Monday, June 25, 2018

Moving Beyond Mallis: The Veterans' Perspective

If you work in the pest control industry, and are even a little geeky about insects, you would probably like the National Conference of Urban Entomology.  Held May 21-23 this year in Raleigh, NC, the NCUE is the premier gathering for research and industry experts in structural pest control.  This year had more than its share of nerdy bug news.

In my last report I shared research papers presented by students. In this segment I will highlight talks given by “veteran” researchers, some of whom you may know by reputation or from state or national CEU conferences.

One of the most stimulating sessions this year focused on a term that was new to me: “assessment-based pest management.” Dini Miller from Virginia Tech thinks it might be the next big thing to replace (or improve) integrated pest management (IPM), a central philosophy of urban pest control.  Miller argued that because the IPM concept comes originally from agriculture, its logic has never resonated deeply with the public. Few people seem to associate the term “integrated,” for example, with the idea that using multiple pest control tactics (integrated controls) are safer and more effective than the "one spray to kill them all" approach. 

Assessment-based bed bug control will come if class action
lawsuits over failed control continue. Studies continue to show
that complaint-based service contracts do not solve bed bug
infestations. Pitfall traps, like this, can be used to detect bed
bugs early when control is more easily achieved.
Talking about assessment as a basis for pest control, she argues, might be an easier sell.  After all, all big companies assess their success by looking at the bottom line. Athletes assess their success with their batting averages and quarterback ratings. Investors follow financial assessments of their investments through annual reports. Shouldn’t consumers intuitively understand that assessment-based pest management is in their best interests?  Maybe.

But how would an assessment-based pest management program work? Without offering a comprehensive answer, speakers at the “assessment” session highlighted better ways to use monitoring and measurement in pest control.  Miller showed, for example, how by pre-assessing cockroach infestations in an apartment as low, medium or high, she could meter out how much bait a technician would need to get excellent control in that unit.

Rick Cooper, of Bed Bug Central, is successfully controlling bed bugs in low income, high rise housing—one of the toughest accounts for pest control. “Early detection is key,” says Cooper, who finds pitfall monitoring traps the most consistent way to detect bed bug infestations, even better than canines. Cooper assesses the success of his management efforts by looking at two metrics: percent of apartments with detected bed bugs, and severity of infestations based on numbers of bed bugs caught in traps. In one study he used an assessment-based approach, in combination with simple, non-chemical and low-impact control measures, to treat all apartments detected with bed bugs.  Using an in-house pest control company, they were able to reduce infestation rates from 15% to 2% over 12 months, while achieving a 98% reduction in bed bug counts. Given the success of class action suits against apartment management in recent years, it’s hard to see why managers would NOT demand this kind of information from their pest control providers.

Assessment based classes show the value of hands-on training
to teach both novice and experienced pest control professionals.
Faith Oi teaches at the University of Florida's Pest
Management University.
Faith Oi, University of Florida, focused her talk on assessing the effectiveness of continuing education through the Pest Management University (PMU) classes she offers. For any company wanting to recruit and maintain a well-educated workforce, Oi argues that training is key, including training for supervisors. Oi used pre- and post-tests to evaluate learning at PMU. For 330 students tested, she found an average 58% increase in test scores regardless of how long someone had worked in pest control. Surprisingly, supervisor pre-test scores were not significantly higher than technician pre-test scores.  Hands-on training, and training materials that are understandable to today’s technicians and even supervisors are critical. With a jab at EPA labels she observed that although pesticide labels are not infographics, perhaps they should be. What a great idea!

Michael Scharf, Purdue University, took assessment in a different direction. Imagine if, at the time of selling a big cockroach job, your company routinely collected cockroaches from the site, put a few in special, treated vials, and knew the next day precisely what insecticides would and wouldn’t work at that location? That’s what Scharf is pioneering. In a field trial he was able to predict ahead of time which insecticide combinations would work (some of his cockroaches were resistant to neonicotinoids and some were resistant to pyrethroids).  In a few years you might be able to purchase a set of pre-treated vials with instructions telling you how to run a resistance detection test. This could be a game-changer, because resistance can vary from one apartment complex to another—even within the same city or neighborhood.

