Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What's going on with pest control in Texas?

Who wants to go to a committee meeting?  Especially if you're not on the committee? So if visitor counts are any indication, either things are pretty slow in Austin these days or the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee is a hot ticket right now. Most visitor chairs around the room were full at last month's meeting in the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) headquarters building.  

Texas Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee at work
Bad picture, I know.  But here's proof that
the SPCAC was hard at work last month
at the Texas Department of Agriculture
offices in Austin.
October 30 was the first followup meeting to last spring's lively session focused mostly on TDA Structural Pest Control Service's (SPCS) enforcement activity.  It's no secret that many in the industry feel that "the bad guys" (shady pest control companies operating under the radar and outside the rules in Texas) are not being sufficiently policed by regulators since the former Structural Pest Control Board merged with the Texas Department of Agriculture and formed the new SPCS division.  Based on what I heard at this meeting, I think the TDA has heard those complaints, and is responding, especially when it comes to fumigations.

Several inspection issues were brought up and solutions suggested at the meeting.  Pretreatment notifications have historically been a slow and cumbersome process with inspectors often not receiving word of a planned termite pretreatment until it was starting or already completed. According to official Mike Kelly, the department wants to bring this process online for increased speed and efficiency. This will allow pest control companies to go online to report a pretreatment appointment, and will allow inspectors to get electronic notifications of all planned pretreatments twice a day.  Current rules require operators to call, email or FAX notifications to the department. Last year there were 6,275 notices of termite pretreatment and 1,076 fumigation notices received...a lot of office time.  This change in procedures could save significant staff time handling notifications. Lots of smiles around the table!

Most of us were especially interested in a followup report from last spring's discussion of a May 2013  apparent violation by a fumigator that occurred in Boerne, TX and was detailed at that time by committee member Warren Remmey.  Mike Kelly of TDA explained some of the circumstances around the event including lack of evidence to verify that the fumigator was actually carrying gas cylinders when delivering tarps to a home in an unmarked truck (a violation of SPCS rules). After the meeting the inspector on the site, Kelly reported, the fumigator claimed that the reason no notification was filed was because a truck carrying gas was delayed with mechanical problems, and he didn't know when it would arrive--skeptical looks around the table. Nevertheless the tarps that were installed on the day of the incident remained in place over the house more than a week before the gas arrived and the SPCS was finally notified, and attended the fumigation. 

No citations were issued in the case (no smiles around the table), but Kelly reported that steps have been taken to improve training and enforcement of fumigators by their inspector staff.  For one thing, Larry Riggs of Ensystex, a former regulator, has agreed to help provide fumigation training for inspectors.  Dr. Rudy Scheffran at the University of Florida will also host four inspectors at his fumigation training school in Florida this year. TDA has also formed a task force to advise the agency on fumigation-related issues. Debbie Aguirre of Elite Exterminating, Corpus Christi, has been leading the group. Since the April 11 meeting, TDA has conducted 11 fumigation inspections.  The committee thanked Kelly and the staff for responding to concerns from the last meeting, especially the training initiatives for inspectors. The committee was smiling again.

After this Debbie Aguirre presented suggestions from the task force for changes to the structural fumigation requirements.  One of the major problems her team has identified is that companies often subcontract or sub-sub-contract fumigation jobs, and its not always clear who is the responsible party is when communicating instructions to the customer and when planning the job. TDA staff have agreed to review the fumigation committee suggestions and bring back legally suitable language for a second review by the SPCAC.  

Kelly also announced that TDA is planning to eliminate fees for CEU course sponsors.  Currently anyone organizing a CEU class must pay TDA a $48 fee for each CEU provided.  Kelly says the department has determined these fees were not necessary and will be eliminated.  I sensed CEU providers all over the state smiling at this one.

Also bringing smiles to all the PMPs on the committee was a proposal to change the long problematic rule on advertising.  A problem with this rule has been that the rule was written to require licensed companies to not use false or deceptive advertising. The current wording makes it difficult for the department to penalize unlicensed operators from making false or deceptive claims online or in newspaper.  The advertiser would have to be actually observed making a pest control treatment to be penalized under the existing rule.  Two new paragraphs will be added to the section expanding the rule to apply to anyone offering to perform pest control services. In addition all advertisements must include the official business name as listed on the business license. The committee objected to an additional requirement to include the business license number on all advertisements, and it was removed.  

