Friday, February 27, 2009

Carpenter Ants Reveal Character

Male (left) and female carpenter ant swarmersCarpenter ants are now swarming in homes throughout Texas. Besides signaling the end of winter, carpenter ants can also signal whether your company can be trusted to provide honest advice about pest risks.

Of course the presence of swarming carpenter ants means that a carpenter ant nest resides somewhere in the structure. But is this really a problem? Most entomologists and experienced Texas PMPs will say no (carpenter ant species and behavior and damage potential are different in other parts of the U.S.). Small carpenter ant colonies that swarm once a year and otherwise cause no problems to the homeowner need no aggressive pest control. The fact is that Texas carpenter ants rarely cause damage to structural wood, mostly choosing to nest in void areas between studs or behind insulation in walls.

I believe it pays to be upfront with customers about the real risks, or lack thereof, of not treating carpenter ants. Many customers will want carpenter ant control even if they know that their home is not is danger. Even though they are not wood-destroyers, carpenter ants can be a nuisance by continually entering the living areas of a house. Many customers will be repelled by their presence and be willing to pay for control service in any case. Your other prospective customers will greatly appreciate an honest assessment of the situation, and be relieved that they don't really have to spend a lot of money to protect their home. For the latter category of customer, I am pretty sure you will be the first one they will call or refer to a neighbor when a more serious pest problem arises.

Yesterday my wife and I met with an energy auditor who had come to give us a free assessment of the energy efficiency of our home--a service that is subsidized by our electric delivery company. We talked about the different philosophies of companies who offer this service and learned that some companies charge for weatherproofing and others do it as part of the free audit. The companies who offer free weatherproofing typically use a hard sales routine to sell other improvements that the customer may or may not need. Our auditor's company takes the other approach and uses the free audit as a chance to explain their other services (detailed computerized energy audits, weatherproofing and energy efficient windows--all for a fee, of course).

I greatly appreciated the lack of pressurized sales pitch. After our talk, I felt convinced that this company would give me something for my money and would tell me when I would or wouldn't benefit from an energy upgrade.

As a consumer I am more likely to establish a relationship with a company I can trust, compared to the one who leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth (even if I succumb to their aggressive tactics). In the case of carpenter ants, every pest control company has a choice between scaring a sale out of someone (if you don't treat carpenter ants will tear down your home!) and providing the customer with the facts and letting them decide.

Honesty is even more important among educated consumers today. An increasing number of people who call you to their homes have already researched the subject online and will recognize when a salesperson is blowing smoke. Swarming season is a great time to establish a reputation with prospective customers and can lead to later, legitimate services (Can we call you back in two months to see if these ants have become a nuisance in your home?).

In today's economic climate I think we want customers who will stick with us through tough times, who trust us and who will gladly tell others about the good work we do. Carpenter ant season can help reveal which of us are worthy of those kinds of customers.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fipronil to go over and out?

Over N Out is a popular consumer product for fire ant control in the southern statesThe EPA is considering whether to cancel registrations for granular labels for fipronil products, according to a recent email sent this week to some Extension faculty, USDA researchers, state government officials and customers by Bayer Environmental Science representatives.

According to the email, "In 2001, EPA granted a 5-year conditional registration for broadcast granular products containing fipronil insecticide such as TopChoice® for fire ant control. Since that time, the conditional registration for these products has been extended until May, 2009. The EPA has recently indicated their intention to cancel the registration for fipronil broadcast applications when the conditional registration expires."

If so, this would mean that popular insecticides like TopChoice® and Over N Out® would go away, probably for good. Top Choice® is currently the best option for control of mole crickets in the southern U.S., and both these products find use as a once-a-year treatment for fire ant control.

Although the EPA is not talking on the record about the reasons for a possible cancellation of registration, the official I spoke with noted that the agency has been concerned with the ecological impact of fipronil, especially in aquatic environments. The persistence of fipronil in the environment, and possible biomagnification in some food chains are additional issues for the agency. A review of the ecotoxicology of fipronil by Tingle et. al in 2003 will give you some idea of environmental and health concerns with this product.

Whether granular fipronil remains on the market will depend on how strong a case Bayer Environmental Science can make as well as input received from end users. As far as I can tell the registration of fipronil for termite and ant control is not currently at risk, and may never be. Fire ant baits certainly offer a strong alternative to fipronil granules for fire ant control. But turfgrass managers will miss fipronil as an option for mole cricket control.

