Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mystery Bug Week, Part IV: Mites Bite

One of the most mysterious bugs of Mystery Bug Week is the mite. What makes them mysterious? They are the stealth bombers of the bug world - you will never see them coming until it is too late! Note that there is no picture included for identification. This is not because we couldn't find a picture, it is because these tiny invaders are so small and transparent that finding  samples in your house is not the most practical means of identification. 
First, mite basics:
There are two main varieties of mites, free-living and parasitic. 
Free-living mites feed on other tiny insects, plants or dead natural matter. Dust mites fall into this category. They are probably living all around you, but unless you are allergic to them they do no harm and need no control.
Parasitic mites are another issue. We will briefly discuss three varieties, how to know you have them and what to do about it. Scabies mites are a skin condition, usually passed from person to person. This is not a problem pest professionals can deal with. If you have sores on your hands or wrists that itch and don't go away, see a medical professional immediately. These mites tunnel into the skin, so bug sprays are not an option in controlling them.
Rodent mites and Bird mites are a problem we often encounter here in San Diego. They live in and around bird and rodent nests, but are so tiny they can blow through a screened window and attack humans. Like bedbugs, they need a blood meal to live. The first question we ask when customers tell us they've been bit is, "Where on your body are the bites?" The reason for the question is that while bites on the legs and feet generally indicate a flea problem, bites in the joint areas - behind the knees, elbows, at the neck or mid-torso, indicate a bird or rodent mite infestation. The best way to treat these mites is to find the source - locate any bird or rodent population near your house - and remove it permanently. Follow-up measures include thorough vacuuming and application of an insecticide labeled for use against mites. But if the source is not found and removed, vacuuming and spraying will only bring temporary relief. You may not see these tiny mystery bugs - they are typically 1/32 of an inch long and nearly transparent - but you'll know it when they bite. Call a pest professional for help.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mystery But Week, Part III - Meet the Beetles

Help! You will certainly have a hard day's night if you discover these mystery bugs in your house. Pictured above, the varied carpet beetle is one of the most common bug samples we have sent in to our office for identification. They will do damage to carpets and fabrics, but can invade food products too. It is the fairly distinctive larvae of these bugs that do the damage - tiny, hairy worm-like creatures. But most often the adult (pictured) is what you will see. The first method of treatment is to find the source of the infestation and either clean or dispose of it. If found on clothing, have the items dry cleaned. It's best not to store natural fiber-items without first having them cleaned. Remove pet hair with a thorough vacuuming will also reduce any possible food sources - disposing of the vacuum bag afterward as a precaution. If the infestation persists, call in a pest professional.
Carpet beetles are so effective they are used in natural history museums to clean animal skeletons. Although these beetles are sometimes used in forensic entomology (calling Gil Grissom), they can cause millions of dollars of damage to natural fibers in homes and businesses. So if  you see one of these critters on your carpet - best to not let be!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mystery Bug Week, Part II: UNWANTED - Dead or Alive!

Most of us have different reactions to different bugs. We wouldn't consider painting cockroaches on the nursery wall, but butterflies are perfectly acceptable. And although we might scream and run at the sight of a spider 10 feet away, we welcome a ladybug lighting on our shoulder. Different people also have different reactions - had the spider sat down beside an entomologist, the bug man might have happily collected it off the tuffet for a specimen. But no one likes their home invaded, whether the bug invaders are dead or alive. 
Which brings us to our second installment of Mystery Bugs: Psocids. Psocids (so-sids) fall into the insect category "Occasional Invaders." They are often seasonal (spring and early summer) and usually temporary home invaders. Very tiny (1/32 - 1/4-inch long), they are sometimes mistaken for mites or termites. The most common psocids we see here in San Diego are Springtails (see picture, above). They are usually found outdoors in moist situations, like a patch of ivy in a shady part of the yard. When their habitat dries out, they can invade a house in large numbers. That is the bad news. The good news is they don't live long indoors. So why do these insect lemmings want to squeeze through your window screen and jump around on your counter? They are merely displaced, looking for a new place to call home. We have included a picture of a springtail, in hopes that by identifying this invading bug you will panic less, knowing they are temporary and harmless. The best way to avoid them altogether is to eliminate the source of moisture that sustains them. Keep ground cover trimmed and allow it to dry out between waterings, especially close to the house. Clear out leaf litter and mulch that may remain moist. Make sure potted plants also dry out between waterings. Outdoor populations of springtails can reach as many as 50,000 per cubic foot of soil! Although they don't bite, carry disease, or chew on your furniture, numbers that large can be scary - dead or alive.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mystery Bug Week!