Also in response to requests to provide more information about enforcement actions, Stephen Pahl introduced new staff members including new chief counsel Martina Berrera, a former prosecuting attorney and judge.  She has been with the department for two months and is eager to get to know the industry and work to address concerns. She replaces outgoing counsel David Gibson.   

The SPCS includes both "Program staff", including inspectors, and "Enforcement staff". Program staff are required by law to conduct 480 inspections of non-commercial applicators, 200 use observations of structural licensees, 950 commercial business inspections.  In addition they must inspect approximately 250 school districts each year.  Also program staff must respond to complaints (46 so far in FY2014). Not all violation cases investigated by program staff get turned over to enforcement.  In 2014, we learned, program staff forwarded 40 cases involving unlicensed activity to Enforcement. For schools with unlicensed activity a non-compliance advisory letter is usually sent without a fine.  For violations at commercial businesses and non-commercial locations, Enforcement may issue a Notice of Violation (NOV), a warning, or take no action (e.g., when a business has shut down or the complainant may not be willing to pursue the case).  

Numbers of consumer complaints (46) have decreased significantly this year from prior years (ave. 181 per year 2011-13).  Although the agency reports that the number of consumer complaints have been decreasing for the past 12 years, this year's large drop appears due largely due to the department no longer accepting consumer complaints about poor service or failure of a company to control pests. Now the only complaints accepted for investigations are those involving possible infractions of the rules or law. As I see it, this amounts to a significant change in policy, redirecting the agency away from  consumer advocacy, to being a law enforcement agency only.  These changes appear to be necessary given tighter budgets over the past several years.  Mostly blank faces on the committee.

Visitors who attend these committee meetings do get an opportunity to comment if they wish.  Don Ward left a comment from the Texas Pest Control Association suggesting that SPCS host a class for pest control office staffers to appraise them of what they can and can't say and do.  He also indicated TPCA support for the advertising changes. Bryan Springer with Bevis Pest Control, Houston, commented that with all the regulations and safety requirements in place, the safety record of professional fumigation is good.  Harvey West of Coastal Fumigators, Houston, encouraged SPCS to provide and train inspectors to carry fumigant gas measurement devices to ensure accurate dosing of commercial fumigations.  He also urged the department to do something to discourage the practice of allowing spot treatments for drywood termites to suffice for passing real estate transactions.  Spot treatments are notoriously unreliable for eliminating drywood termite infestations in homes.

The committee adjourned after approximately a three hour meeting.  Smiles all around. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's news in entomology?

Portland, Oregon, site of this year's ESA
meeting, is a short drive from many natural
wonders, including Punch Bowl Falls in the
Columbia Gorge area.
Some 20 years ago, shortly after being hired as extension entomologist, I figured I would save money by not attending the annual conference of the Entomological Society of America. In retrospect, that decision ranked as one of the poorest choices of my professional life.

The year I skipped ESA was like being lost in space--as if I had missed out on all the advancements in my field for the previous 12 months.  The ESA annual conference is the best way I know to keep in touch with colleagues and learn about new advances in the science of insects.  The meeting covers everything from the most basic scientific theory to very practical topics in pest control. I haven't missed a meeting since that lost year.

