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Pest Quest

Pest Quest header image
De-bugging public schools combines gumshoe sleuthing with integrated pest management.

Tim Stock unlatches a rickety door and steps into the dim, musty basement of an elementary school. His eyes adjust to the darkness. Cables and pipes crisscross overhead. He shines a flashlight, searching the space. There it is, on a dirt ledge. Rat poop.

Stock points to a small opening in the outside wall where sunlight enters through a broken screen. A hand could easily fit through the hole. So could a rat. Stock makes a mental note: tell school to fix screen.

Stock is the coordinator of the School Integrated Pest Management program for the Oregon State University Extension Service. Today he’s inspecting Salem Heights Elementary School, hunting for rodents and insects. He’ll use what he learns here to create pest-fighting plans for school districts across the state. But these won’t be just any old plans. They will use integrated pest management (IPM) to eliminate the conditions that attract pests, using chemicals only as a last resort. The goal is to reduce pests, decrease the use of pesticides, cut costs for schools, and create a healthier environment for students and staff.

Gail Langellotto
Above, OSU entomologist Gail Langellotto regales an audience of school district custodians in the finer points of blood-sucking insects.
Marc Collins inspects bug
Marc Collins, a custodian for the Salem-Kaiser school district, marvels at the split ends on the hairs of a bee during an IPM workshop for school staff. Photos by Lynn Ketchum.

The Oregon legislature mandated that the OSU Extension Service create a statewide model plan and requires the state’s 197 school districts to adopt IPM plans by July 2012. Twenty-six Oregon school districts already have IPM plans, according to a survey that Stock conducted earlier this year. He is studying those plans and a few national ones to create models tailored to the new regulations and to Oregon’s various regions and pests.

Stock has crawled through cafeterias and classrooms in three states. “They’re all similar,” he says. “Every place has rats, mice, and ants.” According to his survey, the three most problematic indoor pests in Oregon’s schools are ants, mice, and spiders. Outdoors, the big three are yellow jackets, weeds, and gophers.

Being a pest detective involves a combination of science and gumshoe sleuthing — and some agility. Stock and his colleagues spend much of their time on their knees, poking around behind bookcases and under sinks. Today, the group starts in the kitchen at Salem Heights where a woman in a hairnet is preparing chili con carne for the school’s lunch.

“If you get way down here, you can see daylight,” says Stock, pointing to a gap under a door that’s just big enough for a pencil to slide under. That means a mouse could squeeze through. He recommends installing a brush-type sweep to cover the opening.

Keeping pests out is one of the main principles of IPM. Conventional pest control relies on pesticides, and sometimes pest controllers need to spray repeatedly. But as entomologist Gail Langellotto says, “Spraying doesn’t get to the core of the problem. It’s like cutting a few hairs off the monster.” IPM attacks the source of pest problems by making sure buildings are impenetrable fortresses with no cozy housing or tempting food for critters.

The average elementary school offers many pest amenities. Art projects made of seeds and cereal are a feast for rodents. Colorful ears of corn decorating classrooms at Thanksgiving can harbor Indian meal moth larvae. Food wrappers plastered inside trash cans draw yellow jackets. The scum in kitchen drains can breed drain flies. Corrugated cardboard boxes are condos for cockroaches. Crumbs under a microwave are a mouse’s midnight snack.

Rodents and roaches, Stock explains, can trigger asthma. In the U.S., nearly 7 million children – or nine percent of all people under 18 – have asthma, according to a 2008 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eight percent of all Oregon children have asthma, according to a 2007 report by the Oregon Department of Human Services. Other pests present other public health concerns. Some flies can spread diseases, as can the droppings of certain birds. Insect stings can send some people into anaphylactic shock. Bats can carry rabies, and their droppings can cause histoplasmosis, which can result in flu-like symptoms.

inspecting school hallway
Tim Stock (with flashlight, above) working with Tom Tacchini of Pacific Pest Control and with custodians and staff (below) from several school districts. Stock is leading action on the Oregon legislature's mandate that OSU Extension create a statewide plan for integrated pest management in schools. Photos by Lynn Ketchum.
pest i.d. class

Dousing these invaders with chemicals can create new health hazards. Children are especially vulnerable to pesticides because their bodies are still developing, Stock says. Little tykes can increase their exposure when they crawl on floors and tussle on lawns sprayed with pesticides.

