Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bed Bugs Are Back Even In Minnesota

There's no silver bullet that will rid a home of the repugnant pests for good, housing officials say, but heat treatment is effective in controlling infestations.

The air is frigid as James Henry and his crew haul industrial-sized equipment into a high-rise in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Their blood-sucking adversary is resilient, and the battle with Cimex lectularius, also known as the bedbug, will be heated.

"Hang tight, it's gonna feel like Hawaii in there," says Henry, assistant director of maintenance operations for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), as they lug four giant heaters into a one-bedroom apartment.

The crew sets up some sensors, and Henry flips a switch. Within minutes the place heats up to near 100 degrees. At 120 degrees the bugs begin to die. Henry maintains that temperature for six to seven hours in a regular bedbug bake-off.

It's a task he performs in at least four apartments a week these days, and he's just one of a growing number of bedbug bakers across the Twin Cities and the nation.

No bigger than a pencil eraser, the little bedbug has resurged from its virtual eradication in the United States, jumped out of the nursery rhyme and wreaked havoc from public housing complexes to five-star hotels.

"It absolutely has gotten worse, and this is a problem that's here to stay," said Jeff White, research entomologist for New Jersey-based Bedbug Central, a website that purports to be an authoritative source for bedbug information.

He said people who think their house is too big or clean or expensive to host bedbugs could get a rude awakening.

"A lot of people like to talk about how apartment buildings and universities have a problem," White said. "We need to prepare everyone for them and have policies in place that when an infestation happens, it can be dealt with in a time-effective manner."

A common problem in the United States until the 1950s, bedbugs were then nearly eradicated here by strong pesticides such as DDT. But that powerful pesticide was banned in 1972, international travel increased and bedbugs gained a new foothold.

They reemerged in force on the East Coast around 1999, White says, and showed up in Minneapolis three to five years ago, depending on whom you ask.

"I don't know where they came from," said Mary Alice Smalls, principal asset operations manager for Cedars Asset Management Project, part of the MPHA. "I grew up with the nursery rhyme and never saw one until a few years ago."

Henry does his heat treatments with a $61,000 Thermal Remediation machine that his agency bought from Burnsville-based Temp-Air. A second machine is expected to arrive this week. The heat treatment is followed by a chemical treatment. Public housing agencies follow a similar regimen in New York, Milwaukee and Seattle, Henry said.

Greg Grabow, national sales manager for Thermal Remediation, said the equipment has been manufactured for about two years. In the Twin Cities, 18 systems are being used by pest control companies, property management groups, universities, hotels and motels.

The company has distributed 89 systems nationwide. It shipped 10 in December and has 14 scheduled for shipment this month.

Grabow said that because the nocturnal, blood-eating bedbugs don't carry disease, they are considered a nuisance rather than a danger. He added that health departments don't consider infestations a health emergency.

As a result, he said, "the whole [pest control] industry has been caught flat-footed."

"People had been in the pest control business for 30 or 40 years and had never seen a bedbug. Now they're everywhere," Grabow said. "There's never been a bug so difficult to get rid of or spreading this level of havoc that someone like the Minneapolis Housing Authority is purchasing these machines. And there's no hope of completely clearing them out because new people are coming in [to apartments] all the time."

Housing officials admit heat treatment is no silver bullet, but it is effective. And they're fighting the problem through education, trying to persuade families to report infestations right away, and assuring them they won't be forced to give up their bedding or furniture.

"In the past, if there was any sign of infestation, we were asking low-income people to get rid of" infested furniture and not accept cheap or free furniture that might be infested, said Mary Boler, MPHA managing director of low-income public housing.

"It's created a hardship all around," she said. "We feel by getting this heat treatment, we would be able to salvage this furniture, and in a lot of cases we find people are not coming forward quickly enough, and we hope that this can change."

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

FTC Warns Manufacturers and Retailers of Ultrasonic Pest-control Devices

Staff of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Enforcement today announced that they have sent warning letters to more than 60 manufacturers and retailers of ultrasonic pest-control devices, stating that efficacy claims about those products must be supported by scientific evidence. FTC staff reviewed print and catalog advertisements and conducted a "surf" of Internet sites marketing such devices. They found that many of the advertisements make explicit claims about the products' ability to eliminate rodents or repel insects. According to staff, these types of claims may not be in compliance with the FTC Act, which prohibits false and deceptive advertising.

Between 1985 and 1997, the FTC brought law enforcement actions against six companies that allegedly made false and unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of ultrasonic devices in controlling rodent and insect infestations. Each of those cases was resolved by consent order. In those prior actions, the FTC challenged the following types of claims:

  • Eliminates rodent infestations;
  • Repels insects;
  • Serves as an effective alternative to conventional pest-control products;
  • Increases or assists the effectiveness of other pest-control methods;
  • Eliminates fleas on dogs or cats; and
  • Scientific tests prove product effectiveness.

Prior FTC complaints alleged that any reaction by rodents to ultrasound would be temporary at best because rodents become accustomed to ultrasound and will return to their nesting or feeding areas even in the presence of an ultrasonic device. Furthermore, previous FTC complaints alleged that ultrasound devices do not control insects.

The warning letters urged manufacturers and retailers of ultrasonic pest-control devices to examine their advertising and ensure they have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support claims that a product eliminates or repels certain pests. Staff advised the manufacturers and sellers that if they have misrepresented the benefits of their products, or if their claims are not properly substantiated, they may be subject to legal action. FTC staff will continue to monitor the advertising of ultrasonic pest-control devices to ensure that claims made to consumers are not false or deceptive.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Weapon Turns Fire Ants Into Headless Zombies

Researchers in Texas are trying an unusual approach to combat fire ants — deploying parasitic flies that turn the pesky and economically costly insects into zombies whose heads fall off.

The biting, territorial fire ants cost the Texas economy about $1 billion annually by damaging electrical equipment, according to a Texas A&M study. They can also threaten young calves.

But now the researchers are trying a tiny phorid fly, native to a region of South America where the fire ants originated. Researchers have learned that fire ants in their home region are kept under control by as many as 23 phorid species.

The flies lay eggs on the fire ants, and the eggs hatch into maggots inside the ant and eat away at the pest's tiny brain.

The ant will get up and wander for about two weeks while the maggot feeds, said Rob Plowes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin.

"There is no brain left in the ant, and the ant just starts wandering aimlessly," he said.

About a month after the egg is laid, the ant's head falls off — and a new fly emerges ready to attack another fire ant.

"They're not going to completely wipe out the fire ant, but it's a way to control their population," said Scott Ludwig, an integrated pest management specialist with Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service in Overton, in East Texas.

Four phorid species have been introduced in the state since 1999. They don't attack native ants or other species and have been introduced in other Gulf Coast states, Plowes told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

But it will take time to determine if the flies are effective in Texas, perhaps as long as a decade.

"It's not an immediate silver-bullet impact," Plowes said.

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