air conditioners, is especially troublesome.  One of the less recognized economic impacts of fire ants is the damage they can do to air conditioners, traffic signal controllers, landscape lighting, well pumps, and pad-mounted transformer boxes.  Such damage costs Texans millions of dollars every year

One of the oft-forgotten benefits of having a professional service controlling fire ant is the protection of such sensitive equipment.  By providing fire ant control in lawns and landscapes, PMPs provide an important first line of defense for electrical equipment. And control of ants in the equipment itself is a useful, and sometimes critical, second line of defense.  Fortunately, there effective products for this second approach.

Pad-mounted electrical transformers (box in foreground) are
common in residential areas throughout Texas and the
southern states.
Many years ago I was approached by a north Texas utility company to evaluate different products for keeping fire ants out of electrical transformer boxes, you know those ubiquitous green boxes found throughout residential neighborhoods in Texas.  The utility company rarely services these boxes, but when they do they wanted to be able to treat a box quickly and cheaply with a product that would keep fire ants out for a long time (years). 

Unfortunately, we're still looking for the perfect product or long-term treatment for fire ant control in electrical equipment.  But this doesn't mean that there aren't some helpful products out there.  In my research, we found that granular formulations of bifenthrin, tefluthrin and even chlorpyrifos would keep fire ants out of electrical equipment for a year or more. Depending on the label directions of specific products, you should be able to apply a light layer of these insecticides into the base of many types of electrical equipment to suppress fire ant activity for at least a year.

More recently, Molly Keck, our extension IPM program specialist in San Antonio, looked at an additional, novel treatment to keep fire ants out of transformers. In her study, she evaluated an easy-to-apply permethrin-impregnated plastic tape strip that could be placed around the concrete openings inside these (locked) transformer boxes, and found that they worked well to exclude fire ants for 16 months.  These tests, I can attest, are difficult to set up and conduct; but despite their relatively small sample sizes, these products do work.

Keck and extension entomologist Bart Drees also published a fact sheet on the subject of different methods to exclude fire ants from electrical equipment. In it they mention a variety of different products and list manufacturers of these materials if you want to obtain samples for your own use or testing. 

I encourage you to be aware of the different fire ant control options for protecting electrical equipment.  I suspect that this is a service that few of you are offering right now; but it seems to me that treatment of electrical equipment would be a great way to distinguish yourselves from your competition while saving your customers significant money.  It may also save you a customer. 

If you want to bring out the revolutionary fiery spirit of a Texan, let the air conditioner break down in hundred-degree weather due to fire ants.  And I for one wouldn't want to be in that line of fire.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Armed Forces Technical Guides for pest control

A number of years ago I saw a training video on pest proofing kitchens put out by the Armed Forces Pest Management Board.  It wasn't very polished, but it was very practical and did a good job of teaching the viewer how to seal the cracks and crevices in a real life kitchen. In addition, I happen to know that there are a bunch of Aggie entomologists that work under the AFPMB, so it has to be a crack unit.

All this to say that PMPs should jump at the chance to take advantage of training materials and information put out by the AFPMB.  One of the ways to do that is by checking out the Technical Guides they publish.  These guides cover a variety of topics ranging from IPM, to how to monitor for stored product pests, to Africanized bees, to how to store and display retail pesticides.  All these topics are pursued with military efficiency and enthusiasm.  Of particular interest today may be the guide to bed bug control written by my BCE colleague, Dr. Harold Harlan.  Dr. Harlan has personally fed his own colony of bed bugs for years and has provided bed bugs used in many of the current research studies being conducted on these pests. 

I hope you will check out some of this information.  You never know when a soldier's perspective can come in handy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A primer on the NPDES and its potential impact on pest control

Clean water is in everyone's best interest. 
Guadalupe River State Park.
Last week the Advisory Committee for the Texas Department of Agriculture's Structural Pest Control Service met in Austin. The advisory committee meets quarterly to offer suggestions and feedback to TDA on rules and regulations pertaining to pest control in Texas. Much of the time in last week's meeting was spent learning about the upcoming EPA rules governing pesticide applications around waterways. If you haven't yet heard about this issue, it is a topic of hot debate right now among PMPs around the country.

