Friday, November 20, 2009

"If Kudzu wasn't bad enough"...and other thoughts on exotic pests

images of bean plataspid courtesy University of Georgia
Dr. Dan Suiter and Lisa Ames with the University of Georgia just sent out a pest alert on an insect called the "bean plataspid". I had never heard of a plataspid (pla TASS pid) before, so I looked in my well-worn copy of "How to Know the True Bugs" by James Alexander Slater--a very useful book for relatives of the box elder bugs--but with no luck. A quick check of the Internet revealed that Plataspids are Old World insects--hence not covered by my U.S. field guide.

Suiter and Ames recently received numerous samples of these insects swarming around homes in Georgia. Homeowners there are being repelled by not only the numbers, but also by a foul smell associated with the bugs. Turns out that this was the first known collection of these insects, known scientifically as Megacopta cribraria in the U.S. It is native to India and China, where it feeds on kudzu.

Kudzu covering a Georgia road sign courtesy this point many Southerners can be heard shouting "Glory be! A bug that eats kudzu! An answer to our prayers!" If you are not from the South, or are unfamiliar with kudzu, it is an invasive plant nightmare. Originally introduced in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a Japanese government display garden. Planted widely as an ornamental vine for its abundant vegetation and sweet-smelling flowers, it was promoted as a forage plant by the Soil Conservation Service in the 1920s and 30s for erosion control. Bad idea. Kudzu smother trees and other plants under a solid blanket of leaves, by girdling woody stems and tree trunks, and by breaking branches or uprooting entire trees and shrubs through the sheer force of its weight. It grows at a rate of up to a foot a day.

Unfortunately for us, the bean plataspid does not appear to be a good solution to kudzu. Besides being a household pest on the order of the box elder bug or the Asian mulicolored lady beetle, the bean plataspid is a pest of numerous legume crops, including soybeans. The University of Georgia, Georgia Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Agriculture consider it a potential agricultural pest and are partnering to take some regulatory action.

This appears to be the latest assault against the native fauna in our country. It's bad enough to have a new structural pest stinking up our homes, but when a foreign insect crosses the border into the U.S. it's generally forever. The fire ant landed on the sandy bay shores of Mobile, Alabama about 80 years ago and forever altered the ecology of the southern pine forest to the Texas prairies. We still don't know the full impact of fire ants on native wildlife and plant life, not to mention the American economy.

Last week I attended a conference on invasive pests, put on by the Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council, in San Antonio. If there was ever a more discouraging subject for a biologist, I don't know what it is. In one of the talks, a botanist talked about his efforts to catalog and classify all the invasive foreign plants in Texas. He proposed classifying certain plants as some pests as "super watch" plants. "Super watch" plants are those which might possibly be removed from the Texas landscape before they become impossible to control.

I think the concept is a useful one for insects. By classifying certain insects as "Potentially Eradicable" pests, or putting them on some sort of "Super Watch" list, we accept responsibility for going after these pests. It seems to me that under our current system we have little incentive to go after new pests before they can get established.

Take the Formosan termite. We continue to watch helplessly as this pest becomes established in new sites around the South and in Texas. The potential economic impact of the Formosan termite is staggering, as it is at least twice as destructive as our native subterranean termite on homes, and an eater of live trees as well.

Ironically this is one pest that, in my opinion, could be controlled in isolated infestations before it becomes firmly established. We have dozens of sites in Texas where the Formosan termite is established on one or a few home properties. A determined effort to eradicate colonies with termite baits has, in my opinion, a good chance of succeeding in nipping many of these mini-invasions in the bud.

So what does all this have to do with pest management professionals? Knowing where a pest is found and how fast it is spreading is important for decision makers to know whether and how an invasive pest might be eradicated. Suiter and Ames are requesting PMPs in Georgia to report any sightings of the bean plataspid there. Here in Texas we are requesting PMPs to report new sightings of the rasberry crazy ant and the Formosan termite. These reports are very important to us and often form the basis for research dollars to work on solutions for these pests.

