Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pest Prevention by Design

Imagine a community where the newest buildings were pest resistant. It would be a place where architects and engineers worked hand in hand with pest management experts to take pests into consideration during building design and construction. Foundations of these new buildings would be reinforced with termite barriers, kitchen walls could be opened easily for inspection and treatment, access points to electric utility chases would be easily reachable, exterior doors and utility penetrations would be rodent-proof, and birds would find few easily accessible perches or nesting holes. Now imagine schools and government buildings, homes and shopping centers with features that greatly simplified pest control and reduce the need for pesticides.

That's the idea behind the new Pest Prevention by Design Guidelines published this month by San Francisco Environment, a department of the city and county of San Francisco, CA. The principal author and leader of this effort is Dr. Chris Geiger, a trained entomologist and Urban Pest Management Program Manager for the City and County of San Francisco's Department of the Environment. I love Chris' up-front and down-to-earth admission in the report:
"The world is blessed with many charming, pleasurable, glamorous and enticing subjects on which to ponder. Pest management is not one of these."
How true. But of course a world without pest management would be unlivable too.

The format of the report is clean and easy
to follow. The recommendations are based
around 18 building features, and cite technical
references for the guidelines where they exist.
The new publication was and is a team effort, involving a Technical Advisory Committee that included pest management experts, PMPs, architects, and engineers. Universities in the mix included Cornell, Penn State, Texas A&M, UC Davis and Riverside, and the NJ Institute of Technology. The National Pest Management Association was involved, as well as several pest control companies.  My point is, this is not just the wild imaginings of some California tree-huggers (apologies Chris), but a serious effort to start a dialogue between us in the pest control industry and the folks who build both green and not-so-green buildings. The project was funded by the Centers for Disease Control.

I think anyone with an interest in the subject of pest proofing, owes it to themselves to take a look at the report. The authors limited the scope of the document to commercial buildings, and it is far from a perfect or complete document, as the writers will admit. But it's a start.

Looking forward there are several hopes for this project. First, we intended it (yes, I was involved too) to serve as a starting point for better dialogue with architects and engineers--two groups that historically have not been very interested in pest control.  With the current interest in green or sustainable buildings (IPM is actually a part of today's LEED green points rating system) it appears that the time may be ripe to entice these folks to take pest control more seriously. Consider that built-in pest control should mean longer useful lives for buildings, more pleasant and livable indoor environments, cleaner air and less need for pesticides--all admirable green goals.

Second, we hope that the guidelines will be referenced by green building advocates, builders of schools, those in the apartment and hospitality industries, and government officials wanting to reduce the long term maintenance costs of public buildings.  After all, pests are  frequent contributors to building decay and decline--an expensive problem for all.

Last, we intend these guidelines to be a living document. Ultimately it is intended to reside as an editable database, where suggestions and revisions can be made over time. Once a suitable web home is found, it will be easy to update and improve. If, as you read through the document, you see things that can be added or improved, we want to know about it.

I can hear grumbling by some that "if we build pest proof buildings there won't be any work left for PMPs". That I seriously doubt. It's my personal belief that as long as there are people living in buildings, there will be plenty of pests. I think that what this effort does is raise the status and profile of pest management into more of a science and less of a fire station mentality (constantly putting out preventable fires). There will be a need for PMPs to get involved with the building planning and execution process. Yes, if this concept catches on, there might be less for PMPs to do in these newer and greener buildings; but the lost jobs will be the kinds of problems that no one wants anyway--those institutionalized, chronic pest problems that seem to never go away because of filthy conditions or rundown facilities.

As for me, I know I'd rather live in a condominium or apartment, or stay at a hotel, or eat at a restaurant that was built with IPM in mind. Wouldn't you? And that's what pest prevention by design is all about.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Entomology in Knoxville: Bed bugs, Ants and Others

Bed bugs remained one of the most frequent subjects of
new research reports at the annual ESA meetings.
Continuing my earlier report on goings on at the Entomological Society of America's annual conference...

Total release foggers

In addition to health-related papers, urban entomology sessions covered many practical aspects of pest control. North Carolina State's Coby Schal, one of the top guns in urban entomology, reported on the first field study of total release foggers (bug bombs) for cockroach control. You may have heard of a parallel study done this year by Susan Jones at Ohio State University. She conducted a set of laboratory experiments with total release foggers (TRFs) against bed bugs, the results of which she recently spoke about on PCT's multimedia website.  She found that field collected strains of bed bugs were essentially immune to three common over-the-counter pyrethroid TRFs, and that even highly pesticide susceptible lab strains were largely able to survive when give basic cover as simple as a piece of paper.

Schal pointed out that TRFs are frequently misused by the public, causing four to eight home explosions per year in New York City alone. His lab looked at the impact of two TRFs on both naturally occurring cockroach populations and on "sentinel" cockroaches (lab reared cockroaches contained in open, escape-proof containers) placed in multiple locations in the treated apartments.  While the foggers did kill the pesticide-susceptible, lab-reared cockroaches, they provided little to no control of wild cockroaches (with 200-fold resistance to pyrethroids). In some treated apartments wild cockroach populations actually increased during the test. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. reevaluates registrations for TRFs in the next few years given the safety issues and dismal data coming out of university labs around the country concerning their use.

Bed bug repellents?

Conventional wisdom suggests that there are no repellents that can be sprayed on the skin to prevent bed bugs from taking a blood meal. However Changlu Wang, of Rutgers University, says "not so fast". He looked at the problem from a different angle, pointing out that there are two possible uses for repellents. Besides the traditional use of repellents applied to the skin to keep insects from biting, repellents may also be used off-host to keep bed bugs from climbing onto beds, suitcases, or other inanimate objects.  

Wang and colleagues looked at this second use. They chose several repellents including DEET, permethrin, picaridin, isolongifolenone, and other potential repellents. Although several products showed repellency, DEET was the overall winner. At 10% and 25% concentration, bed bugs were repelled from Climbup Interceptors (guarding a table with a CO2 lure) for 9 hours and 2 weeks, respectively.  While the practical use of repellents in the real world needs more experimentation, this is useful information.  DEET could conceivably be used as a repellent on some shoes (it does dissolve some plastics, so user beware) or booties to reduce the risk of hitchhiking bed bugs being picked up by technicians (or researchers!).  I expect that eventually bed bug control will be supplemented by the use of repellents as a quarantine tool or for "push-pull" tactics to get bed bugs to go where we want them to go (say, to treated harborages).  Wang cautioned that bed bug behavior may be different around a host where attraction to a live host may overcome the repellent effects he saw.

Standardized bed bug testing

One of the biggest applied bed bug research challenges today is how to standardize insecticide testing. It is common knowledge that results for nearly any insecticide can be fairly easily manipulated by selecting the right strains and using protocols that show more or less bed bug mortality. The challenge is to find protocols that are more or less predictive of a product's performance in the field. Mark Feldlaufer, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture/ARS, reported on progress being made to verify fair, standardized testing methods. This research will support the EPA in its efforts to develop standardized test protocols.

He noted that there are currently 318 insecticide formulations registered for bed bug control, 90% of which include pyrethroid insecticides. He noted that not all pyrethroids are equal, and cited as an example transfluthrin (currently unregistered in the U.S.). Transfluthrin has a high vapor pressure, which most PMP realize is likely to provide better control in difficult to reach areas like voids and crevices.  He also noted that a new combination product (metofluthrin plus clothianidin) is in the insecticide pipeline for bed bugs.

