Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mentoring of School IPM Coordinators

A group of school IPM Coordinators learn how to conduct
a kitchen inspection during a recent IPM training at Northside
ISD in San Antonio, TX.  IPM Coordinators come from diverse
job backgrounds in school districts.
One of the subjects discussed in last week's Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee, which I didn't report on in my last post, concerned how to better mentor Texas school IPM coordinators.

In Texas, every school district must appoint an IPM coordinator to oversee the pest management program, whether pest control in conducted in-house or by outside contractors. Over the years I've realized that school IPM coordinators are an interesting group of folks. Relatively few of them come into the position with a pest control background. Most of them hold multiple positions of responsibility in addition to their pest control role. Some are superintendents or principals, others are environmental managers or HVAC experts.  Some are experts on indoor air quality and asbestos. Some are in charge of school buses, others tend landscapes. Almost all come into the job with wide-eyes and wonder about what they've gotten themselves into.

School IPM rules are, shall we say, more than a little confusing to most new IPM coordinators.  For this reason, the last time the advisory committee met, the idea of a mentoring program was proposed. Certainly I and my colleagues who train IPM coordinators have seen that one of the best ways to help a struggling new person is to pair them with someone with more experience. No Extension employee can offer as good advice as a colleague who has sat in the same chair.

At last week's committee meeting, Maron Finley, TDA's IPM Specialist, proposed the following draft criteria for mentors.  These criteria are not regulations, but would serve as informal guidance for the mentoring program:

  • Serving as a mentor would be voluntary; 
  • Anyone interested in becoming a mentor would contact TDA/SPCS IPM Specialist (Finley) to initiate the vetting process to be approved as a mentor;
  • Mentors must have experience with at least two routine school IPM inspections which resulted in a "Compliant" or "Validate Next Routine" result;
  • Prospective mentors will comply with a facility inspection by a TDA inspector to demonstrate their ability to successfully implement an IPM program in a school district;
  • Once approved, the mentor may mentor another school district of equal or smaller size using the UIL Classification System.
If you're an IPM coordinator, what do you think?  Is it too tough?  Would you be willing to serve as an official mentor under these requirements?  If you have mentored another school informally, what do you think of the idea of having a TDA authorized mentoring program?

Granted, these criteria do not mention how mentors would be assigned to apprentice coordinators, or how long the relationship would last.  It does not say if proteges would voluntarily sign up, or if there would be mandatory assignment to a mentor.  There are still a lot of questions to be answered.

If you have any comments or suggestions for this first draft, please add your comment via the comment link below.  I will pass your thoughts on to Mr. Finley. Or you can contact him at the TDA directly.  Let's get the dialog going.

TDA told more enforcement needed

Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee meets in
conference room with a great view of the State capitol.
The spring meeting of the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee took place last Thursday at the Austin offices of the Texas Department of Agriculture.  If you've never been to the hub of regulatory activity for pest control in the state, it's a massive square building with a great view, from upstairs, of the "sunset red" granite of the state capitol building.  This quarter's lively meeting focused on enforcement actions--or what some in the industry feel is not enough enforcement action.

The discussion started with a report from Assistant General counsel AJ Wilson and her staff. They reported that the percent of cases referred to the enforcement team that resulted in enforcement action has seen a slight increase.  Last year 54.4% of complaints resulted in some sort of enforcement action, such as a fine.  This was up from 43% and 44% in 2010 and 2011.  Warren Remmey, industry member from  San Antonio, expressed concerns about a need for more investigators, especially for checking up on illegal fumigations. He shared an example of a case from 2013, concerning an unmarked vehicle allegedly carrying fumigation equipment that has still not resulted in any enforcement action.

Later in the meeting, during the public comment period, Debbie Aguirre, of Elite Exterminating in Corpus Christi, expressed concern about what she termed "lax oversight" of illegal operators. "And no place is enforcement more important than fumigations," she said. Harvey West with Coastal Fumigators in Houston, echoed her concerns, expressing his belief that there was benefit to the whole industry and regulators in making examples of people who were blatantly in violation of the law with respect to fumigations. Dale Burnett, former regulator, spoke on behalf of Worldwide Pest Control in San Antonio, noted that administrative penalties during the latter years of the Structural Pest Control Board averaged $100,000 to $200,000 annually. According to a recent Open Records Act request, last year the TDA collected only $20,087 in penalties, though penalties have been increasing, with a more than 230% increase since 2011.