To be effective, however, assessment must be affordable. Karen Vail, of the University of Tennessee, looked for a fast, cheap and effective inspection protocol for detecting bed bugs. First, she investigated whether residents, management and maintenance staff, and pest control professionals could be trained to work together to take over maintaining and inspecting pitfall traps. But after training these groups to find, report and clean traps, only 10% of apartments had maintained their traps (in place and dust free) after 22 months. She then tried a quick visual inspection of all apartments, followed by placing 2-8 traps only in apartments with a complaint or some evidence of bed bugs.  With as few as 2 traps per apartment (one against the foot of bed and one against a living room chair) she was able to detect 80-90% of the infested apartments in 3-4 weeks. It took only 2-3 minutes to conduct a quick inspection and place monitors in most apartments, and the method detected almost 4X more infested apartments than management was aware of. Her work provides yet more proof that relying on residents and staff to report bed bugs is ineffective, and that building-wide inspections are a must for effective bed bug control in high rise apartments.

The power of genomic testing never ceases to impress me.  Ed Vargo, Texas A&M University, shared the work of his student, Andre Eyer, who took a critical look at the tawny crazy ant genome (DNA fingerprint).  He wanted to know whether previous research was correct that found tawny crazy ants live in super-colonies.  Super-colonies house many queens per nest, may consist of millions to billions of ants and can extend for many miles.  Super-colonies may look like many individual ant colonies with individual nests; however, the ants in these colonies are all closely related and may in fact move freely from one colony to the next.  Previously the only way to test for super-colonies was to put together ants from different nests and record levels of aggression.  Eyer did this, plus looked at the diversity of alleles (different forms of a gene) in U.S. crazy ants vs. crazy ants from the native home in South America. He found low aggression among different TCA colonies and only half of the genetic diversity in introduced vs. native ant populations. His results confirm that TCA ants do form super-colonies, and that all the crazy ants he tested likely came from a one-time introduction (to the US).  This information may not be super-practical in terms of controlling crazy ants, but it puts scientific management of tawny crazy ant on a firmer scientific footing.

Thomas Chouvec, University of Florida, conducted some interesting experiments with Cryptotermes gestroi, a relatively new invasive termite in south Florida. Conventional wisdom suggests that fipronil is “invisible” to termites in the soil, making it possible to eliminate termite colonies through contamination. The idea is that termites travelling through contaminated soil blithely carry insecticide back to the colony, damaging or eliminating it. Using a more realistic lab assay technique with long foraging tunnels (similar to real foraging tubes), Chouvec showed that C. gestroi appears able to detect problems with nest mates returning from fipronil-contaminated tunnels.  In lab experiments the termites were able to maintain their colonies even when part of the colony was visiting so-called fipronil “death zones.” This finding suggests that fipronil may not work as effectively against C. gestroi, a cousin of the Formosan termite. More work, I’m sure, is coming on that idea.