The scientific issue at stake is what use pattern might result in fipronil toxicity issues in aquatic environments. It has been well documented that effluent from treated rice fields can impact many aquatic invertebrates and even fish (see for example Gunasekara and Troung 2007. and Stehr et. al 2006) Less well known is how much fipronil might be leaching from treated golf courses or home lawns. As a pest management specialist I would hate to lose fipronil as a tool for turfgrass management. But as an environmentalist and one who realizes the importance of water quality to our quality of life, I don't want to see pesticides eroding the health of our streams and estuaries. Let's hope the EPA uses sound science to make the right decision.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Arsenical Herbicides on Way Out

I normally don't cover weed control topics. But this is one with enough potential impact on Texas PMPs, I thought I would pass it along. This week the U.S. EPA announced that all registrations of the organic arsenical herbicides, including the popular Dallisgrass killer, MSMA would begin being phased out. Residential uses of MSMA and its relatives will be phased out beginning by the end of 2009.

The decision comes as a result of a 2006 Reregistration Eligibility Decision (RED) that concluded that the arsenical herbicides did not meet agency standards for re-registration. The environmental concerns center around the conversion of these herbicides from the less toxic organic (carbon-containing) form in which they are manufactured, into a more environmentally dangerous inorganic form. The inorganic form has the potential to leach into groundwater and contaminate streams and drinking water.

Unfortunately, EPA announcements seem to be written in a language understandable to only a few. But if you want to read one of the less difficult official announcements, here's where to go:

Dallisgrass is the real problem weed for southern turfgrass, for which there are still no good alternatives to MSMA. According to my colleague, Dr. Jim McAfee, Extension specialist on turfgrass, there are currently no alternatives "except a grub hoe". The EPA counters that good turfgrass maintenance will control these difficult weeds, which may be true once they've been eliminated, but is not easy to do in areas where this weed is well established.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Peanuts and Paper Trails

This story is just too relevant to the daily news and the pest control industry not to pass on. Dahleen Glanton, with the Chicago Tribune, reported this week on sanitary conditions and pest problems at the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, GA. According to the article, Georgia state inspectors found repeated cleanliness problems at the plant from 2006 to 2008, including grease and food buildup and gaps in doors that could allow rodents to enter. According to workers, not a day went by that they didn't see roaches or rats in the facility.

I don't know who will ultimately be found responsible, but the whole stinky mess has me wondering about the sanitation reporting system at the plant. I can guarantee that lawyers will be looking for paper trails as soon as they can. And if the plant had a contracted pest management company, I sure hope they did a good job of documenting problems to both lower and upper management levels of the company. If not, the reputation, not to mention the bank account of the pest control company could be in as much hot water as the plant management.

How's your sanitation reporting system? Are your service technicians conscientious about reporting sanitation lapses? If you're a service manager don't assume that those service tickets with inspection reports get to the people who need to know. Encourage your staff to let you know when sanitation reports appear to be getting ignored by a commercial customer. It might be worth your time to call the owner or plant manager to let them know when there seems to be a sanitation problem that makes your job more difficult. In this case someone's mistakes sickened 500 people and killed eight.

Ringtones PMPs can Recognize

You know those contests on the radio where they play the intro to a song, and give a prize to the first caller who can correctly name the tune? I would never win that kind of contest. For some reason I have a hard time remembering tunes and associating them with a title. I make a terrible birdwatcher because I can never associate songs with the right bird. Normally this would be a minor handicap to someone who is not a deejay or park naturalist, but my handicap is now beginning to affect my daily life. I'm talking about ringtones.

Every time someone else's cell phone rings I inevitably grapple with my own phone, regardless of the ringtone. I can never seem to remember my own distinctive ringer.

Well, I think I've solved the problem. Insect ringtones. Yes, when a cricket starts chirping in the elevator I am pretty sure it's my phone. And finally I can ignore all those other phones with their rock songs and unimaginative rings. An insect ringtone stands out in a crowd.

You can download your own wildlife sounds ringtones, including that of tsnowy tree crickethe snowy tree cricket, at . It's a cool site with free ringtones that they will send to your phone. The snowy tree cricket ringtone is pretty cool by the way. It's not obnoxious, rather melodic, and not so wierd that people will look at you funny. To me the mating call of the Stellar Sea Lion would fall into the latter category. If you're a wildlife fan you can download a coyote call. They also have a katydid ringtone, which is not nearly as pleasant to the ear as the tree cricket.