Among the USDA findings were that male and female bed bugs are approximately equal in insecticide susceptibility. This finding could allow researchers to use only one sex in tests (avoiding mortality problems with  traumatic insemination by males on females) rather than the 50/50 ratio currently recommended. Also, test results did not significantly change after seven days, suggesting that tests could be terminated after this time.

How to classify and handle insecticide exposed bed bugs is an issue for anyone who has conducted bed bug trials. USDA classified insecticide-exposed bed bugs as alive (A), dead (D), or morbid/moribund (M/M).  The latter group consisted of bed bugs that were not completely dead, but did not behave normally or respond normally to probing. They found that if placed on untreated surfaces after exposure, between 7 and 77% of the moribund bed bugs recovered compared to 100% mortality of M/M bed bugs left on treated surfaces. This information should be useful in helping EPA decide how to require M/M to be handled. It is fascinating, and alarming, how slight differences in the way test subjects are handled and classified can dramatically influence test results.

Other interesting reports

  • Susan Jones (Ohio State) reported positive results controlling bed bugs with a new neem formulation (CIRKIL), which, PCT magazine reports, will be available in the U.S. this fall.
  • Joe DeMark (Dow AgroScience) reported on field testing of a new Recruit AG above ground bait station for termites. This product will carry 254 grams (one pound) of bait matrix per station. Of nine sites on which it was tested, all termite colonies were determined to be eliminated within four months.
  • Mike Rust (University of California, Riverside) reported on studies with the Turkestan cockroach, a species spreading throughout the southwestern states (CA to TX). They found that the Turkestan cockroach is better adapted to dry situations than the oriental cockroach, especially at higher temperatures, and may be expected to displace Oriental cockroaches in hot, dry situations.
  • Karen Vail (University of Tennessee) tested insecticides on odorous house ant.  She found fipronil provided slightly superior control to Talstar, and she observed 2-4 weeks control with the new Arilon insecticide (indoxacarb).  She also found that sprays applied with backpack sprayers targeting ant trails and structural guidelines (gutters, ledges, etc.) were as effective in controlling ants as high-volume power sprays.
  • Dini Miller (Virginia Tech) reported that a 2011 National Apartment Association survey found bed bugs as the number one concern among apartment owners (beating out concerns over property taxes). Besides control expenses, additional costs due to bed bugs include carpet wraps (to contain bed bugs on infested carpets during removal), need for heavier duty paint (to better cover fecal spots on walls), delays in rental payments, increased evictions, more abuse from residents, and loss of reputation in the community. Twenty states now have laws addressing responsibility for treatment costs for bed bugs.
  • In a study reported in the May 2012 issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, researchers from Nebraska tested the effectiveness of chlorine dioxide gas as a fumigant for bed bugs. You may remember chlorine dioxide as the gas used in US governmental facilities after the 2001 anthrax attacks. It proved to penetrate cracks and crevices well and kill bed bugs effectively. Chlorine dioxide is used in hospitals for germ control and might find a niche use for battling bed bug infestations in medical settings.
  • Margie Lehnert, Clemson University, described a simple but (I thought) ingenious technique for studying bed bug population dynamics. She used nylon stockings inside a HEPA vacuum hose attachment to collect small bed bug aggregations in infested apartments. Once an aggregation is sucked up, the stocking can be removed and tied off and returned to the lab for counting. In this way Lehnert has developed a powerful tool to study population patterns and, perhaps, better infer reasons for bed bug dispersal away from beds. 
  • Chris Keefer, Texas A&M University, presented some of the first data I've seen on the invasive, and difficult to control, dark rover ant. This ant is thought to have entered the U.S. from Argentina in Louisiana in 1978. It is now common through most of the southern states.  Keefer, after some difficulty,  has figured out how to colonize these ants in the lab. Using his lab ants he was able to compare the effectiveness of three baits: Terro PCO gel (98% control), Advance Ant Gel (88% control) and Advance Granular Bait (large granules) (58.81% control). The best residual insecticide treatments he found during an outdoor field trial were Demand CS and Temprid, which gave 84% and 82% control, respectively. This confirms what I've heard some PMPs say about effective treatments for these ants.
Of course much more went on in Knoxville than I can report (curse those concurrent sessions!). If I've done no more than convey how exhausting it is to sit for 50 paper sessions (my count), I've given you a taste of what it's like to be there.  Next year's meetings are scheduled to be in Austin, TX, so I encourage some of my Texas colleagues to consider attending. This year the ESA planned a special event for PMPs, including an ACE prep class. Stay tuned for PMP programs for 2013.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Entomology in Knoxville: Human health

3000 entomologists swarmed to the 2012 ESA annual conference
in scenic Knoxville, TN.  Over 1800 papers and 600 posters reported
on all aspects of  the science, including urban entomology.
Every year I try to attend the Entomological Society of America's annual conference. It's one of the largest gatherings of entomologists you'll find anywhere in the world, and there's always a lot to learn.  I also try each year to give you my readers a little taste of what the meetings are like, and what's new in the structural pest control field. In this post I wanted to cover some of the human health-related papers.

Delusions of Parasitosis 

One of the many meeting symposia at ESA was dedicated to the subject of delusions of parasitosis, a condition where people delude themselves into believing that non-existent insects are on them, or in their bodies, or infesting their home. This is a relatively common problem across the country. Cynthia Lord and Roxanne Connelly with the University of Florida reported handling 338 probable cases of delusions of parasitosis (where no insects were ever found) over 13 years of Extension work--approximately two per month (this frequency of contact is very similar to what I  encounter at my office in Dallas, TX). Dr. Nancy Hinkle at the University of Georgia sees even more cases, up to 3-4 people per week, to the point where she has hired a patient psychiatrist to assist her with handling such visitors. All speakers at the symposium agreed that such calls are extremely time-consuming, and rarely result in a satisfactory outcome without the intervention of family or skilled medical professionals.

Recent authors have criticized a published article claiming
to have seen springtails in human skin scrapings. 
Earnest Barnard, entomologist with the University of Tennesse, debunked the idea (prevalent on the Internet) that Collembola (springtails) might be responsible for some mystery bug cases.  Dr. Barnard, who is an expert on the Collembola, noted that springtail mouthparts are retracted into the head and are incapable of burrowing into skin as some have suggested. He addressed a scientific paper purporting to have found Collembola in skin scrapings from patients diagnosed with delusions of parasitosis. His study of the paper showed that the authors manipulated electron micrographs to create images that look like a Collembola. He noted that the purported parasites were far too small to be real Collembola, based on the paper's own size measurements. A website at the University of California - Davis does a good job of showing all known human skin parasites and critically evaluating the misinformation so common on the Internet.