Other worthwhile take-aways from this year’s meetings:
  •  If you battle tawny crazy ant in your community, you might be interested in the new crazy ant videos shown by Kelly Palmer, Alabama Cooperative Extension.  Topics range from an introduction to the ants, their habitat, management and preventing infestations. Each is less than three minutes long and features an expert in ant management.
  •  Johnalyn Gordon reported on what could be the next tawny crazy ant. Plagiolepis alluaudi, the little yellow ant, is a new invasive ant in south Florida.  It lives in leaf litter, and though it doesn’t sting, its large numbers and invasive behavior could make it a major pest in some areas, similar to tawny crazy ant. 
  • Bob Davis, BASF, reported 30-60 days control of striped scorpions with the new microcap insecticide Fedona®.  Microcap products provide control even on tough surfaces like concrete and soil.
  • Venerable, retired entomologist Mike Rust is still cranking out helpful information about flea control.  Using a statistical method developed for testing anti-cancer drugs he looked for synergism (a 2+2=6 effect) between common insecticides and insect growth regulators. He found variable results with some combinations working well and others not (for example, pyriproxyfen synergized fipronil, while methoprene did not; methoprene did synergize imidacloprid, but not vice versa). He concluded that IGR mixtures must be tested; and results cannot be reliably predicted.
  • Dini Miller was one of the few speakers to talk about digital innovations in pest control.  She is field testing a new Delta Five remote insect monitor for insects.  As an insect enters a Delta Five trap a picture of the invader is sent to a phone app. With a technician’s time worth about $1.50 a minute, Miller thinks that remote alerts from traps like this could save a lot of labor cost, especially monitoring bed bugs in large hotels. She did not address efficiency of the units in detecting low level bed bug infestations.
  • Coby Schal looked at behavioral aversion among German cockroaches to baits, and found that pesticide-resistant cockroaches may be at a disadvantage in a pesticide-free environment. For example, he found that glucose-averse, resistant-females have lower mating success.  This could be why bait rotation has been effective so long in keeping glucose-averse cockroaches from taking over the world.
  • Freder Medina, BASF, reported that over 6 million homes have been treated with fipronil since its introduction as a termiticide in 2000. The newest formulation and application system, HP II, has been tested on 81 homes so far, with a 98% elimination rate after 3 months. The new system relies on high pressure injection and a unique waterless formulation to eliminate the need for tank mixing.
  • Finally, if you haven’t seen it, you need to “meet the caste” of the new Tiny Termite House. Professionally produced and expertly photographed, NPMA worked with the City of New Orleans to build and infest an incredible, 1:16 scale house with termites. The purpose is to “raise awareness of the destructive nature of termites.” The videos show the house being consumed by 500,000 hungry Formosan termites.  If your company maintains a newsletter or blog, the videos are definitely post-worthy.  Your customers need to see this.
I overheard one entomologist comment that for her, the NCUE was the most important conference she attends all year. I agree. The smaller size and narrow focus of the meetings, means that NCUE is usually a perfect fit for the geeks among us in the structural pest control industry. This year's meeting was no exception.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Moving Beyond Mallis: Young Entomologists at NCUE

The biannual National Conference on Urban Entomology (NCUE) is always a treat.  It’s a relatively small conference with a personal feel. Many attendees know each other personally, and new students get to learn more about urban entomology outside their labs and classrooms. This year’s meeting in Raleigh, NC attracted about 200 students, university faculty and industry urban entomologists, including a score of researchers from the joint invasive pest ant conference.

When I attend NCUE I see folks whose lives and careers I’ve followed for many years, as well as new faces who are the future of our industry.  I hear controversy in discussion sessions as researchers politely prod speakers to think more deeply about their research results (entomologists are almost always polite); and sometimes I hear talks that will change the way I view structural pest control. While there were no real revelations at this meeting, many of the talks I heard this year fell into the category of “baby steps” toward better pest control and deeper understanding of the biology of structural pests.

Every NCUE meeting has a Distinguished Achievement Award recipient. This year’s honor went to Brian Forschler, a respected termite researcher from the University of Georgia. It was his job to open the meeting with a tribute to Arnold Mallis, who many of you know by his “ten-pound” Handbook of Pest Control. 

In the 1940s and 50s Arnold Mallis was a
rising star in the field of urban entomology.
Forschler noted that Mallis filled a desperate need at the time for science-based information on household insect pests. Though he had little to say about IPM (the concept hadn’t been formally proposed), in his books he summarized critical biological information upon which IPM programs could later be built. Mallis taught us that urban entomology is built upon a firm foundation of education and engagement with its stakeholders. Forschler urged each attendee, especially each student, to consider new ways to engage outsiders with urban entomology, while being the same consummate entomologist, naturalist and observer of insects as Arnold Mallis.

After Forschler’s session, the meeting began with papers from student award winners.  When I listen to students I always keep in mind that today’s students are tomorrow’s experts.  In just a few years these will be the folks making the rounds at CEU meetings for NPMA and other professional gatherings, so it pays to listen and make note of the new faces.

Emily Vernon, Bachelor of Science Student Award winner came from North Carolina State University where she studies Blattabacterium, a genus of symbiotic bacteria that live within special bacteria-hosting cells of cockroaches. These bacteria, she proposed, are essential to the German cockroach’s ability to survive in nitrogen-poor environments. In her research with 16S ribosomal RNA primers she detected high levels of variability in Blattabacterium in field populations of cockroaches, leading her to pose the question: “if we can manipulate Blattabacterium in the cockroach, might we be able to control cockroaches in the field?” I don’t know the answer, but I do know that when I was her age my most profound questions dealt with where to go for pizza on Friday night. Wow!

