Doggone Birds (Fruit Protection)

September 13, 2012

Many bird species provide biocontrol by eating a wide range of insect pests, and are worth encouraging for controlling flies, mosquitoes, locusts, caterpillars, ticks, rodents and other pests around homes, forests, farms and gardens. Other bird species are considered pestiferous when feeding on our food plants, and can be repelled in various ways, including by loud noises, eyespot balloons, reflecting tape, scarecrows and scare devices, sensor networks and dogs.

Among the beneficial birds when they are not causing damage to utility poles or annoying people with their racket are woodpeckers. Personally, I like hearing woodpeckers working urban and forest trees, and was heartened to learn from Michigan State University’s Andrew Tluczek’s presentation to the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting that: “Woodpecker predation has caused up to 90% mortality of emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) larvae in some sites.”

A 2006 tick control article in BioScience magazine devoted considerable discussion to birds for tick biocontrol. In Africa, birds known as oxpeckers (Buphagus spp.) provide biocontrol of ticks on mammals by consuming hundreds of adult ticks or thousands of nymphal ticks per day. Free-ranging guinea fowl experimentally tested around New York (USA) lawns reduced adult blacklegged tick numbers; but unfortunately the smaller nymph stage blacklegged ticks transmitting Lyme disease apparently were missed and not stopped very well.

The list of bird benefits for biocontrol, like barn owls for rodent biocontrol in Israel, Palestine, Malaysia and elsewhere could go on and on.

“Bird damage situations throughout the world are similar, involving many of the same crops and genera of birds,” wrote John W. De Grazio a few decades ago in the <em>Proceedings of the 8th Vertebrate Pest Conference. Seed-eating red-winged blackbirds, ring-necked pheasants, sparrows, crows, doves, parrots, munias, queleas, weavers and waterfowl are sometimes pests of corn, rice, wheat, sorghum, sunflowers, almonds, pecans, peanuts, etc. Starlings, sparrows, finches, grackles, robins, parakeets, etc. consume grapes, blueberries, and other fruit in yards, vineyards and orchards.

Dogs are used in pest control for sniffing out termites and bed bugs, and the natural proclivity of some dog breeds to chase birds can be harnessed to keep birds from destroying fruit in orchards and vineyards. In researching a grant proposal to travel to and write about Japan, which I failed miserably to qualify for, my Internet research for the proposal took me to the Japanese Journal of Farm Work Research. Being one of a select 4% of the USA population to have worked in agriculture, the journal title intrigued me enough to browse through several years of tables of contents, where I came across an intriguing article title: “Protection of Citrus From Bird Damage by a Dog.”

Not reading Japanese, I had to rely on the visual diagrams and English summary by researchers Hiromichi Ichinokiyama and Masami Takeuchi at the Kinan Fruits Tree Laboratory and Mie Prefectural Science and Technology Promotion Center:

“Effectiveness of a dog (Canus lupus familiaris) for protecting citrus fruits from bird damage was investigated using a citrus orchard (5.8 a in area) in the harvest season. In Experiment 1, a Border collie shepherd (male) was tied to a wire extended along one side of the square orchard to allow him to run along the inner side of the orchard. This watchdog system was effective in reducing fruit damage by birds (mainly brown-eared bulbul) only in the citrus tree row nearest to the dog runway.”

However, the researchers had better success letting the dog run free in the orchard:

“In Experiment 2, the orchard was enclosed with a tall chain-link fence and the same dog was allowed to move freely in the orchard. In this case, he persevered in chasing birds until they flew away from the orchard. This watchdog system effectively reduced bird damage to citrus fruits all over the orchard, resulting in an increase in crop yield…Further study is needed on the optimum number of dogs released per unit orchard area and the effectiveness of the watchdog system in case when this bird control system is spread to all orchards in the citrus-growing area.”

Like Richard Feynman’s Nontoxic Ant Ferry, dogs chasing birds away from trees laden with fruit or nuts is more a proof-of-concept awaiting further development than a fully developed technology you can order on the Internet.

