What's Bugging You?

During a recent site visit to an educational facility, a review of records from a dozen or so buildings revealed an outlier. One building was plagued with frequent cockroach complaints and pesticide applications. Obviously, something was not right with the world in this one building.

Armed with flashlight, kneepads, screwdrivers, pliers, spatula, and other assorted hand tools, off we went for a first-hand look. First stop was the program director’s office. The director indicated the cockroach problem was limited to the kitchen and adjacent classrooms, and was “much better now that the pest control technician was coming once a week.”

We hustled over to the kitchen. The good news: The technician was diligently maintaining multiple insect monitors throughout the kitchen. These inexpensive, sticky, tent-shaped cardboard “traps” can be placed in out-of-the-way places and are very effective at capturing all kinds of critters that stumble into them.

The bad news: Although the monitors had just been replaced the previous week, three in one area had an assortment of very young to adult German cockroaches. This told us a couple of things. The population was thriving in one corner of the kitchen. Second, multiple life stages indicated a breeding population, not simply some stragglers dropped off in a recent delivery. Further investigation revealed peeling floor tiles and plumbing that was obstructing access under equipment. Eureka! Problem nearly solved.

First You Must Find Them
How? Using Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, our approach is to find out why the pest is present. All the pesticide in the world can’t prevent pest problems — pesticides just treat the symptoms. While IPM is not anti-pesticide —effective pesticides will always be part of the toolbox — long-term solutions require identifying how pests are getting access to food, water, and harborage.
In this case, the pipes traversing the floor were causing food debris to collect under and behind these obstructions to proper cleaning. The loosened floor tiles were also collecting food debris and providing ideal shelter. Poking and prodding the tiles and pipes was all it took to send dozens of cockroaches scurrying. A short scrape with a spatula retrieved a dark, smelly, moist mound of organic matter, dearer than the finest paté to the cockroach.

Weekly, the pest control technician was diligently applying insecticide bait; a small amount of pesticide pre-mixed in a gel with a food attractant. Baits are generally much more effective, and greatly reduce pesticide exposure, vs. “old school” baseboard spraying for cockroaches, ants, and other pests. Why didn’t the bait get rid of the cockroaches? Because no self-respecting cockroach would eat that “processed” food when each time the floor was “cleaned” with mop or broom, yummy fresh food debris was swept right to his front door!

Don’t Provide Hospitable Living Conditions
Did this kitchen have pests? No. They had “pets.” That’s what you call cockroaches, mice, rats, ants, and even bed bugs when you provide them with ideal living conditions. Think about it. “Aboriginal” cockroaches are native to forested areas, hiding under tree bark during the day and coming out at night to “clean up” the forest, feeding on all sorts of organic matter, including bits of food left over by larger creatures. You get the picture. This facility was providing Club Med for cockroaches. Nice dark, warm, moist spaces under the pipes and tiles for the boy and girl cockroaches to hang out during the day and, well, do what boy and girl cockroaches do. Fresh food delivered just before the lights go out and feeding time begins. For a German cockroach, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Isn’t that gross? Yes! And also extremely unhealthy. Allergens associated with cockroaches are primary causes of asthma and triggers of asthma attacks. Cockroaches also carry a lengthy assortment of disease organisms. I’m sure we could have found plenty of potent germs had we swabbed and cultured the mess under the tiles and pipes. The cockroaches were living in and then potentially carrying these pathogens to food and food-prep surfaces during nightly forays throughout the kitchen. When someone got sick with flu-like symptoms last week, was it flu or food poisoning? We’ll never know, will we? Unless the illness is so serious or so many of your facility users are affected by it at once that the Health Department comes calling. Ditto for disease-carrying ants, birds, and flies (including fruit flies). Mice and rats also carry disease organisms and can cause fires by chewing on wires. Don’t let front-page really bad news happen to you!

There Is a Solution
Back to the solution. Simply showing the kitchen staff the accumulated gunk and obstructing pipes and providing instructions on how to clean this problem area was enough to eliminate the food source. Calling in the maintenance staff to replace/re-glue the loose tiles removed the ideal harborage. Getting the obstructing pipes on the list for re-routing or replacing during the next renovation will also help. Ensuring that any new equipment does not create floor-level obstructions, and replacing the flooring with more water-resistant materials are additional long-term solutions to reduce ongoing cleaning and maintenance time and costs. Everyone working in this kitchen and adjacent classrooms was headed for greater job satisfaction — no more scurrying cockroaches when the lights went on each morning.

What are the larger lessons here?

Number one: You do not need to put up with ongoing pest problems. Please repeat that mantra. It’s not rocket science. Thousands of pest problems have been solved for good by using common sense to remove food, water, and/or shelter, all three of which are required for a problem to persist.

Number two: Do you have someone checking the pest complaint and pesticide use logs for your facilities? If not, you may be missing the boat and overlooking tremendous liability in reference to pest and pesticide exposure. A simple monthly or quarterly review of records for can reveal a lot, including where to spend a little more time digging into the details. Asking kitchen, custodial, and maintenance staff about any pest problems during your rounds of your facilities can also uncover liabilities you didn’t know existed that can be easily solved with the right expertise.

The same advice works for all types of pest problems, including bed bugs. Pests are there for a reason. Solve the underlying “pest-friendly” conditions and you can chalk up a long-term win. Keep treating with pesticide band-aids, and you are hooked for a life of ongoing complaints and applications.

Does your pest control staff or provider have the right expertise? They should. Rather than “spray jockeys,” you should have pest management professionals who can identify the root cause of the problem and, with your help, solve it permanently. Or at least until sanitation and maintenance practices slip up, which they are bound to do. An ongoing surveillance and training program for your staff can catch small problems before they blossom into nightmares.

Let us know how we can help with inspections, pest control performance evaluations, IPM program development, and training. You can find us at www.ipminstitute.org, and at our award-winning program Websites at www.greenshieldcertified.org and www.ipmstar.org.

Dr. Thomas Green directs the nonprofit IPM Institute of North America and is happiest when solving persistent pest problems with common-sense solutions.