Lynn Kimsey, with the University of California - Davis, noted the lack of cross-communication among disciplines concerning delusions of parasitosis. She looked at some of the underlying causes of unexplained itching and broke them into four categories: peripheral (e.g, resulting from solar elastosis and other skin disorders, autoimmune disease, bites, contact dermatitis), neurogenic (e.g., the result of drug side effects), psychogenic (e.g., hallucinations, delusions, OCD), or pathogenic (symptoms resulting from an organic disease, such as diabetes). She suggested that entomologists should advise clients to avoid telling their doctor that they believe they have skin parasites when describing their symptoms. In this way the doctor is less likely to dismiss the complaint as psychological and more likely to consider a wider spectrum of possible causes for creeping, itching and biting sensations on the skin. She suggested referring mystery bug clientele to internal medicine specialists, especially those with an emphasis on neuromedicine, as these doctors tend to take a more wholistic view of the patient than the average dermatologist or GP. All speakers agreed that entomologists should avoid referring to "bites" when discussing mysterious skin lesions with a client, avoiding reinforcement of what is frequently a false perception.

Urban Highlights of 2012

Sometimes these meetings are a good opportunity to catch up on "older" research--research that may have been conducted a year or two earlier, but is just now getting published. Roberto Pereira, of the University of Florida, devoted a session to reviewing the highlights of urban entomology in 2012. According to two studies published this year from North Carolina State University, bed bug populations around the U.S. are very diverse genetically, but often very similar genetically within communities and especially within apartment complexes. These data suggest that bed bugs have been introduced many times into the U.S. from different foreign sources. They concluded that nearly all the studied infestations in isolated apartment complexes were started by a small starter infestation, possibly consisting of a singly mated female and/or her progeny. What's cool about these studies is how the ability to peer into the DNA of bed bugs is giving us new insight into how these insects spread--something we could only speculate about a few years ago. One of the two studies authors, Ed Vargo, elaborated on these findings later in the meeting. After looking at 61 populations in 21 states they believe there is a strong international connection between bed bug populations in the U.S. and Canada and Europe.

In other bed bug literature, a couple of papers explored the mental health impact of bed bugs.  Goddard and deShazo report in the American Journal of Medicine that many people experience symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following bouts with bed bugs.  Susser and colleagues from Canada reported in the online journal BMJ Open a variety of anxiety, sleep disturbance and even depression associated with bed bug infestations.

Finally, at least one lawyer this year suggested that OSHA should be more interested in bed bugs. He argued in the Toxics Law Reporter that the ability of bed bugs to harbor certain blood borne parasites puts workers in the pest control, hospitality and housing industries at increased risk of infection. This idea should be of interest all of us who have ever smashed bed bugs with ungloved (or gloved) hands. What this would likely mean to our industry, should OSHA get involved, would be increased training requirements for employees and need to provide technicians with additional safety gear--some of which is probably not a bad idea.

Friday, November 30, 2012

ACE Prep Class Opportunity in Dallas Dec 12

The first ACE Prep Course to be offered at the
ESA Annual Conference happened November
15th in Knoxville, TN. The next day 25 PMPs
successfully passed the exam in both Tennessee
and in Georgia. While not required prior to
taking the exam, many feel the class
is a great confidence booster.
This fall has seen a record level of interest in the Entomological Society of America's (ESA) certification program. Thanks in part to booths at the recent Bed Bug Summit in Las Vegas, NV and then again at PestWorld in Boston, MA many PMPs are learning about the program and signing up for certification exams. On November 16th alone, approximately 25 new ACEs were added to the Certification rolls.

A lot of you that I've talked to over the years have expressed interest in applying for the ACE program, but are a little nervous about the exam. This is understandable, especially for most of us who haven't taken a test in a few years. If you find yourself in that position, there are two excellent opportunities to prepare.

On Wednesday December 12 Dr. Bob Davis and I will be offering the ACE Prep Class at The Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas. If you are interested and planning to go for ACE certification in the next year you are welcome; but you should sign up soon because we only have room for 15 more participants.  Class time runs from 8:30 am until approximately 2:00 pm. After the class, at 2:00 pm, we will give the exam to anyone who is pre-approved to take the test (see below).  Anyone planning to take the exam  should bring either a laptop or iPad with wireless internet capabilities.  The exam is only being given online, and my office does not have enough computers to provide one to all test takers.  No CEUs will be offered for this class. If you would like to participate, contact my assistant, Kaye Garrison (972-952-9201 or to sign up and get directions.

One more thing about this date... but first, sit down and hold on to your chair. As an incentive to see more PMPs here in Dallas take the plunge and get certified, there will be no fee for this class. If you're one of those waffling about whether to take the plunge, you'll never have a better, more economical opportunity. Because of the limited class size, we will be giving first priority to those who will be taking the test that day, so don't delay.

If you miss this chance, or Dallas isn't your kind of town, a second prep class will be held Wednesday, January 9, 2013 in College Station, TX. Dr. Bob and I will be offering the prep class again as part of the 67th Texas A&M University Urban Pest Management Conference and Workshop. The Prep Class starts at 10:15 am on the 9th, and the ACE exam will be given the next morning at 8:00 am. This course will earn you one Gen. CEU (Other), one Gen. CEU (IPM), and one Pest and one Termite CEU in Texas, as well as four technician credit hours. For more information about the meeting, cost, and how to register, go to

What Is Certification?

If you haven't heard of the ACE program before, it is a certification program for PMPs with at least seven years of experience in the pest control industry. There is a certification exam to be passed, much like a doctor must pass their board exams to be certified in a specialty area. Those who qualify and pass the exam are qualified to call themselves Associate Certified Entomologists (ACEs) and include the certification initials on their business cards or business advertisements.  As government agencies, schools and the public learn about certification, you can expect more and more people to want to hire a company with a certified entomologist on staff. The certification program includes both ACE (7 years experience, no college degree requirement) and BCE (Board Certified Entomologists, must have a degree in entomology or related science) options. There are over 500 active ACEs in the U.S. according to the ESA.  For more information, check out the ESA Certification website.

How Do I Get Approved to Take the Exam?

Anyone who wants to take the ACE exam must first apply for certification, pay the application fee, and be approved by the ESA office.  To start the process go to and complete steps One and Two by Friday, December 7. You do not have to pre-qualify to take the course without the exam.

How Do I Prepare?

One last thing.  If you're planning to take the ACE exam at one of these venues you should study now. The prep course alone is not enough to get most folks through. For suggestions on how and what to study, familiarize yourself with the study outline at the ESA website. Pay special attention to the detailed list of pests and competency areas linked at this page. I recommend circling every subject you feel rusty on, and using the recommended study materials to bone up especially on those points. There is even a practice exam on the website.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hackberry psyllids in homes

These nipple-like galls on hackberry leaves protect a small
insect called 
Pachypsylla. In the fall the insects emerge and
may invade nearby structures.
Insect species that specialise in invading homes in the fall are almost as predictable as the cooler weather itself. A number of insect species, like paper wasps, multicolored Asian lady beetles, box elder bugs and cluster flies are already pretty well known to the pest control industry. But nature is full of surprises, and there's always an obscure insect or two that can surprise you.

Pachypsylla adults (about 1/8-inch long) are commonly
found at this time of year indoors, around windows.
This year seems to have been a good year for one tiny invader, at least in the north Texas area. It's the hackberry nipplegall maker, Pachypsylla celtidismamma.  If you've ever noticed nipple-like swellings on hackberry leaves, you already know a little about this insect. Pachypsylla is a genus of homopterous insects in a family referred to as psyllids (SILL ids).  The specialised Pachypsylla grows up only inside galls that form on hackberry leaves.  Like other gall makers, Pachypsylla adults lay their eggs on leaves, which then start to swell around the egg or developing larva, forming a gall. After feeding on the gall tissue all summer, Pachypsylla adults emerge in the fall.