My only hesitation in sharing this recommendation is that too many of my blog readers will start downloading the ringtone and I will no longer be unique in training conferences and other places where PMPs congregate. But given the small number of visitors to this site, I don't think I have much to worry about at this point. (P.S., credit for discovering the enature site goes to Chris Sansone, my supervisor and Extension entomologist in San Angelo, TX. I figure I better credit him since he's one of my few readers!)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Advisory Committee Spells out IPM for Texas Schools

Two weeks ago, on January 29th, I had the privilege of serving on the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee meeting to discuss changes to Texas pesticide regulations. This was our third meeting since the committee formed last year, and school IPM was the principal topic on the agenda.

For those of you unfamiliar with this committee, think of it as the lite version of the former Structural Pest Control Board in Texas. The former Board consisted of industry, public and university members and was authorized to oversee the creation of regulations, and impose penalties on pest control companies who chose not to play by the rules. The advisory committee has none of the former Board's authority, but simply serves as a sounding board for the Structural Pest Control Service (SPCS) as it considers changes and improvements to pesticide regulations for licensed pest control companies.

That said, last month's meeting was a great example of how the advisory committee process can and should work. The principal chore put before us was to provide input on the new rules on IPM for Texas public schools. The TDA staff at the meeting were respectful of the committee's input and seemed eager to get these new rules written quickly and out to the industry and public for review. For the committee's part, everyone seemed to do their homework, came with good ideas, and were eager to reach consensus on all aspects of the rules.

No one has yet seen the newest draft regulations, but based on my notes, I think I can give a pretty good idea of the probable new structure and wording. That's my way of saying, "don't quote me on this". Everything is tentative until SPCS administrators Jimmy Bush and Jim Muse release the draft regulations--probably later this month.

While some of the changes were minor, there are some significant revisions that will affect the way we do IPM in schools in Texas (and maybe other states) for many years. One problem with the old rules was that there was a lot of confusion about what was meant by "IPM policies" and "IPM programs", both of which were required for all schools by state law. The new rules should be more clear, and spell out more explicitly what is meant by an IPM program.

Although the new rules still eschew an actual definition of IPM (there are almost as many definitions as there are people who try to define IPM), they do spell out what an IPM program should include. The rules will require a school IPM program to contain the following elements:
  • a monitoring program to determine when pests are present or when pest problems are severe enough to justify corrective action;
  • the use of the least-toxic effective methods available to control pests, rodents, insects and weeds;
  • use of non-chemical management strategies where practical;
  • a system for keeping records of facility inspection reports, pest-related work orders, pest control service reportes, pesticide application documentation, and pesticide complaints;
  • a plan for educating and informing school district employees about their roles in the IPM program;
  • and written guidelines (thresholds) for when pest control actions are justified.
In my opinion, if we can bring schools into compliance with this rough definition of IPM (and I think we've come a long way already), Texas schools can become a model of good institutional pest management for all school districts and even for PMPs around the country. I especially like the fact that Texas recognizes the importance of good recordkeeping and education as part of an effective IPM program.

They say there are two things you never want to watch being made: sausage and laws. Although we're not lawmakers, I believe the same rule of thumb applies to regulations. In our case there was a lot of discussion over what a monitoring program should look like, whether it should be "regular" or at predefined intervals, etc. We discussed the best wording for least-toxic, vs. least-risk, vs. low risk. Some discussions are inevitably tedious, but the committee's interest and attitude helped make it a lot less painful than other committees I've served on.

Besides defining the essential components of IPM, a few of the other key improvements were retaining most of the Green Category pesticide uses, requiring record retention for two years to make it compatible with other pesticide use rules (originally retention was proposed for five years, but industry objections made an impact here), and reducing the reentry periods from 12 hours to 4 and 8 hours for yellow and red category products, respectively. This last change is important. I am unaware of any scientific evidence to suggest that longer reentry times are needed for student safety, and shorter reentry requirements should make the job of controlling pests much easier for PMPs.

If you have an interest in school IPM regulations, keep alert for the new regulations. I will let you know when they come out. Whatever Texas comes up with will be a good example of a battle-tested model that other states interested in encouraging IPM and reducing pesticide exposure to students can learn from. And that sausage is worth tasting.