If it seems unusual for industry members to ask a regulatory agency for more fines and enforcement actions, it probably is. But the pest control industry in Texas is not just any industry.  It is sensitive to its reputation, and leading business owners are often split on the need for more, or less, enforcement. Only a few years ago, industry voices were heard in Austin about perceived overly-zealous enforcement, which ultimately led  to the closing of the Structural Pest Control Board and its blending into the Department of Agriculture. Most industry leaders are especially sensitive to the issue of unlicensed operators, however, and few reputable pest control operators seem to begrudge quick and decisive action against businesses that threaten public health and the reputation of the industry. For it's part, the TDA team listened respectfully. Policy dictates that they not comment on ongoing investigations, so there was no opportunity for them to respond to critical comments, only listen.

In other business, Randy Rivera reported on upcoming changes to regulations affecting pesticide applicators holding Agriculture (3A) licenses. Most of the proposed changes will be administrative updates, and designed to harmonize TDA and Structural pest control regulations.  Definitions for Lawn and Ornamental (formerly Plant and Turf), Nursery Plant Production (formerly Greenhouse Plant Production) and Landscape Maintenance (formerly Plant Pest and Weed Control) categories have been added to the rules.  There will also be a new proposed rule requiring TDA decals (not numbers) on vehicles being used by non-commercial applicators, including those who use non-restricted use insecticides.  If you carry a TDA applicator's license, you should expect to see publication of these proposed regulation changes in the Texas Register by mid-May.

The status of continuing education regulations for school IPM coordinators was requested, and the committee was informed that the proposed rules outlining CEU requirements should come out as a package in May with the other proposed (3A) regulation changes.  State law mandates that school IPM coordinators begin obtaining 6 CEUs every three years, but enforcement of the law cannot take place until actual rules are in place.  Janet Hurley, my colleague at Texas AgriLife Extension who works with school IPM programs, also offered a comment on the need to waive the 48 hour posting requirement for insecticide baits and gels. This would take the regulations back to an earlier standard, under the rationale that baits and gels, unlike sprays, pose little or no drift hazard to passersby.

The next meeting will be held July 24 at TDA headquarters in Austin. Anybody with an interest in pest control is welcome to attend.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

BIG Changes at A&M

Architectural concept for the new Center for Urban and
Industrial Entomology at the College Station campus of
Texas A&M University
Many of you are aware of some of the big changes taking place in the urban entomology program over the next year at Texas A&M University. But I'll bet  few of you realize how sweeping these changes will be. One of the biggest is construction of a new $4 million building to house the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology  near the intersection of Agronomy and F&B Roads on the Texas A&M campus in College Station. Another huge change is Dr. Roger Gold's recent announcement that he will be retiring as Endowed Chair for Urban Entomology at the end of January, 2015. As if that wasn't news enough, today the Department of Entomology announced his replacement.

According to an email today from Entomology Department Head, Dr. David Ragsdale, "Dr. Ed Vargo from NC State has accepted our offer to become the next Endowed Chair in Urban and Structural Entomology at Texas A&M starting officially on 1 December 2014." This start date will give Dr. Vargo an opportunity to overlap his time with Dr. Gold, and assist with a smooth transition.

Dr. Ed Vargo was announced today as
the next endowed Chair in Urban
Entomology at Texas A&M
Dr. Vargo is currently Professor and Interim Department Head of the Entomology Department at North Carolina State University, and in my opinion is a great match for our department and the Texas pest control industry. He has a long history of working with the industry and is genuinely interested in having close ties with PMPs.  He is nationally and internationally known for his expertise in social insect biology (termites and ants, especially), molecular ecology and practical insect control.  To read more about Dr. Vargo and his current projects at NCSU, I encourage you to check out his website.