Often our blog posts ideas come from things that are going on here at Centurion. Right now there is a bug sample on my desk containing a "mystery bug." One of our customers sent a few bugs in a pill box to the office for identification, and here it is! Blog fodder! This week we will highlight a few of the most common uncommon bugs that show up for identification, hopefully answering a few of your questions and giving you tools to identify mystery bugs yourself. 
First, a few tips on getting a good Bug ID. Sometimes we can identify a bug just by asking you a few simple questions over the phone. The classic example is a call we occasionally get for cricket control. Usually the homeowner is being driven crazy by the constant chirping of crickets in the house. Our first question, which may seem insulting, is "Have you actually seen any crickets?" If not - check the battery on your smoke detector. Really. In this case, we have found the mystery bug is no bug at all, but a certain model of smoke detector that sounds remarkably like a cricket when the battery is low. Case solved!
If you have actually seen bugs and would like us to identify them for you, here are some tips on helping us do that. Try to get a good sample, two to three bugs that are not smashed. Dead is fine, smashed is harder. Put the bugs in a sealable plastic bag or other small, SEALED container. And please attach your name and phone number somewhere on the container. This really helps us get the information you need back to the right bug owner. 
We have magnifying tools and bug books to help us tell you what exactly is bugging  you and how to get rid of it. Occasionally we run into a bug we cannot ID here. The County of San Diego's Department of Agriculture offers a service to identify those rare bugs.
Brown Recluse Spider Black Widow Spider
One more tip: there are thousands of varieties of spiders. Identifying your  mystery spider may not be possible. There are two spiders to be concerned with here in San Diego County, the black widow and the brown recluse. We have included pictures of both and links to more information above. Although all spiders are venomous, most do not deliver enough venom to do any harm. Even the notorious black widow's bite will seldom do damage. However, if you experience abdominal pain, muscle cramps, or anything other than localized pain, check with your doctor. For identification purposes, black widow spiders weave webs that are thick and irregular. The spiders themselves are shiny black with thick legs. Females have a distinctive red hourglass shape on the abdomen. But who wants to turn one over to check? The best way to avoid attracting these spiders to your yard is to reduce or remove trash or rubbish from your yard. They are often found in wood piles, old tires or empty containers. Always check items that have been stored in a garage or shed before using - and wear gloves. But check the gloves before you put your hands in them! To see a video on black widows, click here.
Brown recluse spiders can deliver a more serious bite, but are very rare in San Diego County. The spider itself is brown, with a distinctive, dark brown violin-shaped marking near the head. The bite of the brown recluse can cause skin ulceration, and should be checked by a medical professional. There is no mystery about these spiders, but we include them here so you will know how to avoid them and will NOT try to collect a sample for us. 
Tomorrow's  mystery bug: Psocids!