Stock knows pesticides. One of his duties at the OSU Extension Service is to teach farm workers to handle pesticides safely and to look for signs of poisoning. He has done similar work in prior jobs in California, Washington, Cambodia, China, and Honduras. In Nicaragua he developed an IPM curriculum to help farmers manage pests using fewer chemicals. As a consultant in Pakistan for the United Nations he contributed to the creation of a national program to implement IPM on farms.

Stock and his colleagues move on from the school kitchen to the multipurpose cafeteria. They roll out the risers under a stage. Then they see it. A juvenile roof rat, dead in a trap.

Identifying the pest helps to know if there’s a health or safety risk. Some pests, like silverfish and earwigs, aren’t health threats, just nuisances. By knowing that this is a young rat, Stock would guess that there’s a nest nearby. Knowing that it’s a roof rat, which is skittish of traps, suggests that it may have overcome its fear with recurring visits to the same spot. “Know your enemy,” Stock says. “If you don’t understand what you’re dealing with, you might treat it incorrectly.”

teaching bug class
"I can talk about spiders all day long because I love them," says Gail Langellotto (above). Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

To help with this, Stock invited Langellotto, OSU Extension entomologist, to teach custodians from the Salem-Keizer school district how to identify insects. Equipped with for- ceps, hand lenses, identification books, and bugs, the custodians learned how to identify everything from firebrats to cigarette beetles.

“Nothing makes me happier than to talk about bedbugs and lice,” said the otherwise reserved and soft-spoken Langellotto. “The sucking lice have hooks on the end of their legs so they can stay on a kid’s head even if they scratch.”

She spellbound the custodians with other entomological party trivia: “Spiders will eat almost anything, including their brothers and sisters.” “You would not meet a shyer spider than a black widow.” “All bees have split ends on their hairs.”

examining insect specimens
Custodians learn to identify specific insects by examining wings, legs, and antennae. Photos by Lynn Ketchum.
PowerPoint slide

The custodians held up the insects and squinted into hand lenses as they swapped commentary. “Here’s a fine looking fungus beetle.” “This silverfish needs a frickin’ haircut.” “I’m trying to see the split ends on the bee.” The identification of pests is only one part of integrated pest management. It also includes monitoring, as Stock explains in a meeting with the principal and two custodians at Clover Ridge Elementary School in Albany. They gather in an office off the library, where Stock is folded into a kid-size chair, his long legs bumping against the low table. He holds up some sticky insect traps.

“You put these in the staff room and kindergarten, near a doorway or a sink. Then check them once a month,” he says. “If you ever see a cockroach, it’s something we’d want to deal with.”

Educating school employees about the ABCs of IPM is part of Stock’s job. Earlier this year he organized a workshop for custodians and maintenance managers from the Albany, Portland, and Salem-Keizer school districts. To help deliver the message, Stock invited Ricardo Zubiate from the Salt Lake City School District to share his experience with IPM.

Salt Lake used to apply pesticides once a month in their schools regardless of whether they needed them, Zubiate said. With IPM, custodians got rid of cockroaches by scrubbing drains. They lured bats out of a high school by installing bat houses on the roof. And they evicted voles from a middle school field by cutting the grass close to the ground, aerating the soil, and cleaning up littered food wrappers. IPM has saved the district thousands of dollars, Zubiate said. Saving money, however, wasn’t why the district switched to IPM. It was for the health of the students. Kids, he reminded the custodians in the audience, are the ones who are most impacted.

“You’re dealing with the future of America in your hands,” he told the custodians. “Embrace the responsibility.”

Oregon’s children are the driving force behind Stock’s work. He tirelessly explains IPM to school-related groups. He inspects schools, reports their progress, and drives to the state Capitol to update a Senate committee on his work. And month after month, he works to convince administrators that IPM should be a priority.

It’s not an easy pitch. Schools have other pressing problems, especially now in these tough economic times. But Stock perseveres. He gently reminds school officials to fix the screen in the basement or scrub a kitchen drain. He shines his flashlight into crevices and offers kudos when a school cleans out a cluttered room. He continues to train custodians as the first line of defense. Stock won’t stop until all 197 school districts embrace IPM. He’s one good pest who’s not going away.

Published in: Ecosystems, People, Health