Unfortunately for fastidious homemakers, or the unprepared PMP, these adults commonly enter structures at this time in their search for a warm place to hang out (and, perhaps, catch some football or prime time TV).  This week I've had multiple reports of Pachypsylla home invasions here in north Texas.  Most calls are accompanied by deep concern by homeowners that these tiny insects might be harmful.

You can tell your customers that hackberry nipple-gall insects are pretty harmless.  They do not bite and do not eat clothes (and don't hog the remote!). Apart from needing to be vacuumed up from windowsills occasionally, these insects shouldn't pose too much of a problem; however I suggest an application of a pyrethroid insecticide to the outside frames of windows and doors.

These insects are small. Adults are 2-3 mm-long (about 1/8-inch) and just a little over 0.5 mm wide. With the average window screen mesh about 1.5 mm apart, these guys can easily slip through screens. Recommend to your client to check the tightness of seals around windows and doorways, the most common points of entry.

If Pachypsylla invasions are a regular occurrence at an account, suggest that the property owner remove nearby hackberries and replace them with another well-adapted tree.

According to the Encyclopedia of Insects, the exact mechanism by which insects induce plants to form galls is still poorly understood, but it involves chemicals applied to or injected into the plant that influences plant growth hormones.  In the case of Pachypsylla, the plant responds to its springtime egg laying by forming  round, nipple-like galls on the undersides of developing leaves.  Each gall surrounds a growing Pachypsylla nymph.  In the fall mature adults emerge from these galls and search for a protected site to spend the winter. There is only one generation per year.

Friday, October 26, 2012

An unwelcome kiss

Adult kissing bugs are 1/2 to 1 inch-long, dark in color with
reddish to yellow bands on the edges of the abdomen, and
a cone-shaped head.  They are common throughout Texas
(and many other states), especially in southern parts of the state.
Their natural hosts include wild rodents.
One of the potentially more serious, yet poorly recognized, indoor biting insects in Texas is the cone-nosed bug, or kissing bug, Triatoma species.

Kissing bugs are so-called because of their habit of biting people (and other animals) at night, often around the face or lips.  The bite can be extremely itchy.  The worst part, however, is that there is a relatively small risk (in the U.S.) that these bugs could transmit a parasite-caused disease called Chagas.

I have blogged previously about kissing bugs and Chagas disease, and have advised that there really was no place to report these bugs to, or any place to have them sent for testing.  That's changed recently, however, thanks to a Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) website and new DNA diagnostic tests for the pathogen.

The new website and testing service is available online. The site allows any Texas resident to send Triatome (kissing) bugs in for identification and analysis for the Chagas parasite at no charge.  Preference in testing will be given to bugs that have been documented as feeding on people.  There are limited resources for testing bugs collected as a curiosity, so those submissions may not be tested for months, or ever.

There is a downside to this new service, though.  Just because a Triatome bug collected from a home turns out to be carrying the Trypanosome (Chagas) parasite does not mean that people in the infested home are at high risk of the disease.  The low rate of Chagas disease in Texas suggests that the kissing bugs in Texas are not very good at transmitting the disease--at least to people (dogs are another story).  That's good news. The bad news is that it may be difficult to convince your customers that having inch-long, disease-infested, blood sucking bugs in their home is nothing to worry about.

In any case, should you catch one or more of these insects in a customer's home, it's good to know that there is some place you can turn for more information.  Thanks to Wizzie Brown for alerting us to the availability of this new resource.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Crazy ant name gets crazy

A closeup of Nylanderia pubens and the male
genitalia (bottom) of N. fulva (left) and pubens.
Based on the recent paper, invasive crazy
ants found in the southern U.S. in recent years are
thought to be N. pubens, with the proposed
common name, tawny crazy ant. Photo from Gotzek
et al. 2012.
One of the most impressive new structural insect pests to emerge in the southern U.S. over the past few years (besides the bed bug) is a new ant, called variously, the Rasberry crazy ant, the Caribbean crazy ant, and the hairy crazy ant.  According to Texas A&M University graduate student Danny McDonald, this ant finally has a definitive name... well at least a definitive scientific name.  

Dietrich Gotzek and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institute and Towson University in Maryland (2012, PLoS ONE 7(9): e45314), examined ants from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, and concluded that the ant we know in Texas as the Rasberry crazy ant is not a new species, but a previously described ant from South America, Nylanderia fulva.  Their conclusion is based on statistical analysis of numerous body part characters (morphometric analysis), DNA comparisons, and comparison of the shape and condition of the male ant's genitals. The researchers report that there is no reliable way to distinguish N. fulva workers from the worker ants of the closely related, so called "Caribbean crazy ant", N. pubens.  The Caribbean crazy ant is the species that at one time was thought to be, or be the closest thing to, the Rasberry crazy ant in Texas.  I'm no expert on the techniques used in these studies, but based on the agreement between three independent methods of settling the question, and Danny McDonald's seal of approval, the matter appears to me to be definitively settled.  

So what is Nylanderia fulva, and what do we know about it?  This ant, which has never been given an English common name, is from South America--probably from the southern part of the continent according to the study's authors.  It was first described from Brazil, but major population explosions of this ant are thought to have occurred in Columbia, S.A. as well as Bermuda, the St. Croix Islands, and possibly southern Florida. One of the characteristics of this ant that distinguish it from its Caribbean cousin, N. pubens, is its ability to develop high populations and become a serious pest.

The Controversy

If entomologists have settled happily on a scientific name for this ant, it's hard to find anyone who is happy about the common name for this ant. So what exactly is a common name and why is it so controversial? Most insect common names have probably come from the general, non-science public. The problem with common names is that frequently people from different social circles, or language groups, or regions have given different common names for the same insect. Also, the same common name may refer to different organisms.  Of course this drives the obsessive-compulsive scientific community absolutely batty. 

Since 1903 professional entomologists have attempted to bring some order to common names of insects via rules and an approval committee and a formal list of acceptable common names.  The Entomological Society of America (ESA) currently maintains a list of approved common names.  This makes entomologists happy, but can rub some people the wrong way, especially those who get attached to a favored common name or spelling (e.g., the media who want to write "bedbug" instead of bed bug).  

Such is the case, for some, with Nylanderia fulva. The authors of the paper have recommended that the ant should be called the tawny crazy ant, because of its light brown color. But this so-called common name is anything but in common use. At least three common names have been applied to this ant since recent reports of it in the U.S.  In Florida it has been referred to as the Caribbean crazy ant (a mis-identification, now cleared up by Gotzek's paper).  In Louisiana it has been referred to as the hairy crazy ant.  And of course the pest control industry in Texas has known it for the past 10 years as the Rasberry crazy ant, in honor of Tom Rasberry, the sharp-eyed PMP who first brought it to the attention of Texas A&M researchers and many others.  

Friends of Rasberry argue that the name Rasberry crazy ant should be the official name because it has been in general use the longest and it honors the person that pointed it out (at least in Texas) to professional entomologists.  Others don't especially like the common name because it's confusing to people who don't know Rasberry's story, or who think its an ant pest found on berry crops. Others don't accept the Rasberry name because it arose locally, and has no meaning to folks in other areas who have known about the ant for many years in say, Florida or Mississippi or Bermuda. 

