Becoming a Pest Investigator: Part 2

Posted: April 10, 2013 in Pest Management
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Earlier, PCT Magazine published Becoming a Pest Investigator. The article introduced us to the tools all technicians should have at all times. Now in Becoming a Pest Investigator Part 2, they point out the tools we should have readily available and highlight some specialized tools to consider having. So, please enjoy their follow up article. Let us know what you think here or on the Bug Off Pest Control Center Facebook page.

Let’s start back up with the tools you should have easily at your disposal, but need not always carry with you:

Ladders. Inspections must take place in 3-D. You must examine things from a belly perspective, while crouching, standing tall and from up above. It is a basic fact of pest management that pests go where they are safe from our prying eyes. If we don’t look up into false ceilings and other overhead structures, that’s where the pests will be. It’s not always practical to carry a ladder into the account with you, though most of us have ladders in or on our trucks. At the very least, know the location of, and get permission to use, the appropriate ladders on your client’s premises. Include overhead spaces and structures in your inspections, and keep monitoring equipment in those above-the-floor locations as well.

Broom and Dustpan.
 Many PMPs carry a small dustpan and hand broom or whisk broom in their inspection kit. These help with minor cleanups, and are especially useful in cleaning up mouse droppings and mouse nest material. By doing this, you know that any such material you find in the future is new evidence, and you can take action accordingly. With rare exceptions, cleaning up mouse droppings (or asking your client’s personnel to do so) is an important inspection technique.

 Ordinary medical stethoscopes are useful for listening inside of wall cavities for mouse activity, carpenter ant gallery-making, and the communicative noises made by ants and some other insects. Specialized, electronic versions of this type of device are also available, but some PMPs swear by their inexpensive stethoscope.
Garden Tools. Many insects, such as earwigs, springtails and certain species of ants, like to live under mulch, beneath dead leaves and thatch, under rocks and patio stones, and close to the foundations of buildings. Garden tools such as shovels, trowels and bow rakes can be used to disturb the top layer of mulch, turf and stone borders, and also can be employed to expose the soil near the foundation in order to find the nests of ants, the hiding places of earwigs, or the moist conditions that enable springtails, millipedes and sowbugs to thrive.
Digital Cameras. Always get your client’s permission before bringing any camera onto their premises. Some large, industrial and food/pharmaceutical concerns have policies banning cameras. If allowed, a camera can be an invaluable inspection tool. It enables you to make a graphic record of pest evidence, pest-conducive conditions, sanitation and maintenance issues. By showing these pictures to your contact person, you ensure that they know exactly what you’re talking about. Some facilities are open to the idea of receiving inspection reports illustrated with digital photos of conditions being brought to the attention of the sanitation and maintenance departments. For security reasons, offer to use your client’s own camera, or at the very least leave the memory card in your client’s possession between inspections.

Moisture Meter. 
The facilities we are called upon to inspect can be quite large, and it helps to narrow the job down to a relatively few areas where pests are most likely to be present. The 80/20 rule applies here: 80 percent of the pests are likely to be found within 20 percent of the area within a building.

Since we know that most pests require moisture to survive, find out where the moisture is. “Prong”-style moisture meters are used to determine the moisture level of a wooden structural member or of a wall; ambient moisture meters can simply be set down in an area to read the moisture level of the air in that area. A moisture meter can be used to pinpoint the likeliest areas to be infested by moisture-loving pests, thereby greatly limiting the actual number of square feet your inspection will need to cover.

Infrared Thermometer. 
Similarly to the way a moisture meter saves us work by identifying areas where moisture levels are high and insect activity is likely to be concentrated, a remote-measuring infrared thermometer can show you where the warm areas are. Many insects are tropical in origin, and they will gravitate towards conditions that approximate the tropical environment of their forebears.