I will be working with Drs. Roger Gold and Robert Puckett this year attempting to delineate precisely where Formosan termites are present in the state of Texas. The research is being funded by the Texas Department of Agriculture and USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. More information about the project will be forthcoming, but if you know of any suspected Formosan termite infestations we definitely want to know.

If only the Formosan termite could be coaxed into preferring kudzu.

Monday, November 16, 2009

New Marketing Approach for the Pest Control Industry

This blog isn't generally for silly stuff, but there are plenty of silly things out there to pass on. Tying advertising banners on large flies and releasing them in a room full of people at a bookseller's convention is certainly ingenious, if hard to figure out how it sold books.

My question is, "How did the pest control industry let a bunch of insect-ignorant booksellers figure this out first?" It's time to take of the gloves and show these bibliophiles who really knows their bugs! How about ribbons tied to bed bugs released in a hotelier's conference? What a great way to drum up business! How about German cockroaches with mini-speakers attached to their backs? Release them at a restaurateur's convention. When they get smashed a little pre-recorded message squeaks out, "You should have hired Joe's Pest Control!"

So it occurs to me, why stop at advertising? For my part I have though how nice it would be to release a bunch of mice or bats into the Texas Legislature while they discuss school IPM legislation. Funny how that works. I wonder how fast the state would appropriate money for Formosan termite eradication if the governor's mansion turned out to be infested? Hmmm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Requiem for a friend

I am sorry to forward the sad news about Ken Myers' passing last Monday afternoon. Today I received information about Ken's funeral which I will pass on for anyone who is interested.

A memorial service is being planned for Saturday, November 14 at 2:00 PM at Beck Funeral Home (1700 E Whitestone Blvd (FM 1431), Cedar Park, TX 78613) outside of Round Rock.

One of Ken's favorite charities was a group called Brown Santa, a community service of the Travis County Sheriff's Department. This is a program that distributes toys and gifts to children at Christmas and food for the Christmas dinner. According to his wife, Jan, Ken would collect toys all year long, choosing a toy for a different age group each week. In December they would bring all the toys to the local dropoff. Jan said this always made him feel fabulous.

It's fitting that Jan has asked that in lieu of flowers, people consider making a donation to Brown Santa. Donations are tax deductable and can be mailed to: Travis County Brown Santa, P O Box 207, Austin, TX 78767-0207, or visit the website and use the Donate button to make a secure online donation through PayPal.

I'm not surprised to learn this about Ken, but I am surprised. Those of us who work with others professionally often develop a sense about the quality of our professional friends; but most of the time we either do not have the time, or take the time to get to know each other on a deeper level. I always consider it a privilege when someone lets me "in" by opening a door into their personal life, revealing a valued hobby or talking about children or spouses. While I don't expect to get to know all of my colleagues on a personal level, it's nice when you get confirmation about the high character of a person you've respected on a professional level.

Ken will be deeply missed by his many colleagues and friends. As a former PMP, and Executive Director of the Texas Pest Management Association, Ken was a true professional, as dedicated as anyone I knew to strengthening the pest management profession in Texas. He was also a veteran of Desert Storm; but when I picture him now I guess I'll see him in my mind wearing a Santa Claus cap. Godspeed Ken.

Monday, November 9, 2009

There's an App for Everything

An interactive map of hotel locations reporting bed bugs from http://bedbugregistry.comMaybe the iPhone does have an "app" for everything. Now there's an app to help the traveler keep a wary eye open for hotel bed bug infestations. Check it out at

If you're not quite sure what an "app" is, the word is shorthand for mobile device application. These are down loadable, mini-software programs that works on mobile devices like the iPhone or iTouch or even Blackberry. Some of these programs are quite ingenious and some are even useful. For anyone who has heard about bed bugs and wants more information immediately, this little program might do the trick.