This year the meetings were at the Portland Oregon Convention Center, with over 3,400 entomologists and about 3600 papers and posters. Every year after the meeting I like to go over my notes and highlight what I think were some of the most important bits of information.  So, as my gift to you, here are highlights from the very small slice of the conference that I experienced:
  • In Michigan and other Midwest states, an insect called the Emerald ash borer (EAB) has been devastating ash trees since 2002. Researchers are finding, however, that after a decade of expanding its range, some "good" bugs are coming to the rescue.  In the center of its new territory, parasitic wasps, both native and imported, have reduced EAB densities five-fold over their peak in 2005.  With EAB poised to invade Texas, this is especially good news.  Over the past ten years, several effective treatments have been discovered for this beetle.  Emamectin benzoate (TREEage), imidacloprid (Merit), dinotefuran (Safari) provide multiple years of control with one application. There is even an effective organic treatment.  Azadirachtin (TreeAzin 2) has been found to control EAB larvae for one year.
  • Molecular genetics has become a major, if not dominant, subject of presentations at the annual conference.  This year's keynote speaker, Fred Gould of North Carolina State University, spoke of the successes and potential of genetic pest management.  The science started with sterile insect releases that eradicated the screwworm fly and Med flies as early as the 1960s.  More recently genetic engineering has been developed to insert genes into a population of insects that might reduce its ability to be a pest.  For example genes have been discovered that might prevent a mosquito from becoming infected with a virus like West Nile.  Mosquitoes have been targets for this kind of genetic engineering research in the past 20 years, but a major challenge has been how to speed up the spread of desirable genes into the whole population.  Now a new version of this technology promises to solve this problem.  According to Gould, special genes have been designed that not only insert desirable genes into pest insect DNA, but also, like a computer virus, replicate itself within the pest's chromosomes.  Called homing endonuclease genes, this technology promises almost immediate results, unlike the older technology which might take years to take hold.  With this technology it is conceivable, says Gould, to completely eradicate a "bad" insect species. Of course implementation of this technology raises ethical questions, for which scientists will have to answer. If it works, it would be scary powerful.  
  • Have invasive ants finally met their match?  Two 2014 papers highlighted at this year's meeting suggest that fire ants and Argentine ants, two of our worst invasive ant species, have finally been out competed by other ants.  When encountering fire ants, the tawny crazy ant (TCA) covers itself with formic acid which forms a coating that protects from fire ant venom.  Researchers tested the importance of the TCA anal excretions by covering their little ant anuses with nail polish (I'd like to see how they did that).  When anuses were blocked almost half of the ants battling fire ants died.  When not covered, only 2% of the TCA died in battle with fire ants.  Cool.  Similarly the Asian needle ant is out-competing Argentine ants for prime nest sites. They do this by having better cold tolerance than Argentines.  Too bad that both of these new invaders are bad pests on their own.  People living with tawny crazy ants in Texas say they would rather have the fire ants. And Asian needle ants are supposed to have a wicked sting.
  • New insecticide formulations come around less often than new insecticides, but this year Syngenta Professional Products appears to have developed a promising new formulation for ant control. Based on polyacrilamide gel, the formulation consists of water-storing crystals that can hold an insecticide for long periods of time.  Add sugar, or a protein, and you have a product that can be applied dry like a granule, and expand with exposure to water into a highly attractive gel bait.  Imagining being able to bait an entire yard for sugar-loving ants with gel bait in the same amount of time that it takes to put out fire ant bait.  Reported by Purdue entomologist, Grzesiek Buczkowski, this formulation could provide better control of sugar- or protein-loving ants, including Argentine ants, odorous house ants, crazy ants and rover ants, among others.  This product is not yet on the market.
  • Now imagine baiting for bed bugs! Bait technologies have revolutionized cockroach and ant management, but because bed bugs feed only on blood, baits for bed bugs have been seen as impractical. Maybe until now. Research by Alvaro Romero, urban entomologist at New Mexico State University, appears to have solved at least one step in the complex problem of bait development for bed bugs.  Alvaro's group found a synthetic substitute for blood that bed bugs will feed on, and even gain weight with. If an effective method of delivery can be found, this could be a major advance in bed bug management at some time in the future.
  • Ebola virus was the subject of an informal symposium put together at the last minute by Extension entomologist Nancy Hinkle, University of Georgia.  The official line from the Centers for Disease Control is that no insect is a known vector for Ebola virus.  However, after a quick literature review of the potential for insects to serve as Ebola vectors it became clear that the book is not closed on this subject. While some research shows that Ebola transmission from mosquitoes is unlikely, medical entomologists are concerned about the potential for flies to serve as mechanical vectors of the virus.  In Africa, where several species of flies are commonly seen feeding on eyes and wounds of people, the potential for mechanical (carried on the external portions of the body rather than in the saliva or feces) transmission is feasible.  The group also discussed the potential for cockroaches and bed bugs to serve as Ebola vectors.  To date, it appears that no one in Africa, or with the CDC, has specifically investigated these potential vectors. The symposium participants agreed that the issue is important enough to justify writing a letter to the CDC urging funding for research into these pests in the near future.  
  • Speaking of human diseases, one of the more surprising announcements at the meetings this year was research by Brittany Blakely, of New Mexico State University, which showed that bed bugs may be able to transmit Trypanosoma cruzi, the pathogen that causes Chagas disease. If experimentally demonstrated with live animals, this would be the first human disease known to be carried by bed bugs.  But this is still just a theory. What Blakely and her team showed was that when bed bugs were fed on infected blood, the pathogen could be found in their bodies for at least 3 months.  The pathogen also remained with the bugs even through molting. At the same time we were learning these results, Penn State researchers announced last week l that they had successfully infected mice using bed bugs as a vector for T. cruzi. Because bed bugs are primarily human feeders, they would have to first feed on an infected person to become infected. According to the Red Cross, there may be as many as 100,000 people with the parasite in the U.S.  If bed bugs are proved to be capable of transmitting the disease between two humans (which hasn't happened yet), this could be a significant new twist on the bed bug problem.
  • The ACE (Associate Certified Entomologist) program at ESA is expanding this year with the launch of a new International ACE program.  A new test has been developed for PMPs outside the U.S. wishing to become certified.  In addition, the ESA is considering adding an ACE-Public Health certification to its program.  Some of the initial discussions about this option took place last week at the meeting and it appears that the National Mosquito Control Association is interested in the prospect of having ESA develop a test and certification.  
  • Lastly, I can't ignore the buzz about the Twitterverse any longer.  I have to admit that I've been slow to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, but after listening several very good talks last week I think I've been convinced to take the leap. I've been told that if I want to stay in touch with you and other (especially young) pest management professionals, this is something I need to do. Plus, last month at our fall IPM training conference I felt old when our new Extension turfgrass specialist casually put up his Twitter handle at the end of his talk and welcomed people to follow him. Not to be outdone by a young whippersnapper, here's my "handle" @mikemerchant.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter as I try to find my place in this increasingly wired world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A large scale problem