At stake is whether PMPs will be subject to notification and permitting rules required under the Clean Water Act. To understand the issue, you must first understand something about the Clean Water Act itself and the recent court decisions affecting how the EPA administers the law.

The Clean Water Act
The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed in 1972 (with significant amendments in 1977 and 1987) as the nation's premier law protecting the quality of water in navigable streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. In Section 301(a), the Act  prohibits discharging any pollutant unless the discharge is in compliance with permitting provisions of the Act (the CWA specifically exempted agricultural stormwater and irrigation discharges). According to the law, pollutants includes, among other things, “garbage… chemical wastes, biological materials …and industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water.” 

One way a person may discharge a pollutant legally is by obtaining a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Under section 402(a) of the law, EPA may issue permits to discharge pollutants if certain conditions are met. Two types of permits are available: individual and general. Permits are generally granted for a set period, no greater than five years. General permits are granted (usually by the state) when multiple facilities/sites/activities will generate pollution. To establish a general permit, the EPA or a state develops and issues the permit in advance. Permits generally cover certain types of activities and set the guidelines for what levels of discharge are covered by the permit. Anyone wishing to make a discharge into a waterway must request coverage under the permit through submission of a Notice of Intent (NOI).

Pesticides and the CWA 
Nearly everyone agrees that the CWA has been a significant factor in improvements seen in the nation's riverways and coastal waters.  However, pesticides have been a burr under the saddle of some environmentalists, as pesticide applications have remained largely unaffected and unregulated by the CWA. During the past 38 years, EPA has never issued a permit to apply a pesticide to a waterway. This is because the agency has considered all such applications come under the authority of the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), an EPA-regulated law that most of us in pest control are very familiar with. Among other things, FIFRA sets use guidelines for the use of every pesticide.  Only label uses that do not pose an unreasonable adverse effect on the environment will be approved by the EPA.  Such decisions are made following a comprehensive and expensive label approval process; hence it has historically been EPA's opinion that FIFRA adequately protected waterways from pesticides.

This position has been challenged in court numerous times over the years, leading EPA in November, 2006 to issue a final rule clarifying the two specific circumstances in which an NPDES permit was not required to apply pesticides to or around water. The rule said a permit was not required for: 1) the application of pesticides directly to water to control pests; and 2) the application of pesticides to control pests that are present over, including near, water where a portion of the pesticides will unavoidably be deposited to the water to target the pests. The rule became effective on January 26, 2007.

All this changed on January 9, 2009. In the case, National Cotton Council of America v. EPA, the Sixth Circuit Court nullified (vacated) EPA’s Pesticides Rule. The Court held that whenever there is a residue that is left in water after a pesticide targets a pest (which is essentially always), that pesticide should be considered a pollutant under the CWA. The court went on to say that the CWA should, in fact, require that any applicator who applies pesticides into a waterway must first be required to obtain an NPDES permit.

The EPA responded to this decision by requesting a two-year stay of the mandate to provide the Agency and NPDES-authorized states time to develop general permits and to provide outreach and education to the regulated community. In June, 2009, the Sixth Circuit Court agreed and granted EPA the two-year stay.  According to this ruling, the final plan must be implemented no later than April 10, 2011.

The National Pesticide Permit Plan
On June 2, 2010, the EPA revealed its plan to address the Sixth Circuit Court ruling. The plan includes a draft of a permit system for point source discharges for the application of pesticides to water. Called the Pesticides General Permit (PGP), the plan EPA revealed this spring will serve as a model for NPDES-authorized states (like Texas) to develop their own PGPs.