Master’s Student Award winner, Danielle Hoefele, Simon Fraser University, tackled a whole new structural pest, the European fire ant, Myrmica rubra. Think of it as a fire ant for the north.  The European fire ant is spreading into British Columbia and Washington State, as well as New England and eastern Canada.  It’s an aggressive ant with a sting that itches up to 10 days.  Danielle looked for different food sources that might work well in a fire ant bait. She found that baits combining carbohydrates and proteins were most attractive. Ultimately, she hopes to design a custom bait to provide a much-needed control option for this pest.

The herb thyme is a natural source for the monoterpene oil,
thymol, which has promise as a natural insecticide against
bed bugs. Relatively few plant oils have been investigated for
use in urban entomology. 
Sudip Gaire from Purdue University was the Ph.D. Student Award winner for his studies on the effects of plant essential oils against bed bugs. Sudip is pursuing more effective, safer, natural insecticides for bed bugs.  By looking at plant essential oils that have not previously been tested, he hopes to discover better options for controlling insecticide-resistant bed bugs.  He found carvacol, thymol, and citronellic acid to have to be the most toxic plant oils, none of which is currently in use against bed bugs. It may be years before these products are successfully brought to market, but Sudip is starting the process, and he reminded me that the field of essential oils for pest control is ripe for mining.

In another student paper, Sanjay Basnet from the University of Nebraska, is looking at ways to turn the bed bug’s own genetic material against itself. Interference RNA, or RNAi, are small RNA strings found naturally in the cell that help block expression of target genes. A few years back, someone got the bright idea that if we could find the right RNAi strings we might be able to use them as insecticides to turn off genes that are critical for an insect’s survival or reproduction. Sanjay thinks he may have found such an RNAi strand—one that can reduce egg production in bed bugs.  When injected into bed bugs this natural and biodegradable molecule reduced average daily egg production from 6/day to 0/day at 3 and 4 weeks after treatment. Much more work is needed to bring this kind of technology to your company; but its always encouraging to hear about any progress in this area.

One of today's rising stars of urban entomology is Zach DeVries, PhD student at North Carolina State under major professor Coby Schal.  DeVries is looking at a previously ignored component of bed bug aggregation pheromone called histamine.  You’ve probably heard of histamine. It’s an important chemical that our bodies produce to regulate our local immune response. On the positive side, histamine allows capillaries to become more permeable to our white blood cells so they can engage pathogens during an infection.  On the downside, it’s the chemical that causes inflammation and itching after an insect bite or exposure to an allergen. That’s why you may take an antihistamine drug for a runny nose or itchy eyes. Histamine also affects numerous organs, causes increases in heartrate, and difficulty breathing.

DeVries and colleagues inspected house dust from homes with and without bed bugs. They found up to 25X higher levels of histamine in bed bug-infested homes. They also found that histamine persisted for 3-6 months after an infestation had been eliminated. Whether these relatively low levels of histamine associated with bed bugs will have chronic effects on human health is unknown. But if significant, DeVries’ team’s discovery could be as important to pest control as the discovery of the link between German cockroaches and asthma in the 1990s.

DeVries also gave a second, more controversial, paper on progress towards developing a liquid bait for bed bugs. He suggests that liquid baits might offer an alternative insecticide-delivery method that could bypass at least one of the resistance strategies used by bed bugs (such as thickened, pesticide resistant cuticles).  So far, De Vries has identified good active ingredients (such as fipronil, neonicotinoids, and DMSO) for such a bait.  The feeding attractant for bed bugs is more of a challenge, however. Bed bugs eat blood of course, which is not likely to be stable in a bait formulation. And who wants blood-filled bait stations around their home?  He found that simple salt water, with or without the natural cellular compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP), made an attractive feeding stimulant for bed bugs.  The challenge, he argues, is to come up with a way to deliver this tasty insecticide to hungry bed bugs.  