In an email I received today, Dr. Ed said, "I am excited about the position and look forward to working with [the industry in Texas] and continuing to provide the scientific and educational leadership for their industry that Dr. Gold has so ably furnished for the past 25 years."

As I see it, the entomology program at Texas A&M has never had a stronger commitment to urban entomology. In addition to refilling the Endowed Chair position, the department will also be creating a new Extension entomologist position to work closely with the new Chair. This entomologist will be based in College Station and will serve as a major bridge between the urban entomology lab and the industry. This person will manage the annual Texas A&M University Urban Pest Management Conference and Workshop, oversee the termite training school in Bryan, and conduct applied, industry-sponsored research.

Last, but not least, fund-raising for a new hands-on pest control training facility in Dallas is well underway. This month I began working with the Texas A&M foundation to raise funds to build a hands-on training facility for PMPs at the AgriLife campus in Dallas.  This will be an exciting new venture for me personally, and one that I hope will bring new energy and higher quality to our efforts to train new (and old) technicians in the art and science of pest control.  To learn a little more about this project, check out the new IPM Experience House website.  There is a lot going on here, and I will be sharing much more with you over the next few months.

This year is truly an exciting time for pest control and urban entomology in Texas. And none of this would be happening without your help, the help of your state and local associations, and the many pest control support industries around our state and country.  But this column isn't long enough to brag about y'all today.  More about you later too.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Moby Rat

A pretty hefty roof rat in a picture send by Keller
ISD impressed me, but not so much the expert
from New York City.
I can tell you that fishermen aren't the only ones to exaggerate when it comes to biggest-catch stories. I've heard lots of tales. "I swear that cockroach that flew at me was 6 inches long!" "That rattlesnake was as big as my leg!" And, maybe most impressive, "The rats in our neighborhood are as big as cats!"

Nearly everyone and their brother's got a story about the biggest rat.  "Moby rats" they might be called.  Or "super rats".

A picture of one big roof rat sent recently by one our Texas school districts got me thinking.  What is a really big rat?  And what would it take to impress someone who has worked most of his life with rats?  Someone like Dr. Bobby Corrigan, the rat expert who consults on rodent control for New York City?

I decided I would send the school picture to Bobby and see what he thought.  He did not disappoint.  In his methodical way, he analyzed the image, and shot back a series of questions:
  • "Is that a scrotal sack under the tail, or possibly enlarged female genitalia?  Hmmm...don't see any teats." [This blog post is going to get lots of strange Google hits]
  • "Was the tail long enough to be pulled back over and beyond the head?" [Knowing what species is critical for the Guinness world record book--roof rat tails are generally longer than the body... otherwise it would be a Norway rat.]
  • "How long was it dead?" "If it was dead for a few days in a ceiling," he explained, "...the body begins to decompose, the skin gets stretchy when held by the tail, and they can appear much larger than what they really are. Too, the body gases inside will begin to bloat the cavity and the whole end result is a very large-appearing rat." [Never thought of that!]
  • Last but not least, he asked, "How much did it weigh?" [It takes more than a picture... you gotta have real data to impress a rat expert.]
Of course the upshot of all this was that I felt a little sheepish.  I should have thought to ask those questions before I even sent the picture. Duh! And who knew that you could rig a big rat competition by letting Fatty stew in his own juices a few days?

My last question to Bobby was, "What would it take to impress you?  What's a really big rat?"  

He answered quickly. "Any rat 2 pounds or over." "But it has to be fresh," he added.

According to Bobby, the heaviest live Rattus norvegicus on record is 1.8 lbs (29 oz) or about 820 g. Most “big boys” weigh in the 775 g range, he said.  And according to his book on rodent control, wild Norway rats over the years have been measured up to 19 inches.

By the way, compare these stats to what might be the world's fattest cat weighing in at 39 pounds. And an average healthy cat, I'm told, runs 8-12 pounds. No contest between rats and cats there. And chances of seeing a rat as big as a full grown cat is nil.

Of course Dr. Corrigan couldn't leave things gentlemanly.  He had to add, "Texans claims that everything is bigger in Texas.  You guys should own up to the bragging."