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Killer Bees" - Part 2

The term "Killer Bees" is a media label, but it has stuck for good reason. In June of this year, a teenage boy was hospitalized and his dog killed in a severe attack of Africanized Honey Bees they encountered while hiking at a park in Chatsworth, California. The unlucky dog had disturbed a nest of Africanized bees. In an attempt to save his dog, the young man was stung at least 200 times as he carried the dog as far as he could before collapsing. Pets, children and the elderly are most at risk, as they are most likely to be caught by surprise and least able to move quickly in escape. How can you avoid these "killers"? Here are a few tips: 
1. Carefully examine the exterior of your house for holes or fissures, and fill them. We have found bees love to invade a house by entering through a hole left by an old cable line. Any gap larger than 1/8 inch can become a problem.
2. Take a look in the attic, especially in places where roof lines meet. Often the builder has left a small gap, just the right size for bees to enter and nest. Fill these holes with construction foam, or screen them with a fine mesh screen. 
3. Check your yard for possible habitats. Overturned and abandoned flower pots, old tires or boxes, an abandoned shed, etc. If you see bees going in and out of these areas, DO NOT TRY TO GET RID OF THEM YOURSELF! News reports are rife with people who have been injured by spraying Africanized bees with over-the-counter bug sprays. If there is no current infestation, get rid of items that might be attractive to nesting bees. Clean up piles of junk.
4. Install fine-mesh screen over tops of rain spouts, over attic vents, and water meter/utility boxes.
5. If you do encounter angry bees, take cover in a house or car. Even if the bees follow you in, get shelter to minimize injury. Cover your head with a shirt or jacket - Africanized bees target the eyes, ears, nose and mouth when attacking. If there is no shelter available, you may need to run half a mile to get away - keep running!
6. If stung, remove stingers by scraping them out with a flat object like a credit card or fingernail. Removing stingers with tweezers will likely release more venom. Wash sting area with soap and water and use an ice pack. Get medical attention if breathing is troubled.
7. When hiking or camping, listen and be on the alert. Do not reach into small spaces between rocks or under trees.
8. Don't keep pets tied or tethered.
9. Do  not kill an attacking bee. It will release an alarm scent bringing other bees from its colony.
These are a few simple things you can do to protect your environment. 
Be aware that swarms of bees, which look like large, football-shaped clusters hanging from trees or eaves are not nests. Bee swarms are scary looking, but will usually  move on in a few days. They should not be approached or treated unless they stay in the same place for more than three days - and then should only be treated by a professional. Swarms are not usually aggressive since they are not defending a hive. 
Africanized bees are a serious problem. Don't make them your problem! In San Diego County, for more information contact the Department of Agriculture at their toll-free Bee Information Line: 1-800-200-2337.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Killer Bees" - Part 1

Most of us grew up with the sage advice to leave bees alone and they would leave us alone. Although mostly true then, since the arrival of Africanized Honey Bees (AHB or "Killer Bees") to Southern California in 1994 that advice needs an update. First, some history: Africanized bees originated, of course, in Africa. They were brought to the southern part of Brazil in the 1950's for research, where they inadvertently escaped and have slowly migrated and spread through parts of North and South America. For a current map of AHB colonized areas in California, click here. To see where they are in the United States, click here. More aggressive and territorial than European Honey Bees, AHB will attack if they feel their nest is threatened. But contrary to popular opinion, AHB are neither bigger nor more venomous than other bees, nor are they distinctive in appearance - in fact they look remarkably like their European cousins. The best way to recognize an Africanized colony is by their aggressive behavior. And then it may be too late! For this reason, nests in the wild here in Southern California should be assumed to be Africanized if not under the care of a beekeeper. What this means to the average homeowner is that extreme caution should be used. Africanized bees attack in larger numbers than domestic honey bees. Also, disturbed colonies may remain agitated for as long as 24 hours! They swarm frequently and nest in areas where  European bees usually don't - including small holes near the ground like water boxes, old tires or unused flower pots. If you see a swarm, steer clear and it may move on within a few days. However, if you see bees consistently going in and out of a small hole on the outside of your house it is best to call in a professional. Tomorrow's blog will address some preventive measures and more on California's infestation of "Killer Bees" (video worth seeing!)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Everything but Vampires

Yesterday's San Diego Union-Tribune had an article on bug-repellent clothing citing its effectiveness against mosquitoes, ticks, ants, flies and chiggers - all the blood suckers of summer except vampires - and maybe bedbugs. How does it work? Permethrin, a man-made version of a natural repellent found in chrysanthemums, is used in making the shirts, hats, pants and bandanas. It kills bugs by disrupting their nervous systems. According the the article, clothing permeated with Permethrin works well for up to 70 washings, a good value if you plan a trip to a highly insect-ridden area. The International Journal of Medical Microbiology reported a protection rate of 95.5 percent when using permethrin-treated clothing. Made by Insect Shield, the apparel is expensive, but can be found at local retailer REI or ordered on the web at LL Bean, Orvis, Exofficio, Mad Dog, or Sloggers. Mosquitos and other blood-sucking insects can carry diseases such as West Nile Virus and malaria. As noted in a previous blog, repellent sprays are also effective against bites. For more tips on summer mosquito control, click  here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Butterflies are Free...