I'm mostly happy to stay out of the controversy and wait until the dust settles; but I will likely use whatever name the ESA settles on. Scientists, after all, have been the originators of many of the common names in use today.  At the same time I sympathize with those who object to entomologists (who generally dislike common names in the first place) choosing a fusty, and rather nondescript name. This may be one of the reasons the botanist de Candolle, writing in 1868, said, 
"Every friend of science ought to be opposed to the introduction into a modern language of names of plants that are not already there, unless they are derived from a Latin botanical name that has undergone but a slight alteration."
Some Useful Links

To learn more about why Nylanderia fulva is such a pest, see the Texas A&M University website on this insect.  Also, Alex Wild has created a useful and beautiful set of directions on how to identify N. fulva. The photos from this site will give you a better appreciation of the fine distinctions and types of characters used to distinguish ants at the species level.

Friday, September 21, 2012

New scholarship for urban entomology students

Clayton Wright poses with fellow Purdue University
entomology graduates at the B&G Chemical and Equipment
Co. 50th Anniversary Winter Workshop in Arlington, TX in
January 2000.  Clockwise from lower left, Clayton Wright,
(me) Mike Merchant, Mike Miesch, Professor John Osmun,
and David Fincannon.
One of the founding fathers of the modern pest control industry in Texas was Clayton "Bud" Wright. Wright was the founder of the B&G Chemical and Equipment Co., pest control supply distributor based in Dallas (now part of Target Specialty Products in Texas and Oklahoma).  His contributions to pest control and the business of pesticide formulation and distribution are legendary in Texas. One of the first class of Purdue University graduates in urban entomology in 1950, Wright was one of the earliest distributors of the famed B&G sprayer, an invention of his Purdue classmates and close friends, Bill Brehm and George Gilmore.

Bringing his science background to Texas, Wright began formulating his own pesticides.  Local companies began purchasing his special B&G rodenticide, mixed in his home bathtub before he and his wife Anita could afford to purchase their first electric cement mixer.

Wright was fully committed to helping his fellow pest control operators become better educated about the science and technology of pest control. Wright's company began doing product and equipment testing, and eventually training workshops to show pest control operators how to use the new tools of pest control more effectively. Long before the state of Texas required PMPs to get annual continuing education units, B&G Chemicals and Equipment offered quality educational opportunities for its customers. In addition to mentoring pest control practitioners, Wright also taught university-based entomologists a thing or two.  My first boss, Dr. Phil Hamman, relished his memories of Wright taking him around the state to meet influential PMPs during his early years as an extension entomologist.  I always found Clayton Wright to be generous with his time and a warm supporter of me as a rookie urban entomologist.

Just before his death in 2000, Clayton was inducted into the PMP Hall of Fame, where you can read more about his early years and how he and his family grew their business.

One of my fellow Purdue graduates, David Fincannon, owner of A-All Pest Control in Dallas, says that his company (est. 1963) has benefited greatly over the years from the forward thinking of Bud Wright and the training programs his company offered.  Consequently, he has committed himself to establishing a scholarship fund in the name of Clayton Wright, through the pest control fraternity, Pi Chi Omega.  Pi Chi Omega has offered scholarships to young urban entomology students since 1976 and Fincannon says that the goal for a permanently funded scholarship is $20,000.  According to Fincannon, about 10% of all Pi Chi Omega scholarships offered since 1976 have been awarded to Texas A&M students.

If you agree with the premise that education is the tide that lifts all of us in the pest control field, then consider supporting David in his fund-raising campaign. Checks should be made payable to the Pi Chi Omega (include ESF, Endowed Scholarship Fund, on the memo line) and your letter should indicate that you are donating in the name of Clayton "Bud" Wright. Pi Chi Omega is a 501c(7) non-profit organization.  Checks should be mailed to Mr. Vern E. Toblan, Pi Chi Omega, Endowed Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 8149, Wilmington, DE  19803.  Thanks to David for getting this worthy effort off the ground.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

TDA lowers licensing fees

When was the last time you heard of a government agency lowering license fees? Yet that's exactly what the Texas Department of Agriculture is doing this month.  According to David Kostroun, Chief Administrator for the Agriculture and Consumer Protection section of TDA, not only are some fees being reduced, refund checks are in the mail. Checks will cover the difference between the old and new fees you may have paid between September 2011 and September 2012.

According to Kostroun, recent cost cutting initiatives by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) have made it possible for Commissioner Staples to implement a 20% Structural Pest Control fee reduction.  And this from an agency that took a 45% cut in funding during the past legislative session! Keep in mind, these reductions are for structural pest control licenses, and not the traditional TDA (outdoor) licenses.

The new fees are as follows:

  • $224 for an original business license (formerly $280)
  • $224 for renewal of a business license (formerly $280)
  • $108 for an original certified applicators license (formerly $135)
  • $100 for renewal of a certified applicators license (formerly $125)
  • $81 for an original technician license (formerly $100)
  • $76 for an renewal of a technician license (formerly $95)
  • $48 for anyone wishing to get approval for a continuing education course (formerly $60)

Fees that have not changed include:

  • $30 for duplicate business license, certified applicator license or technician license when the original has been lost or destroyed
  • $30 for reissuing a business license, certified applicators license or technician license due to a name change in the license
  • $75 for administering exams in each category
  • Renewal fee for applications received 90 days or less after expiration date equal to 1-1/2 times the normally required renewal fee
  • Renewal fee for applications received greater than 90 days but less than one year days after expiration date equal to 2 times the normally required renewal fee (No change.)
So, if after this good news you're feeling a little lucky, think about taking that refund check and buy a lottery ticket. Despite the apparent generosity of the refunds, I'm sure the State of Texas would be mighty happy to get your money back. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Summer flu often spells West Nile Virus

Dr. Robert Haley, Chief Epidemiologist of the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, recently wrote a short and easily readable summary of the West Nile virus situation for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  Click here to read a free copy of the article.

Based on his medical observations over several years, Dr. Haley concludes that "diagnosis of WNF should be suspected in anyone with unexplained fever from late June through September, the season when other causes of fever are least common. Fever with disorientation, stiff neck, or neurologic deficits suggests WNND."

It's estimated that since its discovery in the U.S. in 1999, over 30,000 Americans have contracted either West Nile fever (WNF) or the most serious form of the disease, West Nile neuroinvasive disease (WNND). While even I may have been tempted a few years ago to dismiss this as an "old person's disease" (older persons with underlying health problems are most likely to die from the virus), at over 50 myself I now fall into the susceptible age group. And I don't feel that old.

It would be a mistake to underestimate this disease. It can even develop in younger people, as a 14 year-old Dallas girl discovered this summer, although this is not common.  Even the milder form of the disease can be debilitating for extended periods of time, with an average recovery time of 60 days in one study.

For PMPs working in residential environments, especially, it's important to take WNV seriously. Higher concentrations of DEET, picaridin and IR-3535 remain the best repellents for outdoor workers due to their longer residual and highly effective repellency for WNV mosquitoes.  For more information and assistance in choosing the right insect repellent for you and your employees, check out the highly useful repellent calculator developed by the National Pesticide Information Center.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What can schools do about mosquito control?