Perhaps the most significant part of the EPA national PGP is that it outlines what sort of pesticide applications will be required to get a permit. The plan identifies four types of pesticide applications that will require an NPDES permit:
  • applications of pesticides to water for control of aquatic weeds
  • applications of pesticides to forest canopies over streams and rivers
  • community mosquito control
  • aquatic nuisance animal pest control (e.g., piscicides for trash fish, zebra mussel, lamprey, etc.)
In addition to defining these categories, the PGP set annual thresholds, above which applicators will be required to file an NOI.
  • Aquatic herbicide (or nuisance animal pesticide) applications in waters exceeding 20 acres of open water or 20 linear miles of shoreline application
  • Forestry canopy applications greater than 640 acres
  • Mosquito control applications to areas greater than 640 acres
As an example, if you apply mosquito adulticides to less than 640 acres (one square mile) a year, you will be covered by the state's general permit and will not have to file any paperwork.

On the surface, it appears to me that the NPDES permitting system, if similar to the EPA's general permitting plan now, probably will have little impact on the day-to-day operations of most pest control companies.

In Texas the agency that is developing our state's permit is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  According to Jimmy Bush, TCEQ is anxious to involve stakeholders in the process to develop a state permitting plan.  The agency has set up a website about the issue, and, in fact, held its first stakeholder meeting today to discuss concerns.  The Texas Pest Control Association was in attendance and will certainly report the issues discussed.  The TCEQ is under a deadline to submit its final plan by December, 2010.

How will the new regulations affect you?
This is a complex law, and few people seem to understand it in all its complexities.  From what I learned at TDA last week, however, the NPDES permitting system does not seem to be directly targeting the pest control industry.  Nevertheless, there will be changes in the way pesticides are regulated in the state; and, as always, with change comes uncertainty.  Some potential unanswered questions about the permitting process come to mind:
  • Will terrestrial applications of pesticides eventually (perhaps through court action) come under the permitting process?  This has not been the intent of rulings to date, and seems unlikely, but some urban pesticides have been showing up in urban stormwater runoff and it's possible that someone could argue in court that such applications should be construed as pollutants under the CWA.
  • How will acreages of coverage be calculated for mosquito control?  Will every yard fogged in community mosquito control programs be counted toward the acreage threshold, or will there be criteria for calculating acreage next to waterways?  Currently the EPA PGP states that acreage will include "acreage over water or conveyances with a hydrologic surface connection to waters of the U.S. at the time of pesticide application."  This is still a vague definition, in my opinion.
  • How will mosquito mister systems be handled?  
  • What kind of additional paperwork, if any, will companies be required to keep?  Right now it appears that everyone will be on the honor system to report whether or not your company exceeds the annual thresholds for water applications.  What responsibilities will companies be required to bear in order to show they have NOT met the thresholds required for an NOI?
  • What will the Notice of Intent look like and what requirements will it carry?  This will be of greatest concern to forest managers and mosquito control districts; but it could affect larger companies who annually treat larger communities.
  • Will large companies be allowed to consider individual franchises as independent entities, or will the Orkin and Terminix franchises around the state be required to pool their acres treated?  If the latter, then larger companies will run increased risk of having to file an NOI.
  • Should the pest control industry be happy that terrestrial pesticide applications seem to be outside the realm of these CWA rules, or should the industry prefer to be included in individual state permits so that the rules can be clearly known and thresholds set at reasonable levels?  
If you want to learn more about the CWA changes regarding pesticides, go to the EPA site for NPDES.  If you have opinions that you want to share with TCEQ, the few months will be critical.  Under the impending court order this is one time government will move quickly.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bed bugs in the news

Adult bed bug.
Two news items of interest (to me) with respect to bed bugs appeared this week.  The first is a report by NPMA in cooperation with the University of Kentucky that documents increases in bed bug problems worldwide, and not just in the U.S.  This is interesting because up till now there has been little information about what is going on with bed bugs outside our country. The survey contacted approximately 1000 PMP respondents about their experiences with bed bug problems.  Prior to the Year 2000 only 25% of U.S. PMPs had encountered this pest.  As of 2010, 95% of U.S. respondents have encountered bed bugs in their daily business.

New York City may be ground zero for bed bugs.  According to an Associated Press story released this week, bed bugs were included last year for the first time in a citywide community health survey.  More than 6% of respondents reported having battled bed bugs in the past year.  That's a lot of people with bed bugs. What's more, New York is directing $500,000 in city health department budget to battling bed bugs.  Believe me, you can buy a bunch of entomologists with that kind of money.