Thank you to the organizations and people who created and are advancing the Internet, as even finding this sort of information would have been nearly impossible a few decades ago. Amazing how this high-tech infrastructure can advance low-tech solutions like the old-fashioned four-legged, tail-wagging dog as a bird-chaser in service of better fruit harvests.

Carbon Dioxide Gas Combats Bed Bugs

July 24, 2012

CARBON DIOXIDE GAS, an essential nutrient for photosynthesis and the human and animal food chain consuming green plants, can also play a key role in bed bug control. As an attractant, carbon dioxide (CO2) is useful for monitoring and trapping bed bugs and other vampire-like blood-suckers attracted to the gas, including ticks, mosquitoes, and assorted biting flies. Carbon dioxide gas, which has been used to fumigate everything from stored grain and food products to freight containers, museum collections, and hotel and motel rooms, can also be used to fumigate clothing, furnishings, books, electronics, and other bed bug-infested items.

Carbon, carbon dioxide, and the carbon cycle are integral to our very existence on planet Earth. “The carbon of the Earth comes in several forms,” writes University of Cambridge chemist John Emsley in his fascinating Oxford University Press book, Nature’s Building Blocks (An A-Z Guide to the Elements). “Most of what we eat –carbohydrates, fats, proteins and fibre – is made up of compounds of carbon…most ingested carbon compounds are oxidized to release the energy they contain, and then we breathe out the carbon as carbon dioxide. This joins the other carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from where it will again be extracted by plants and become part of the carbon cycle of nature…The cycle rules the tempo of life on Earth and turns over 200 billion tonnes of carbon each year…In this way carbon is passed up the various food chains, with each recipient releasing some as carbon dioxide, until most carbon is back where it started.”

Does this mean that using carbon dioxide for bed bug control is environmentally acceptable, since it is kind of a “miracle of life” gas behind photosynthesis and plant life? Or is carbon dioxide really more the evil greenhouse or global-warming gas causing global climatic havoc and deserving of punishment via carbon taxes and elimination from the atmosphere via geological carbon sequestration (storage) schemes? Perhaps we should offset carbon dioxide releases for bed bug pest control with offsetting carbon dioxide injections into greenhouses, where elevated CO2 levels increase yields of greenhouse roses, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other crops.

“Carbon is probably the most important element from an environmental point of view,” writes Emsley in Nature’s Building Blocks. “The Earth’s early atmosphere may have contained a lot of carbon dioxide and methane, but once life evolved that began to change. Today, there is very little of these gases and a lot of oxygen instead, thanks chiefly to the action of plants which convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate and oxygen by photosynthesis. The Earth’s atmosphere contains an ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, from fossil fuel burning, and of methane, from paddy fields and cows. Human contributions to these sources are still minor compared with natural sources: most carbon dioxide comes from plants, microbes and animals, while methane is given off by swamps, marshes and termite mounds.”

Obviously best to avoid bed bug infestations, and not have to think about remedies like carbon dioxide trapping or fumigations. Italian chemist Primo Levi makes the most persuasive literary argument: “Carbon dioxide, that is, the aerial form of carbon…this gas which constitutes the raw material of life, the permanent store upon which all that grows draws, and the ultimate destiny of all flesh, is not one of the principal components of air but rather a ridiculous remnant, an ‘impurity,’ thirty times less abundant than argon, which nobody even notices. The air contains 0.03 percent; if Italy was air, the only Italians fit to build life would be, for example, the 15,000 inhabitants of Milazzo in the province of Messina. This, on the human scale, is ironic acrobatics, a juggler’s trick, an incomprehensible display of omnipotence-arrogance, since from this ever renewed impurity of the air we come, we animals and we plants, and we the human species, with our four billion discordant opinions, our millenniums of history…”

Bed bugs concern themselves little with environmental correctness, and just tune into characteristics like the heat and carbon dioxide released by metabolizing warm-blooded meal hosts like humans, poultry, rodents, rabbits, etc. A flush from a CO2 cartridge is enough to flush bed bugs from their harborages or hiding places onto a bed in search of a meal. But more naturally, bed bugs follow CO2 gradients to locate live hosts for their blood meals.