In case you haven't heard, mosquitoes have been big news in Texas lately. This summer has turned into the worst summer on record for West Nile virus (WNV) in Texas, and both Dallas and Houston have resorted to aerial attacks to attempt to stem the tide of the mosquito and the virus.

Now with a new school year starting up, many school districts are asking themselves, "What should we be doing?" Parents will be concerned about their children waiting at bus stops and participating in band and athletics practice.  And let's not forget about Friday Night Lights, and weekly football games.  What responsibility do schools have to take part in community wide mosquito control?  And if you work for a school district, what will you tell parents when they ask what the district is doing to keep their kids safe from West Nile virus?

Source Reduction
Perhaps the most important single thing a school district can do is make sure that school grounds are not contributing to local mosquito problems. It's especially important to check water catchment basins, storm drains, low areas, and equipment storage yards, athletic and playground equipment for places where water might be caught and held. If you do pest control in a school district, expand your vision at this time of year to look for and report potential mosquito breeding sites.

If a suspected breeding site is found, report it to your local health department, or if possible, drain the water or treat with it. Effective mosquito treatments include Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) dunks or methoprene (Altosid®) granules or briquets.  Both of these are Green category insecticides.

Treating Mosquito Resting Sites 
Mosquitoes are primarily active in the evening and morning.  During the day, adult mosquitoes typically rest in vegetation or other shaded sites. We can use this information to reduce mosquito numbers. Treatment of mosquito resting sites can dramatically reduce bites and biting rates in the immediate area of treatment.

If you know of areas of vegetation, or shaded doorways where mosquitoes are a problem, consider treating such sites with a residual pyrethroid spray. Pyrethroid insecticides like deltamethrin, cyfluthrin, bifenthrin, and lambda-cyhalothrin (Yellow category) can provide up to six weeks control on vegetation or building surfaces. These products can be applied via hand-held pump sprayer, backpack mist blower, or power sprayer to doorways and trees, shrubs and ornamental grass around buildings and entryways.

Such sprays are probably not necessary on most campuses, but in sites with heavy shade and vegetation, and populations of biting mosquitoes, such treatments may be warranted.  If you choose to treat sites like this, remember to post the school 48 hours in advance, and keep students and staff out of treated areas until sprays have thoroughly dried.

Low Volume Treatments
One of the five planes used to apply mosquito
sprays over Dallas County this month. (Photo
courtesy of Dallas Morning News and Tom
Fox/Staff Photographer)
When most people think about mosquito control they think about trucks or aircraft applying a fog or mist. The treatments used by such government agencies are called ultra-low volume (ULV) sprays.  The very tiny particle sizes used in such applications allow better penetration into dense foliage, and generally mean quick dispersal and short life of spray residues.

Most school districts will not engage in ULV sprays, though some cities or mosquito districts may offer the district an option to be included in community-wide spray actions. If ULV insecticides are to be used for campuses or sporting venues, remember to follow posting and notification requirements. Yellow category justifications must generally be filed, because most ULV treatments use Yellow category products like resmethrin or permethrin.  Synergized pyrethrin applications may be considered Green, unless the synergizing additive in the spray concentrate (generally piperonil butoxide) is greater than 5% .

The effect on mosquitoes from ULV-applied sprays is generally short-lived (few hours to a day), so they should be used only on special occasions, such as an hour or more before a sporting event. Wind and weather also have an important influence on the effectiveness of ULV sprays, so be sure to measure and record wind speed prior to application and follow label restrictions carefully.

If your campus has been sprayed as part of a community-wide aerial spray campaign, no special precautions should be necessary.  However some districts have been making a point to let parents know that school play equipment has been washed after spraying.

Education and Awareness
Ironically for schools, one of the most overlooked components of an IPM program is education. Mosquito season provides an excellent opportunity to get mosquito control information out to the community, as well as raise awareness of your district's IPM program.

One of the most important messages that a school can send is the importance of wearing insect repellent when working or playing outdoors. Consider notifying parents and students advising them to wear a good repellent to school, or at evening sporting events.

Many districts have had questions about whether they can allow students to use repellents on school grounds. Personal use of repellents is not prohibited or addressed by state school IPM regulations. Therefore it is up to each district to decide whether students and staff can bring and use repellents at school.  Options include allowing students to bring repellents to a school nurse, and having the nurse apply if needed. Another option might be to allow only cream or non-spray repellent formulations, especially for band and athletic departments in middle and high schools.  The time to decide on the appropriate policy, however, is now, before students return to campus.  For more information on insect repellents, see the excellent repellent guide put out by the National Pesticide Information Center.

As a public service, consider assisting the Texas Department of State Health Services and other local health authorities get the message out about mosquito control.  There are many useful educational materials and websites (see below) that parents should be aware of. School districts can play a useful role in getting mosquito awareness information out to our communities. Consider linking this information in your school district’s website.

Some quick facts about mosquitoes and West Nile virus: 

  • The southern house mosquito, Culex quinquefasciatus, is the primary carrier of WNV in most of Texas (different species carry the virus in other parts of the country). This mosquito is a container breeder.  It prefers to breed in small containers or puddles of standing water. 
  • Water must stand for 10-14 days to be a problem for mosquito breeding.  It doesn't have to be a lot of water, but this is approximately how long it takes for mosquitoes to complete their life cycle at 85-90 degrees F.  
  • Remember stagnant, polluted (stinky) water is the water that Southern house mosquitoes love.  Water where fish are present, such as a pond or permanent stream is not usually a big source of mosquitoes. 
  • Not all people are equally attractive to mosquitoes. Body chemistry differs from person to person and some of us smell more attractive to mosquitoes than others.  Don't assume that because you aren't noticing bites that mosquitoes are not active.
  • Remember the 4 D’s 
    •  DUSK/DAWN- Stay indoors at Dusk/Dawn. This is the time of day that mosquitoes are most active. 
    • DEET-Use insect repellents that contain Deet when going outside, especially at times closer to dawn or dusk when mosquitoes are most active. 
    • DRAIN - Remove all areas of standing water. Examples are pet dishes, birdbaths, and water dishes under potted plants. Repair faulty French drains. Remove debris from rain gutters. Mosquitoes will breed in this debris since it is normally damp under the debris. Remove all piles of dead leaf material from under trees and shrubs. This also is a breeding site. 
    •  DRESS- Avoid being bitten by mosquitoes by wearing light colored long sleeved shirts and long pants when going outside. 
Additional Resources
Thanks to Janet Hurley and the Texas School IPM program in assembling much of the information for this post.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Ugly American

American cockroach,
Periplaneta americana
If one were to poll pest control customers about what they thought was the most disgusting insect, there's a good chance the American cockroach would come out at top. First of all it's large and scary, it's very fast and, where it proliferates, it stinks. Add to this that the American cockroach is one of the few cockroaches that readily flies, and you've got a disgusting pest.

Since few people want to admit to having giant cockroaches in their homes, alternative names are often given to the American cockroach, waterbug and palmettobug being the two most common. One of our largest cockroaches (reaching lengths of just over two inches), they often look much larger to a surprised customer. They are often described as three or four inches long.

American cockroaches, while much longer lived and slower to reproduce than the more common German cockroach, can become quite prolific in the right environment.  While an American cockroach female only produces about 12 eggs per ootheca (egg case), compared to the German cockroach's 36, she lives much longer and produces more oothecae and potential offspring over her lifetime (an average 360 offspring vs the German cockroach's 320 offspring).  Left undisturbed, American cockroaches can build up impressive populations, as anyone who has opened an infested sewer manhole cover can attest.