But some listeners gently challenged DeVries to demonstrate how baiting might be more effective than a good trap, say.  The reason that most cockroach, termite and ant baits are so effective, is that they don’t just kill the individuals that come to the bait. They are effective because they kill the feeders and their companions. This happens when other cockroaches eat the feces or dead bodies of bait-fed cockroaches, or when ants and termites share their toxic meals with nestmates. At this point it’s hard to see how you might get secondary kill with bed bugs. Time will tell whether NCSU researchers will demonstrate the practicality of blood-mimicking bait stations; but it’s a thought provoking idea, and I’m glad someone is exploring it.

Whew. That was just some of what I learned from students at NCUE last month.  In my next installment, I’ll cover some of the highlights from veteran urban entomologists in Raleigh. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Dr. Phil Hamman

Dr. Phil Hamman was a consummate teacher with a gift of
making dry subjects interesting. He trained many of the previous
generation of pest control professionals in Texas, and is still
remembered by more than a few of today's senior PMPs.
Last month Texas pest control lost a great friend. Dr. Phillip J. Hamman passed away May 31 in Kerrville, TX.

You may know Dr. Hamman's name from the Phillip J. Hamman Termite Training School in College Station. It was Phil's vision to establish a hands-on training facility near the A&M campus to provide a first class training venue for termite technicians around the state.

I owe my career here at Texas A&M AgriLife to Phil Hamman, who hired me in 1989, and served as my Associate Department Head of Extension until his retirement in 1996. He served on the then Texas Structural Pest Control Board for more than 20 years, and was in large part responsible for the current system of CEU requirements that ensure that PMPs keep up with the latest in pest control technology. He played an important role in making sure that Texas licensed only qualified people to handle pesticides and provide the best pest control service possible.

Phil was part of an earlier generation of extension entomologists who covered all aspects of pest control, including cotton, sorghum, rice and peanut insects. At the time he was also expected to cover pests of livestock, fruit and nuts, stored products, and households. He started his career as an Assistant Entomologist in 1964, and worked for Extension for ten years before being hired as Technical Director of the then National Pest Control Association. After a little over two years at NPCA Phil returned to Texas determined to focus on urban entomology. In 1981 he officially became the first Extension Urban Entomologist in Texas.  He served as department head for Extension from 1985 until his retirement in 1996.

Phil was fond of remembering how Clayton Wright, a Texas pest control legend and founder of B&G Chemical and Equipment Company (now part of Target Specialty Products), took him around the state in his car early in his career. According to Phil, the trip was a ride on the wild side (friends of Wright can probably guess what that meant), but it introduced him to pest control owners and operators around the state, and taught him a lot about the pest control industry.

For many years Phil was also the organizer of the Texas A&M University Urban Pest Management Conference and Workshop (now in its 73rd year).  His goal was to maintain first class training that included university researchers, giving Texas PMPs access to the latest information on the science of structural pests.

Above all, Phil Hamman was a gentleman with a good sense of humor, committed to those who worked for him. He cared deeply about the pest control industry and giving back to his community.

After retirement, Phil and his wife Pat moved to the hill country, first in Leakey, Texas and then in
to Hunt, and finally Kerrville, Texas. He was a woodworker and built many things for his home and for others. Phil and Pat have been very active in the Episcopalian church throughout life, and were involved with the Big Springs Ranch for Children, and the Hill Country Youth Ranch in Ingram. Phil served as School Board Member and on the HCYR Board for more than 20 years.

According to his obituary, Phil is survived by his wife, Pat; sister, Linda Donnell and her children, Deborah, Missy and Douglas; son, John Philip Hamman and wife Susan Reesby and granddaughter, Sarah-Margaret; daughter, Marion La Rue Hamman Starbuck, husband, Robbie and granddaughter, Keely. He is also survived by a step-son, Chris George Chapin; step-daughter, Martina Ann Thurneysen and husband David, granddaughters, Stephanie and Tricia and her husband John Jenkins; stepdaughter, Marian Katherine Williams, husband Jeffrey and grandson, George Anthony. 

A Memorial for Phil is scheduled at 2 o’clock p.m., Saturday, July 7, 2018 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. More information is available from Grimes Funeral Homes. In lieu of flowers Phil requested memorials to be sent to the Hill Country Youth Ranch in Ingram, Texas, or Center for Urban and Structural Entomology Fund.

We will miss you Phil.