“Carbon dioxide has been shown by several researchers to be the most effective attractant for bed bugs,” University of Florida-Gainesville entomologist Philip Koehler told a recent Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. Humans produce about 700 mg (0.02 oz) of CO2 per minute. “Thus, detectors with very slow CO2 releases cannot compete with human hosts,” said Koehler. “A rapid CO2 release is a better mimic to the human breathing pattern. Detectors with fast CO2 release captured about 4x more bed bugs than detectors with slow release.”

Trapping or monitoring bed bugs with CO2 is complicated by the fact that at different times in the life cycle bed bugs seek out hosts (releasing CO2) for blood meals when hungry; and then when well-fed, instead of CO2 bed bugs seek shelter in groups or cracks and crevices. So although CO2 is the better lure for hungry bed bugs, bed bugs that have fed have different needs and respond to different lures.

A commercial product, FMC’s Verifi(TM) trap, is a dual-action detector combining “fast CO2 generation with liquid kairomone and pheromone lures to attract both host-seeking bed bugs and aggregation-seeking bed bugs,” Koehler told the ESA. Carbon dioxide and the kairomone lure blood-seeking bed bugs into a pitfall part of the trap from which there is no escape. A pheromone lures harborage- or aggregation-seeking bed bugs seeking shelter in cracks and crevices into another part of the trap.

“An inexpensive detector that can be left in place and routinely serviced is needed to aid pest management professionals,” Ohio State University’s Susan Jones told the ESA. “Rutger’s do-it-yourself dry ice (frozen CO2) traps are a cheap and effective method for overnight surveys of potentially infested habitations.” An experiment in a 13-story high-rise apartment building in Columbus, Ohio compared (see You Tube video) 3 Verifi(TM) bed bug detectors per room with 1 CO2-generating dry ice trap per room and canine (dog) detection teams (2 dogs/room; same handler).

Verifi(TM) traps detected bed bugs in 11 of 17 infested rooms in the first 24 hours; and in 14 of 17 infested rooms within a week. Dry ice traps had similar efficacy. Dogs detected bed bugs in 19 rooms, including 3 rooms where neither visual inspections nor dry ice or Verifi(TM) traps detected anything. But the dogs were also not perfect, as each dog also missed 1 room rated positive for bed bugs. So the quest to capture bed bugs with carbon dioxide and other lures goes on.

Human ingenuity seems almost unlimited when it comes to traps. Carbon dioxide, heat and other attractants are all being tested with traps as varied as Susan McKnight Inc.’s Climbup bed bug trap and pitfall traps made from inverted dog bowls painted black on the outside. Rutgers’ Narinderpal Singh tested CO2, heat, and lures such as nonanol, octanol, 1-octen-3-ol, coriander, and spearmint with inverted dog bowl pitfall traps. CO2 had an additive effect with multiple-component lures in inverted dog bowl traps, and may be developed into an inexpensive monitoring system for detecting low levels of bed bugs. Trials with baited traps are continuing.

Both carbon dioxide and ozone show fumigant potential against bed bugs. Purdue University’s Kurt Saltzmann told the ESA of “Two devices capable of delivering ozone to laboratory fumigation chambers.” One device delivered a short exposure to high ozone levels, and the other long exposure to low ozone levels. “Preliminary experiments showed that adult male bed bugs were susceptible to relatively short periods of ozone exposure when high concentrations of ozone were used,” said Saltzmann. “100% mortality was achieved when bed bugs were exposed to 1800 ppm ozone for 150 minutes.” Low ozone fumigation is also being tested with 1-2% hydrogen peroxide for up to 72 hours.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is used by libraries, museums, and others as an insect-killing fumigant. Indeed, dry ice (frozen CO2) to release CO2 gas is cheaper than washing and drying fabrics to kill bed bugs, Rutgers University’s Changlu Wang told the ESA. At an 80% concentration, CO2 kills all bed bug eggs in 24 hours (eggs are the toughest bed bug life stage to kill). A 50% CO2 concentration for 8 hours is sufficient to kill bed bug nymphs (immatures) and adults.