Odors from the droppings and the insects
themselves can be noticeable in heavy
infestations of American cockroaches. Note
the stains from cockroach droppings on
these boxes in an infrequently used
storage area. Photo by Fudd Graham.
I guess one of the things that's always impressed me about the American cockroach is its ability to survive in places with little food.  They are relatively common in urban sewer and storm drain systems, as well as steam tunnels and basements and storage areas of institutional buildings like schools, hospitals, prisons and factories. These cockroaches are often living on the edge, nutrition-wise, making do with feeding on glues and starches associated with boxes and papers. They are opportunistic feeders and while they prefer fermenting foods, they will feed on dog food in the lab and will readily feed on various cockroach baits.

My colleague Dr. Fudd Graham, from Auburn University, was recently inspecting a courthouse with a chronic American cockroach infestation. Following his nose, his inspection led him to a storage room that hadn't been opened for over 18 months. The two tubes of  Advion cockroach bait Fudd applied were gone the next morning along with the cardboard on which the bait was applied. 

Typical of many infested areas of buildings, this room had a floor drain that, due to lack of use, was dry.  Dry floor drains are one of the most common entry points for American cockroaches to enter commercial buildings from sewage systems.  Many people, even building maintenance professionals, are unaware of the importance of periodically pouring a gallon or two of water into floor drains to fill the p-trap that is designed to block sewer gases and insects and other pests from entering buildings.  A dry p-trap allows cockroaches ready access to a utility room or food storage area in a building. Besides filling the p-trap, some companies have developed clever membrane devices that open for water flow, but close between use.  Trapguard and Sureseal are two commercial products and, while they can be expensive to install, provide a long term fix for gas and pest infiltration into storage and utility areas. 
The half-inch-long ensign wasp
(Evaniidae) is a sign of American
cockroach presence in a building.

Its important to remember that controlling American cockroaches has other benefits.  Eliminating American cockroaches helps reduce the potential food supply of rodents in a building. I'll guess that most PMPs have seen the disembodied wings and legs of American cockroaches left on sticky traps. This is often evidence of mice or rats, which are fond of snacking on live cockroaches plucked from sticky cards.  In addition, ensign wasps are a common parasite of American and smoky brown cockroach oothecae, and are often seen flying around buildings that have an American cockroach infestation.  While harmless themselves to people, the presence of these interesting insects is a sign of cockroach presence in a building.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pyrethroid labeling confusion

New FMC videos explain pyrethroid label changes.
In April I posted information on the new pyrethroid label changes being required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  While the information in my April 17th post was correct, I later (May 1) posted a comment based on additional information I received from the EPA.  In that follow-up comment I said that, according to EPA, that ALL outdoor pyrethroid applications (not just preconstruction treatments as stated in the article) would not be permitted when windspeed was over 10 mph.  The problem is that I was misinformed by my EPA source.

I shared EPA's May 1 label interpretation with Dr. Jim Fredricks at the National Pest Management Association.  He and his legislative colleague, Bob Rosenberg, followed up with EPA on this information.  In an email dated 19 June 2012, Rosenberg received a response from EPA stating that their original "response (the one I received) was not correct... the 10 mph wind restriction applies only to products labeled for preconstruction termiticide applications." [my emphasis]

To those of you who read my comment, I apologize for passing on the wrong information.  Thanks to NPMA for following up and ensuring that all of us get the correct information about pyrethroid label changes and what they mean. BTW, this is a great example of the kind of service tha the NPMA provides its membership as it looks out for the interest of the industry.

I have since removed the incorrect information from the April post's comments; however pyrethroid labels may include advisory language recommending application should be made during "calm weather when rain is not predicted for 24 hours".  This may be more difficult to gauge and document than the 10 mph requirement.

As usual, if in doubt, read the label.  If it's a pyrethroid label, be extra careful over the next few months to check every pesticide container.  During this transition period some containers will have labels that have the new language, and others will not.  While technicians are OK if they use a product with the old language, it would be a good idea to train and require all your employees to start following the tighter restrictions now.

FMC Professional Products has produced some nice new videos explaining the new pyrethroid labels. Check them out at the FMC YouTube Channel.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A personal experience with bed bugs

One of the first bed bugs we discovered was this well-fed adult
on the mattress seam.
Last month, one of my daughters called me on the phone, panicked. "Dad, I think I've got bed bugs!"

It turned out to be more than a couple of bed bugs.  She had a full blown infestation.

Over the years my children have mostly just tolerated, if not ignored, my entomological passions. But this daughter is no slouch. She knew a few things about bed bugs. Like many people it just never occurred to her that bed bugs could happen to her.

The bites she'd started to notice in the morning? Probably mosquitoes.  The little red spots on the bedding? Probably from the mosquito bites. It wasn't till she saw two bed bugs frolicking on the sheets at night that it finally clicked..."Of course! How dense can I be? My dad taught me better than that!" (I added that last part)

Small blood spots on sheets are easily dismissed by someone
not familiar with bed bugs. Blood spots are a more sure
diagnostic sign of bed bugs than just "bites".
A visit to her apartment the next day revealed 200 to 300 bed bugs happily tucked away in the corners of the fitted sheets, dust ruffle and box spring cover of her bed.  We did some thinking back and concluded that we had probably introduced the bed bugs last February when she retrieved her mattress and box spring from a friend living in a (nice) uptown Dallas apartment.  She had loaned the bed to friend during a transition period when she was living at home after graduation.  I say "we" introduced the bed bugs because I helped her move the bed from friend's apartment to her new home in Fort Worth.  I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary at the time, but I wasn't really thinking bed bugs either.

Of course my daughter's first concern was where to sleep. As with all of us, ignorance is bliss. The night before her discovery it was OK to sleep in her infested bed. But now that she knew her bed was crawling with unwanted vampire bugs, it just wasn't the place for a restful sleep. I can't say I blamed her.

It's times like these that both she and I appreciated the availability of a pest control professional at the other end of the phone. In her case, the landlord was supportive and had a pest control company ready to come out and treat her apartment.  The problem was, what to do in the meantime.

In general it's not a good idea to abandon one's bed as a solution to bed bugs. The problem is that once you start sleeping on the couch, it's just a matter of time before the bed bugs figure out where supper has moved and you end up with bed bugs in another room of the home. But for at least one night I counseled her to sleep on the couch and I would be over the next day to help.

A dis-infested bed ready for clean sheets is now a
relative oasis from bed bugs until the PMP arrives. 
Because I wanted her to get back in her own bed as quickly as possible, we opted to make her bed safe while waiting for the professionals to arrive. With the generous help of friends at Target Specialty Products, I was quickly supplied with Mattress Safe® bed encasements, a set of Climbup® Bed Bug Interceptors, and a can of Zenprox® aerosol insecticide.  Vacuum at hand, we removed as many bed bugs as possible from the mattress, sheets and dust ruffle, box spring, and bed (At this point, long-suffering daughter had to put up with a dad who, every couple of minutes, had to stop and take closeup pictures to document the infestation--a small price to pay, I kept reminding her).  After slipping the mattress and box spring into their encasements, we continued vacuuming and tearing down the bed.  Once disassembled, I treated bed cracks and crevices with Zenprox, reassembled the bed and put Climbup® traps under the bed posts.  To keep anything from touching the floor, except the bed posts, we eliminated the dust ruffle.  All sheets and bedding were immediately stuffed into garbage bags and sealed tightly for transport to the laundry.

