October 28, 2008

Trick or treat: New creepy crawlies pose nightmares for pest control experts

Many new pests are imports

By: Robert Burns, 903-834-6191  
COLLEGE STATION -- If you’re looking for a good scare for the Halloween season, you need look no farther than your hotel room, dormitory bed or backyard, say Texas AgriLife Extension Service entomologists.

"Just when you think you’ve got the technical side of the pest control business all figured out, things change," said say Dr. Mike Merchant, AgriLife Extension urban entomologist based in Dallas. "New pests emerge, old ones develop bad habits, and familiar pests get harder to control."

Merchant's list of such insects includes bed bugs, crazy ants and rover ants.

For most of the last 30 or 40 years, bed bugs were rarely seen, but in recent years they've made a real comeback. Merchant primarily works with pest control professionals, and bed bugs are their worst nightmare, he said.

"Infested structures are mostly hotels and apartments, arguably two of the least profitable and most difficult places to service," Merchant said. "Infestations are usually centered around beds and bedrooms, often the most cluttered and private rooms of a home. Good service is extremely time consuming and requires diligent follow-up to be successful."

Bed bugs are no picnic for those whose bedrooms are infested either. When bed bugs bite, their salvia causes irritation and inflamation.

No one really knows why bed bugs have become more common, but increased international travel has probably contributed to the rise, Merchant said. Crazy ants, a.k.a, "crazy rasberry ants," and rover ants are the "biggest pest surprises in recent memory," Merchant said.

Crazy ants are called "crazy" because of their erratic, running behavior. The insect will bite humans, but its bite is not nearly as painful as that of the red imported fire ant. It's primary nuisance is its taste for electronic equipment, including traffic signal boxes, computers and air conditioners. Thousands of their flea-sized bodies disable equipment by interfering with switches and circuits.

Currently, reports of crazy ants have been limited to a few counties in the Houston area, but the pest is potentially devastating to agriculture in both livestock and crops, Merchant said. First identified in Houston by pest control professional Tom Rasberry, the ants are difficult to control, even for professionals, Merchant said.

More information on crazy ants can be found on the Texas A&M Center for Urban & Structural Entomology Web site at http://urbanentomology.tamu.edu/ants/exotic_tx.cfm .

The only positive note, Merchant said, is that crazy ants seem to drive out imported red fire ants when they move into an area.

Another pest, the rover ant, is more of a nuisance than a threat.

"This ant is believed to be a relatively new immigrant from South America, and is one of the latest in a string of exotic pests that seem to have found themselves a new home in the U.S.," Merchant said.

Rover ants are very small and dark colored. Not seen only a few years ago, they are emerging household pest from Dallas to Corpus Christi.

"In contrast to rasberry crazy ant, which has spread over only five counties in approximately the same time period, reports of rover ant problems seemed to appear almost simultaneously from north to south Texas," Merchant said.

Other ants have been in the U.S. for sometime, but are nonetheless scary, said Dr. Tanya Pankiw, associate professor with the Texas A&M University department of entomology at College Station.

For example, Africanized honey bees, colloquially known as "killer bees," have been documented to be in more than half of the 254 counties in Texas.

But the current policy for safety purposes is to consider the entire state as "Africanized," Pankiw said.

"Africanized bees are well-established now in Texas – and not just in rural areas but in urban areas too," she said.

In 1991, when killer bees were first making inroads into the state, there was one death attributed to their stings, she said. Since then, the deaths per year have increased yearly, with three in 2006 and eight in 2007.

"They're here, and they're not going away," Pankiw said.

Pankiw contributes to a Web site about Africanized bees at http://honeybee.tamu.edu/africanized/ .

And though deaths from their stings are rare, don't forget imported red fire ants, said Dr. Bart Drees, AgriLife Extension entomologist in College Station.

While one sting can "burn like fire," it is more common for a person to receive multiple stings from ants swarming out of their disturbed nest, Drees said.

About 1 percent of stung individuals are allergic to the venom and at risk of severe medical complications. Deaths from stings have been reported, and lawsuit awards of more than $1 million have resulted from stinging incidents, he said.

Since entering the U.S. in the 1930s, red imported fire ants now infest the eastern two-thirds of the state and some urban areas in western Texas, Drees said.

"They have now spread over 320 million acres in the U.S., with recent incursions reported from Australia, Taiwan, China and northern Mexico," Drees said.

AgriLife Extension and Texas AgriLife Research entomologists and agricultural economists now estimate the economic impact of the pest to be $1.2 billion annually in Texas alone, and more than $6.5 billion nationally across both urban and agricultural sectors.

"The bad news is that they are probably here to stay," Drees said. "The good news is that, with relatively little cost and effort, you can prevent most of the problems they cause using currently available methods."

More information can be found on the Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project Web site at http://fireant.tamu.edu/ and http://eXtension.org/fire+ants.

Economic considerations aside, the creepie-crawlies most people are most afraid of are spiders. Arachnophobia may not be the most common phobia, but it is certainly among the most common, said and Molly Keck, AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist.

Among Keck's many duties as an integrated pest management specialist is to help educate local youth about insects, and among the insects she brings as a kind of show-and-tell program is "Rosie," her pet Chilean rose hair tarantula.

"It's sort of like entomology 101," said Keck, who is based in San Antonio. Keck said tarantulas actually make good pets. Most are docile, particularly the Chilean rose hair breed.

"Tarantulas get a bad rap as being scary and harmful animals, but they really aren't," Keck said. "They are slow moving and, unless extremely threatened, do not bite. They will also give you fair warning, by rearing up and standing on their hind legs."

Nonetheless, Keck said in most groups, about half the students are not afraid of the tarantula because it is so slow moving.

"They may not want to touch it, but they're not afraid to get up close."

"I think many more people are simply afraid of spiders and may not have actual arachnophobia – an irrational fear of spiders," she said. "But once you educate them about the benefits of spiders – only two in Texas are actually poisonous to humans – it's easier to let go of that fear a little. Spiders are just misunderstood."

Keck usually keeps Rosie at her office, but must take it home with her on occasion when she has to give an early morning program at an area school. Her husband is "understanding" when it comes to Rosie, she said.

"But he really doesn't like the hissing cockroaches," Keck said.