... but moths can cost you! Common pantry pests in San Diego County include Indianmeal moths and the Angoumois Grain moth, stored product pests that can invade dry goods in the kitchen. You may bring them home in a bag of rice or a box of oatmeal from the store. Once in the door they cause all kinds of trouble. We are often asked if the moths in our customers' pantries will also invade closets and damage clothing. The answer is no. Although similar in appearance, clothes moths have different eating and living habits. Grain moths are much more visible -  you will see the adult moths in greater numbers, and usually in the kitchen area. But getting rid of them can be time consuming and frustrating. In order to avoid pantry moths, freeze all grain-based products you buy for 4 days before storing them in airtight containers. This is especially important if you buy grain products from bulk bins. Be aware that moth larvae can bore through plastic bags and cardboard boxes. 
If you already have an infestation, go through all grain based stored products. This includes bird seed and dog food, spices, nuts, raisins, cereals, pastas, even chocolate - look through everything! If you find webbing, clumping or larvae in a box or bag, throw it out. Clear off pantry shelves and clean with a good disinfectant cleaner or vinegar solution. This process should eliminate most infestations. Occasionally moth larvae still hatch out from eggs left in the cracks and crevices of pantry shelves. If all your grain-based products are in air tight containers, you can safely put out a moth trap , available at some local retail outlets or online here, to catch ambient adults as they hatch. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

Cockroach Nation

A recent news story from  Turkmenistan reported that the country's president had fired thirty workers at the main state TV station after a cockroach was seen running across the news desk during a nightly news broadcast. People do get passionate about cockroaches - and not in a good way. The specimen we have pictured below is the  most common of roaches, the German cockroach, or Blattella germanica. Not much Germanic about them, these pests actually originated in Asia. They can enter your house in a bag or box from the grocery store, or ride along on a piece of borrowed furniture - and can be devilishly hard to get rid of, especially in multiple-unit complexes. But contrary to the message of this video, control can and should be achieved if pest management techniques and simple housekeeping are used. 
Many sprays and baits are labeled for use against cockroaches in California. If you opt for baiting, there are some facts you should keep in mind. Roach baits attract the pests, then feed them a poison which the insect takes back to the nest to share with his friends. Bait should be applied with caution so as not to come in contact with food or dishes. If there are other sources of food readily available to the cockroach, it may or may not eat the bait. And Cockroaches will eat just about anything - garbage, cooking spills, even the grease on a kitchen wall can support life. A more certain approach is to hire a pest professional to apply a contact spray in cracks and crevices in a clean kitchen environment. What this means is that homeowners need to empty and clean kitchen and bathroom cabinets, and remove or cover trash areas before the bug guy is called in. Residual insecticides last for up to two months, continuing to kill roaches as they hatch. Control can take three to four weeks in the case of a serious infestation. One more tip: setting off "bug bombs" is usually a bad idea. Some cockroaches may die, but the ones that survive will hide in unusual and hard-to-treat places. The best tip on cockroaches is to get rid of them before they take over the house!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Fly Bye