I'd say those are fighting words, Texas PMPs. So here's a challenge. The next time you find what you think might be an impressive rat, check the sex and species (lots of sites online for how to sex rats), weigh it, measure the length, and take a photo and send to me.  If you come up with anything approaching 1.5 lbs for a Norway Rat, or or 3/4 pound for a roof rat, I'll post  your catch on Insects in the City. And if it's a really big, record rat, and your office manager or spouse allows it, throw your double-bagged catch in the freezer--for proof. Bobby says he's waiting. Are we going to let him get away with that?

Friday, April 4, 2014

New pest on crape myrtle

Texans (and many other southerners) love their crape myrtles! And why not? Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia species) is one of the few trees that bear colorful flower displays through much of the summer, come in a variety of stunning colors, is easy to grow, and until now has been relatively pest free. Unfortunately, the pest-free reputation is changing with the advent of a new exotic scale pest.

Crape myrtle trees infested with CMBS in Richardson, TX.  Black sooty mold
 deposits on the branches and trunks of infested trees are often the first
sign of an infestation.  Note the white, scale encrusted upper branches. 
In 2004 I received a call from a local lawn maintenance company that was having a difficult time controlling an unusual scale on crape myrtle at a commercial property in Richardson, TX. After examining it I thought this scale might be something new, and sent samples of the insect off to experts for identification. Under the microscope it appeared to be a Eriococcid scale called azalea bark scale, Eriococcus azaleae.  Azalea bark scale is a common pest of azaleas in the eastern U.S.,  but had never been recorded as occurring on crape mrytle before. A suggestion by a retired USDA scale specialist led us to change our minds and believe that the scale might actually be a closely related scale known as Eriococcus lagerstroemia. This scale is an important pest of crape myrtles in China, Japan and Korea.  The difficulty was that no one knew how to tell these two scales apart.  And because the only place that the scale occurred was in the Dallas and Fort worth metroplex, it was difficult to interest others in investigating the problem without some financial backing.

After several years of slow spread through several north Texas counties, last year the scale made its move. In 2013 the scale appeared in several locations in Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennesee.  As a result, this winter researchers from the University of Arkansas and the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection service agreed to lend a hand and take a closer look at these tiny insects.  

Molecular and new microscopic examinations now appear to confirm that our new scale is likely to be a recent import from Asia, probably Eriococcus lagerstroemia.  Last year Dr. Mengmeng Gu, Extension Horticulture specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife, had a chance to see these scales in their native Asian environment in a trip to China. The messy crape myrtles she saw there stimulated her interest in the scale, and led us to coauthor two new publications with the University of Arkansas. Both Texas and Arkansas now have fact sheets on this pest.
Crape myrtle branch with a heavy infestation of scale.

A scale-encrusted crape myrtle branch. Note
the pink blood from crushed scales where a
finger has been dragged across the infested
stem. Photo by M. Gu.
Many pest control professionals provide IPM services for landscape and turf pests, so it will be important to be able to recognize and identify it when you see it. Crape myrtle bark scale (CMBS) is a small white scale that bleeds pink when crushed. No other insects found on crape myrtle share these characters.  They can be found on the trunks branches and twigs of crape myrtle. Don't be surprised to find this scale in Arkansas, Louisiana, southern Oklahoma, Germantown, Tennessee, and possibly South Carolina. In Texas the Dallas/Fort Worth area is widely infested and it may also be found in Tyler, Longview, and College Station. Based on the current rapid spread, within the next ten years this scale will likely be common in many communities throughout the South.

If you are interested in learning more about CMBS, Dr. Gu asked me to talk about this pest this week in a Webinar, which is now posted on YouTube. In the webinar I discuss the appearance and damage caused by CMBS, how it is spread, and what is known about control.

The best control methods that we currently have involve soil injections of neonictinoid insecticides. Control recommendations are also listed here and in the fact sheets mentioned above. If you encounter this scale in areas outside Texas, or in areas of Texas I did not list, I would be interested in knowing about it. Leave comment on this site or drop me an email.  We hope to eventually have a website where sightings can be more easily reported.