Wang’s CO2 fumigations involved filling Husky garbage bags 90% full of items such as mattress covers and fabrics, leaving little room for air. Then the bags were sealed with dry ice inside for several hours. Books, electronics, toys and other items damaged by heat treatments might benefit from the low temperatures created by dry ice treatments. However, for safety reasons Wang recommends wearing gloves and turning on fans for ventilation when opening many bags filled with carbon dioxide gas (fumigant).

Natural vs Synthetic Repellents

March 30, 2010

SYNTHETIC OR NATURAL? Which is best? Since the 1950s the synthetic chemical DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) has been the standard to which all other mosquito, tick and biting fly repellents have been compared. DEET is still the standard of comparison, but the long search for natural or organic repellents is finally yielding a number of potential alternatives, some from the plant world and others from such unlikely places as human sweat.

The progress in besting DEET has been so stunning that the Entomological Society of America (ESA) presented a four-hour symposium with a dozen 20-minute talks, Celebrating the Success of Global Insect Repellent Science Research. Habitues of the ESA know that in the world view of a female mosquito, humans are little more than scented apes put on Earth to be protein-rich blood meals to begat new generations of what we call vermin and they consider kin.

Sweat, heat, and carbon dioxide, that greenhouse gas that humans respire into the atmosphere with every exhaled breath, tip off mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers that the human food wagon has arrived. Actually, that’s putting it a bit crudely. Mosquitoes are actually connoisseurs, and sniff out humans like a gourmet would a fine wine. To be even more accurate, females are the true connoisseurs and gourmands, the bloodsucking vampire sex of the mosquito world. Male mosquitoes are true flower children, pacifists abhorring the bloodsucking life and mostly passing the time pollinating plants.

Longtime scholars of mosquito feeding habits on humans, like Willem Takken at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, have tallied 300 to 350 compounds mosquitoes can use to identify humans. About 60 of these odors are common to every person, and the rest give each human a slightly different scent. Thus, we oftentimes remember a person by their distinctive smell. Elegant experimental techniques like gene silencing and transferring mosquito olfactory genes to fruit flies allows the mapping of mosquito odor preferences. Some mosquito species, such as the malaria-vector Anopheles gambiae, can zero right in on humans. Other mosquito species may bypass humans in favor of cows, livestock or other animal species.

From a practical standpoint, if diseases like malaria, dengue and yellow fever are not a concern and you need protection for only an hour or two, one of the many commercial botanical repellents is likely to suffice as an alternative to DEET. Lemon eucalyptus products, including Quwenling from China, get high marks from the CDC. Daniel Strickman at the USDA-ARS in Beltsville, MD, and others have compiled long lists of botanicals good for about an hour of repellency, including: clove, geranium (geraniol), citronella, celery, lemon, lime, neem, pyrethrum, fringed rue, patchouli, pennyroyal, soybean, thyme, niaouli (Melaleuca viridiflora), makaen (Zanthoxylum limonella), Mexican tea (Chenopodium ambrosioides), Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum), and lily-of-the-valley.

However, natural or organic does not automatically mean safe or lacking in toxicity. Natural compounds, like synthetics, can also be sources of skin irritation, toxicity, and carcinogenicity. Even lemon eucalyptus oil can be an eye irritant. And as some herbal tea drinkers have learned the hard way (as is documented in the medical journals), the active ingredients in pennyroyal, violets and other botanicals can be dangerously toxic in too high a dose or with prolonged use.

The U.S. EPA can give what is known in legalese as FIFRA 25(b) Exemptions (Minimum Risk Pesticides), the USDA’s Strickland told the ESA repellent symposium. This allows some natural compound active ingredients to be used as repellents without testing. Examples include cedar oil (from eastern red cedar), citronella, garlic, geranium, lemongrass, peppermint, soybean oil and thyme. The International Fragrance Association investigates active ingredients to avoid lawsuits over cosmetics, though even this is not a guarantee against allergic reactions.