I’m acquainted with a PMP who was once confronted with the task of identifying the nesting locations of a population of Pharaoh ants in a massive dairy plant. A previous pest control contractor had tried to spray this population out of existence, resulting in Pharaoh ants budding far and wide, creating probably hundreds or even thousands of individual nests. He used a moisture meter and a remote-measuring infrared thermometer “gun” to find the areas within walls that were both warmer and wetter than surrounding areas, and concentrated his inspection and treatment in these spots. Armed with information provided by these electronic inspection tools, he was soon able to bring the Pharaoh ant infestation under control, and he did not have to comb through every square inch of the plant in order to do so. Infrared thermometers were once quite pricey, but nowadays you can obtain a laser-guided, pinpoint-capable infrared thermometer for a couple of hundred dollars.
Fiber-Optic Cameras. Our team of surgeons who wanted to create a bionic pest management professional (see Part One) probably should have outfitted her with X-ray eyes so that she could see through walls and tell whether there was pest activity, or whether there were conditions (moisture, accumulations of food material, etc.) that might support pest activity inside of wall cavities. To pests, wall cavities are wide-open spaces that can be used for shelter and safe travel. To us, they are off-limits — unless we can invest in at least one fiber-optic camera or borescope per company or per branch office.

With a fiber-optic camera or borescope, one can drill a small hole in a suspect area of wall and look inside to see if termites or other insects are present, or to see if mouse or rat nesting is taking place there. The cost of fiber-optic cameras is drastically lower today than it was some years ago when they were first introduced; a high-quality, color camera “snake” can be purchased for several hundred dollars, and will pay for itself in no time. They take the doubt out of wondering whether a wall should be dismantled to get at pest harborage or not. When using one of these, be prepared to find yourself eye-to-eye with squirrels, rats or other denizens of hidden voids.

Drills and Hole Saws. 
Everyone encounters, from time to time, a mystery small-fly problem that they are fairly sure is the result of a broken sewer line or an accumulation of decaying organic material beneath the building’s floor slab. Breaking up a concrete floor for the purpose of identifying where fly activity is coming from is prohibitively expensive, and most of our clients would rather live with a fly problem than go to the expense of removing a floor. You can, however, drill ¼-inch to ½-inch holes in the floor slab of a suspect area (carefully chisel the ceramic floor tile out first, and save it for making repairs later). You may smell a putrid or “sewer-gas” odor coming from the hole. If so, you can be fairly certain this area is a good candidate for having a qualified contractor remove the floor tiles, break up the slab, find the contamination-soaked sub-slab soil or sand, and remove all of it prior to bringing in fresh fill and re-pouring the slab. Alternately, you might choose to tape plastic sandwich bags over the holes you drill, with a sticky trap inside. Any bags in which flying insects are found indicate fly activity beneath the slab in that area.

Specialized Situations.
 Finally, let’s look at a few inspection tools that might be used on an infrequent basis, according to very specific needs of some clients.

Sewer Cameras. Similar to the fiber-optic camera described previously, but on a much larger scale, sewer cams operated by professional plumbing companies have the capacity to “snake” the sewer system under a building, looking into all branches of its waste water system. A ruggedized camera at the end of the snake cable, which might be hundreds of feet long, shows evidence of broken sewer pipes, broken connections and other subterranean causes of pest problems. In large facilities with cryptic small fly problems, for example, it may become absolutely necessary to employ the services of a plumbing company with sewer camera technology.

Motion-Sensing Cameras. 
If you’ve ever dealt with a cagey rat, you’ve probably already used a motion-sensing camera. Motion-sensing cameras, some with night-vision capability, are used by hunters to find the spots where wild game animals are active. You can set one up in the candy aisle of a grocery store to figure out where that sweet-toothed rat is traveling or hiding. Basic models start at around $100.

Thermal Imaging Cameras.
 By detecting infrared radiation from heat sources, thermal imaging cameras can, in a way, “see” through walls and identify rodent activity in hidden areas. These units are quite expensive, and thus they are not within everyone’s means. But when rodent or other animal activity is suspected in a wall cavity, chimney or other hidden area, such equipment may be the best way to pinpoint where the problem is.

High-Power Stereo Microscope. 
Unless you’re a very small operation, you ought to have a good-quality, high-power stereo microscope at your main office or branch offices. These will help to make sense of the mystery pests that are found during inspections. Alternately, get on a first-name basis with the nearest university extension entomologist. Those folks have killer equipment and the knowledge to determine the identity of even the most obscure pest specimen.

Make sure you get a stereo microscope with top illumination, not the compound microscopes that are illuminated from beneath. Compound microscopes, often found in high-school biology classrooms and medical laboratories, are best suited for looking at extremely small specimens on slides — they are of no use in examining solid objects like insects.

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