To make a long story short, daughter returned to sleep in her own bed that night, and after a month reports no more bed bugs. Of course the PMP arrived the next day and undoubtedly deserves much of the credit for  successfully keeping the infestation from spreading; but the experience taught me several things that I will take with me as I advise clients with similar problems.  I hope these thoughts will also help you too as you deal with frantic customers:

Bed bugs prefer laying eggs on rough
surfaces, like this bed slat. I initially
photographed this wood because of the
fecal droppings, but later counted at least
28 eggs in this image alone. Double-click
the image and see how many you can find.

  • Don't think that just because a customer has an advanced case of bed bugs that they willfully allowed the situation to progress.  Many people experience mild to zero reactions to bed bug bites, and have no idea that they are feeding dozens to hundreds of bed bugs. A recent, informal study of Orkin employee reactions to bed bug bites reported by Ron Harrison at the NCUE found that less than one in 20 people showed any noticeable reaction to bed bug bites. 
  • Because many people think bed bugs will never happen to them, they tend to overlook bed bug clues that, in retrospect, are obvious.
  • Customers need guidance in how to survive the waiting period between bed bug discovery and when service can be provided. I know that many of you respond to bed bug calls with next day service, but inevitably there will be customers who will have to wait two or more days.  Providing landlords with a variety of sizes of mattress encasements, Climbup® or similar traps for bed posts, and vacuuming instructions ahead of time can help renters survive the agonizing wait for service. By creating an oasis of safety in the midst of an infested apartment, you allow the customer a chance to sleep comfortably in their own bed without running the risk of spreading bed bugs to other parts of the apartment or home.
  • Remind your regular customers about the signs of bed bugs.  The earlier an infestation is caught, the better the chances of bringing it under control quickly.
  • Use bed post interceptors wherever feasible.  Even after treatment these devices provide you and the customer with a sensitive way to monitor the effectiveness of control. In my daughter's case, not all bed bugs were killed with the initial treatment, as evidenced by several more bed bugs being caught in the Climbup® cups in the succeeding weeks.
  • Plywood beds or rough wooden bed slats are especially favored places for bed bugs to lay eggs.  Study of closeup photographs of the wooden slats on my daughter's bed after I treated showed me  dozens of eggs I didn't see on inspection. Even though these slats were treated by me and by the PMP with insecticide and steam, we opted to remove the slats (they weren't necessary for supporting the box spring anyway) afterwards. 
  • While I recommend bed bug-proof encasements as a less expensive (and more effective) alternative to throwing away infested mattresses and boxsprings, throwing away plywood bed stands or other types of rough wooden beds might be a good idea for some customers. Replacing such beds with a metal, or smoothly finished wooden four post bed, or an inexpensive metal bed frame on wheels, will allow you to create a safe, bed bug oasis even in the midst of a bed room that still harbors live bed bugs.
  • Our industry needs better, more detailed explanations for customers on how to treat bagged clothing and personal items. My daughter didn't receive very helpful information about what to do with all her "junk" once it had been bagged in preparation for service.  Even the PMP had few, helpful suggestions on what to do with personal items other than "wash everything".  But more on that in a later blog.
My final, take-home lesson in all this is to not loan your bed and mattress to anyone.  Even if your dad's an entomologist.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tarantulas go a-courting

My captive, 7+ year-old Texas brown tarantula was given me
 by PMP, Tim Sloane, who collected it from an urban backyard.
This has been tarantula week in Dallas. I don't get too many tarantula calls as a rule; tarantulas are nocturnal homebodies, rarely venturing more than a foot from their burrow...except during mating season. For a short time in the spring (and to some extent in the fall), usually after a rain, male Texas brown tarantulas (Aphonopelma hentzi complex) leave their burrows and hidey-holes in search of--what else?--romance. In some parts of the state dozens of spiders may be seen at once, especially at night along lonely west Texas highways.

According to Burr Williams of the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, who has observed tarantula courtship in west Texas, once a male catches a female's pheromone scent, they seem very good at orienting to a female's burrow. The male taps at the entrance and the female lunges out. The male grabs her, mates quickly, and it's over--sometimes permanently for the male.

Most authorities (e.g., Thomas Prentiss in Ubick et. al, Spiders of North America) say that mature male tarantulas don't live long. Whether this is because they usually get eaten, or just don't have what it takes to be a long-liver (females have been observed to live 30 years in captivity), I'm not sure.  But the male spider I placed yesterday in a terrarium with my 7-year-old female Texas brown Tarantula certainly didn't last long. This morning a leg and a few unidentifiable scraps of carapace were all that was left. I can only hope he enjoyed his final moments.

According to a 1999 study by Margaret Janowski-Bell and Norman Horner--who put little radio antennae on the backs of tarantulas and followed them around the desert (how cool is that!)--males in the wild may visit multiple females, and thus must have a better chance of escape from the than my unlucky captive.

Most of the folks who called about tarantulas this week seemed worried.  One gentleman was worried that his child would be bitten. Another was ready to sell his house and move (presumably as far away from Texas as possible) after finding his backyard and and exterior walls of his home hosting multiple tarantulas. 

Fortunately, tarantulas are not that dangerous. Forget Spielberg's Arachnophobia if you can, a tarantula is a shy giant of a spider. The venom is not considered especially toxic, on the order of a bee sting. But the chance of being bitten by a tarantula is slim. Add to that the fact that tarantulas, like all spiders, do much good by controlling the general insect population.

A tarantula mysteriously ended up on
Dr. Knutson's shirt while gardening in his backyard. 
Having said this, I am likely to undo all my "spider good will" by sharing a recent adventure of my friend and colleague, Dr. Allen Knutson. Allen lives in an older neighborhood of McKinney, Texas.  He and his wife notice tarantulas from time to time on walks in their neighborhood. Nevertheless it was a shock for wife when Allen walked into the kitchen after working in the garden recently with a hitchhiking tarantula. Thinking she was making a lot of fuss over a little spider, even entomologist Allen was surprized to find a 4-inch male tarantula clinging to his back.  After being quickly shooshed out of the house, Allen was brave enough to stand for the accompanying picture. He noted matter-of-factly that the spider looked much bigger in real life than it does in the picture. I'm sure.

Try as I might I can't force myself to encourage the pest control industry to kill tarantulas.  Yes, I know it's what some of your customers want. But to me tarantulas are just way too cool, and deserve their little hole in the ground where they (almost) never bother anyone.  So this is what I'm going to do--we'll compromise. According to my arachnologist colleagues, science has a need for tarantula specimens. If you collect a tarantula, I will accept it (live or dead) and send it to the spider community via the Texas A&M University insect collection. If you kill it first, put it in a jar of alcohol to preserve it, otherwise bring it live to my office, following the instructions on this page. I'll make sure the little guys and gals don't die in vain.

Tarantulas are a sign that things are as they should be. They represent a healthy ecosystem where pests must fight for their miserable lives. And they're a sign of Texas. After all, what would Texas be without its prickly pears, tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes and brown recluses? I know one thing for sure. It wouldn't be Texas.