In short, caution is the watchword. Try a little bit first, and to be really safe use long sleeves and pants so that minimal repellent directly contacts the skin (as both natural and synthetic chemicals may penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream).

Joel Coats’ lab at the University of Iowa provided the ESA symposium with a glimpse of the future. Coats’ lab is well-known in entomological circles for its pioneering work with naturally occurring monoterpene and sesquiterpene chemicals in plants such as catnip (Nepeta cataria), Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), West Indian sandalwood (Amyris balsamifera), and Siam-wood (Fokenia hodginsii). In short, the chemicals known as monoterpenes provide a broad spatial repellency, and the “oxygenated sesquiterpenes” provide contact repellency. And a mixture of the two provides both modes of action and the best repellency. You will probably want to wait for the testing to be completed and commercial products to be formulated.

But back to the question of which is best, natural or synthetic. Some of the best natural compounds, and there are too many to list, can outperform DEET. Even some new synthetics can outperform DEET in some ways. If you have a job that keeps you in the field and exposed to mosquitoes, biting flies and ticks for 12 or 24 hours at a time, then you need some heavy-duty, long-lasting protection. Indeed, that is the holy grail for organizations like the U.S. Army.

Life may have seemed simpler in the 1960s when Mr. Robinson told Dustin Hoffman in the movie The Graduate that the future was in plastics. Quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSAR) is the future in 2010, say Coats and his graduate student Gretchen Paluch. They forsee a leapfrogging future where natural repellents better than DEET lead to new synthetic spinoffs of nature’s best molecules better than anything yet known.

They believe that patchouli, cedar oil and other natural compounds can (via QSAR) provide the skeleton for designing new repellent molecules. However, it may not be so simple, as a fine ecological balance has evolved in nature. Though it may seem contradictory, even so-called repellent plants like catnip, which is famous for repellent molecules like neptalactone, also contain attractant molecules. Possibly the best repellents will also contain elements of attraction. But that is another story for another time.

Ticks are a Drag

July 8, 2009

TRADITIONAL BIOCONTROL by natural enemies is notably sparse for pesky tick species vectoring Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, brucellosis and other maladies of man and animal. Pesticide spraying selects for robust pesticide-resistant ticks. Hence, alternatives are needed. Recognizing reality, the USDA-CSREES through competitive grants is funding an international group developing a biological approach stimulating natural immunity.

Immunity via vaccines is more commonly associated with microbial diseases like polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, flu and yellow fever, not insects or arthropods like ticks. But Jose de la Fuente of Oklahoma State University and his international colleagues have a good track record with a widely used vaccine for cattle ticks (Boophilus spp.). By virtue of hosting fewer ticks, cattle with tick immunity have less of the diseases transmitted by ticks. The molecular biology is explained in journals like Veterinary Research Communications.

While this is all well and good for cattle ranchers, TICK DRAGS are a non-chemical home alternative to rid yards and grassy areas of ticks potentially transmitting Lyme and other diseases to cats, dogs and people. Tick drags consist of a piece of white flannel cloth with an attached handle or rope for dragging across grass and other low vegetation to capture ticks.

Tick drags were originally developed as a research methodology for sampling tick populations. Rincon-Vitova co-founder Everett “Deke” Dietrick, an astute applied ecologist, played a role in the transformation of tick drags from research methodology to practical home remedy. Many years ago at an Entomological Society of America annual meeting in Boston, a very frustrated researcher was complaining that the white flannel tick drag removed too many ticks during the first sweep and not enough ticks were left to get statistically significant numbers for his pesticide tests. Deke raised his hand and asked if his daughter in Texas could “repurpose” the tick drag as a backyard control device. The researcher said yes. Deke’s Q&A became part of my reporting of the ESA annual meeting, and the news spread rapidly.