The bed-bug-identifier app shows pictures of all life stages of the insect, where they are most commonly found in a typical hotel room (in other words, where to inspect your room), safest places to put your luggage when you check in, and even what bed bug bites look like.

Because I don't have an iPhone myself, I am unable to do a critical review of the software--although my Extension colleague from Colorado, Whitney Cranshaw, calls it "very cleverly done". He says he thinks "a lot of people might find it useful-from frequent travellers to motel personnel to others with interests in bed bug detection."

The online description claims that it includes an interactive hotel map...which if I interpret this right, is the central value of the program. Such information is available already online through a site called I don't know how anyone can vouch for the accuracy or currency of this kind of information, but in theory the idea is a good one for travelers. On the downside, I suspect that soon we'll hear of apps like this being sued by hotel owners who have been victimized by travelers seeking revenge for some perceived form of bad service unrelated to bed bugs.

If anyone downloads this $4.99 app, let me and others know what you think.

Monday Morning Update on Ken Myers

Passing on an update on Ken Myers from his administrative assistant, Linda Angerstein:

"Many of you know this already, but we wanted to be sure that every member is aware of the situation. Our Executive Director Ken Myers is currently in critical condition in the ICU at the VA hospital in Temple on life support. He had been undergoing rigorous chemo and radiation treatments for lymphoma and had had several setbacks in recent weeks, including coming down with pneumonia. Plans to remove him from life support Thursday were delayed by a slight improvement in his vital signs and by the emergency at nearby Ft Hood which sent many injured to the VA. His wife Jan just called me and said that she and his sister Nancy are going to meet with his doctors this morning and the decision will be made whether to remove the life support. Jan says things are very touch and go at the moment and that he probably will not recover. She asked that everyone please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers. We will notify you with more details as soon as we know them."

"Thank you to all of you for your support in this difficult time."

Friday, November 6, 2009

A personal note: Ken Myers

Most of us who work in the pest control industry in Texas know Ken Myers, Executive Director of the Texas Pest Control Association. Ken has kept no secret of his recent battle with cancer, and his determination to make it through and resume work as soon as possible. Unfortunately, things have not gone as planned. He recently suffered a setback with a lung infection and has been hospitalized in critical condition. Plans to take him off life support yesterday were delayed by an improvement in his vital signs and by the emergency in Fort Hood which affected the VA Hospital where he is being treated in Temple, TX. Decisions are being made today as family arrives to support him. Those who know and love Ken would appreciate your prayers and support during this time. I will keep you informed when I know more.

Countdown to School IPM Conference

The Embassy Suites-San Marcos is a wonderful conference facilityI just have to brag on the new Texas group, Texas Integrated Pest Management Affiliates for Public Schools (TIPMAPS). The group is so new it doesn't have a web page yet, but this hasn't kept these folks from getting over 10% of the school districts in the state to register for a first-of-its-kind conference on IPM, to be held at the Embassy Suites in San Marcos, TX on November 18 and 19.

As the newest affiliate chapter of the Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO), TIPMAPS is a fledgling group. The conference is their first open event and will focus on a variety of pest management issues facing school IPM coordinators. The concept of an association for school maintenance officials with pest control duties is novel and sets the bar for other states wanting to see IPM take root in their public school districts.

I've just been looking through the list of badges for the meeting and I count 107 different public school districts represented among the approximately 180 early registrants. This represents more than 10% of the approximately 1030 school districts in the second largest state public school system in the nation.

Speakers for the meeting will include some of the state's own school IPM coordinators, along with speakers from industry and the Extension Service. The highlighted speaker for the conference is Dr. Bobby Corrigan, or Dr. Rat, as he's known in New York City where he oversees one of the largest rodent IPM programs in the world.

The last day of the conference will include an organizational meeting to discuss membership dues and formation of regional chapters. Online registration is now closed, but it's not to late to attend. On-site registration will be available for $100. To see a schedule and map to the conference hotel in San Marcos, go to the Texas AgriLife Conference Service website.