This helpful tip about the common house fly is not for the squeamish, nor for those with serious infestations. If you have a major fly problem, skip to the next paragraph. If you are squeamish, stop here! This tip is for dealing with random flies that dart through the front door, then circle the kitchen like sharks before landing on your clean kitchen counter - twiddling their legs and daring you to find the fly swatter in time. Approach the fly slowly, with hands about 8 inches apart directly above the resting fly, so that when you clap your hands the moment of impact is about 4 inches ABOVE the fly. Here is where the squeamish will still be looking for that fly swatter. 99% of the time, if you have managed to position your hands correctly without disturbing the fly, you will have a squished fly on your hands as soon as you clap! A little-known fact is that flies lift off vertical to the plane on which they are resting - think helicopter rather than airplane. If you clap above the resting fly, you will inevitably need to wash your hands.
Why not just let the fly live? Because you don't know where he's been! If yours is a typical fly, he may have dined last in manure, decaying matter, or any moist breeding ground for bacteria. He carries that with him, regurgitating saliva and depositing waste on that clean counter - or your bologna sandwich. By comparison, cockroaches are sanitary. If you have a serious fly infestation, here are a few tips for solving your problem. First, locate the source of the infestation. Do you have a trash can with grass clippings that has been sitting too long? A compost pile that is not properly covered or screened? A garbage can with a lid that does not fit properly? Most fly infestations can be relieved simply by drying out or removing the source. While insecticides may not kill maggots in a trash container, boiling water will. And if you find maggots indoors, again the source must be located and removed. Follow your nose, and you may find a rotting potato or a dead rodent that is harboring the flies.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Don't let the bed bugs bite!

When early Americans told their children to "sleep tight," they were being practical. Their mattresses were suspended on a grid of ropes, attached to the bed frame, which kept them off the floor - and marginally safer from the nocturnal bed bug. Although bed bugs are an ancient pest, thought to have been around for thousands of years, they were all but extinct in the continental United States until just over 10 years ago. Today, they are back with a vengeance - doubling every year. Theories on why these nasty blood-suckers have returned include the increase in world travel and a decline in the use of liquid chemicals for pest control. Regardless of why, they have multiplied into a serious problem for homeowners, tenants, and hotel patrons across the United States. 
Attracted by warmth and the presence of carbon dioxide, bed bugs sneak out of hiding places in bedrooms or hotel suites to feed - often in the early hours of the morning, before dawn. They pierce the skin of their host with two hollow tubes. While one tube sucks a blood meal, the other injects the bug's saliva, which contains anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing and anesthetics so you won't know what's happening until later, when the bite begins to itch. To watch an informative video from National Geographic, click here.
Treating bed bugs can be difficult and expensive - because they hide in small and varied places. The best protection against these critters is to avoid taking in discarded furniture or mattresses. If you already have an infestation, vacuum furniture and baseboards thoroughly; buy a mattress cover especially designed for sealing bed bugs out; and call a pest professional. For  more information on bed bugs, see the University of California's pest management page here. And don't let the bed bugs bite!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are You a Mosquito Magnet?

Do mosquitoes and fleas attack you while leaving other family members bite-free? Many have long thought blood-feeding insects show a preference to certain individuals, and now there is scientific evidence in support of that theory. According to a recent article in Newsweek Online, each person's body chemistry plays a part in either attracting these pesky bugs or leaving them cold.  Mosquitoes can detect a tasty target from nearly 100 feet away! So what can you do to make yourself less appealing to these unwelcome guests? The article states that scientists have not identified every body chemistry combination that mosquitoes prefer - but indicates they may have a preference for "artificially sweet-scented bodies." They also prefer darker fabrics. So stay away from cloying perfumes, black or blue clothing, and make sure your clothing isn't too tight. And to be really safe, use a Centers for Disease Control-approved repellent, such as DEET, Picaridin, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus or IR3535. Since mosquitoes usually breed in standing water, check your property for spots that are over-irrigated, or containers that collect rain water - keep them empty and dry. If you have a pond in your landscaping, consider stocking it with  "mosquitofish" or Gambusia affinis, sometimes available through the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health: 858-694-2888. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Argentine Ants

Summertime in San Diego means ants are on the move. The most common ant in our area is the Argentine ant, scientific name linepithema humile. Argentine worker ants are 1/16-inch long and light to dark brown. The queens are 1/8 to 1/4 inch long and covered with fine hair. Males are slightly smaller and shiny brown-black. Colonies consist of several hundred to thousands of workers and several queens. They are found throughout the southern United States and California, typically living in nests outdoors and near food sources. They become major pests when they come indoors seeking food or water. The most effective control is accomplished when ant trails are followed to nests and treated with a residual insecticide.
We see infestations of Argentine ants year-round in San Diego, but in the summer they are especially aggressive. The San Diego County Department of Agriculture has good information for homeowners regarding the identification of ant varieties and ant management on their website.