This wax scale-infested holly could be the
key to controlling ants around your customer's
Ask most PMPs who specialize in structural pest control what they know about scale insects, and you'll get a blank stare. Pest management techs are typically taught little about insect pests of plants, especially tiny, non-descript pests that are frequently well-camouflaged from all but the most highly trained observers.

This is a mistake. A well-trained commercial or residential pest control PMP needs to know about plant pests, especially scales and their cousins the aphids, whiteflies and mealybugs. The key reason is that scales are part of the ecosystem surrounding the home or business, and can play an important role in insect life coming indoors...especially when it comes to ants.

You know ants. Only one of the most important pest issues for the industry around the world. The vast majority of indoor pest ants are sugar-loving.  But these ants don't get their sweet tooth from sheer gluttony (like us!); ants have evolved with a heavy reliance on sugary foods in the form of honeydew.

Honeydew is the sweet excretion product of many plant feeding insects, including scales, aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies and others. Most of us have experienced honeydew when parking a vehicle under a tree during the summer months. Those sticky drops all over the windshield were honeydew, or less delicately, insect poop.

Much like our obsession with sugar, ants have an interesting relationship with honeydew producing insects. It turns out that ants have been relying on the scale insects for so long that both scale and ant have become co-dependent. The ant gets a free, long-term, stationary food source. The scales benefit from the ants keeping down excess honeydew and mold on the old leaf, and even get protection from predators like lady beetles and parasitic wasps.

Ants that naturally feed on honeydew include carpenter ants, crazy ants, odorous house ant, Argentine ants, acrobat ants, rover ants and fire ants...and probably several others I'm forgetting at the moment.  If you're battling any of these critters on a regular basis, you might need to know something about why ants are attracted to your accounts in the first place.  In many cases it probably has something to do with the presence of scale insects around the building perimeter.

Sticky, shiny leaves are one tip-off that scale-like insects may
be feeding on your customers' plants.  Also look for waxy crusts
often associated with aphids, scales and mealybugs.  Honeydew
also serves to grow a black mold called "black sooty mold",
another unsightly clue to a problem.
A few years ago when industry giant (at the time) American Cyanamid was searching for an improved bait for carpenter ant control they turned to experts in insect honeydew for insight. Researchers found that mimicking some of the natural constituents of insect honeydew in an artificial bait was a good strategy for designing a more effective bait.

I'm not suggesting that all ants are attracted to your accounts just because of sugar-pooping pests, but I guarantee you that, when present, these insects will contribute to an ant problem. So what can be done? First of all, learn the signs of honeydew producing insects, and how to select some of the excellent control products on the market.

There's a lot to learn about scale insects--more than I can cover here; but if you're interested in learning a little more, check out this link to a PowerPoint presentation I'll be giving this week on the subject.  The topic is scale insects and their control. I hope the pictures and notes will give you an interesting introduction to the subject and a taste to learn more.  Speaking of taste, I think I hear a KitKat bar calling my name.