Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pests Bugging You? You're Not Alone

Some of the pests you would rather not find around the home

(This article originally appeared on Forbes 4/29/16

April has been declared “National Pest Control Month,” so this is a good time to talk about one of those annoying realities of life – pests! Pests are something you will deal with whether you are a farmer, an organic farmer, a gardener, a home-owner, an apartment dweller, a hotelier, a restaurant owner or just about any other role. Sometimes they just a nuisance.  Sometimes there are real health issues. As I’ve written before, pests are simply part of the natural order, and they even plague plants growing in the most pristine wilderness areas.
The question isn’t whether we have to deal with pests. It's only how. I’d like to talk about a few statistics I’ve come across that give us a window on how we are all dealing with our pest challenges – particularly the 98+% of us who are not farmers.
Perhaps fittingly, as I sit down to write this post, I’ve just had to deal with three kinds of pests in my own suburban yard. I found some mosquito larvae swimming in a bit of standing water from a recent rain. In the age of Zika virus, that was definitely not OK! I then pulled some of endless weeds that somehow defeat my mulching efforts. Then I had to fish a dead gopher out of the pool. The critter has been mining my back yard and garden, so I can’t say that I was sad about its demise.
Pests I found in my yard just today
One good indicator of the reality of pests is a quick look down the pest control product aisle at your local hardware or garden store. One source projects that the US home and garden pest control market is on track to reach $2.4 billion by 2020 growing at 3% per year. Obviously, many take a DIY approach to at least some pest problems.

There is also a large, professional, pest control sector. We can get some feel for the scale of that industry from a trade association web page that lists the top 100 such companies in North America. The list includes 11 companies over with over $100MM in revenues in 2014, and 54 more with at least $10MM.

An interesting window on professional
pest control activity
One indication of the level of activity in the pest control business is given in some information shared for Pest Control Month by a company called Fleetmatics. They provide fleet tracking technology for many service sector businesses – the focus being efficient deployment and routing of vehicles and manpower. Their data shows that the pest control business is particularly busy. The 5,500 pest control vehicles they track made 11.5 million customer stops in 2015, averaging 10 stops per vehicle per day.  Apparently, that is 37% more stops than for other service-based fleets (e.g. plumbers, electricians, internet service providers…).  During the peak, summer season, the average stops/day frequently tops 13. At least for this company’s clients, the states with most pest control activity are spread broadly across the US. The top 10 states are shown on the infographic, but no state gets a pass from pests!
Fleetmatics put me in touch with Tyler Helton who runs a company in California called Knock Em Out Pest Control.

I learned several interesting things from Tyler:
  • A majority of professional pest control customers are homeowners (60-65%), many are property managers or rental owners, and the remainder include restaurants, schools etc.

  • The service calls are about evenly split between scheduled service visits and emergency/issue-driven requests.

  • Rodents (rats and mice) are the biggest single pest driver, at least for this company, but bedbugs are an increasingly important issue. A company’s ability to deal with them is a differentiator in the market.

  • The professional pest control business is growing, and smaller players are definitely able to make in-roads in the market.

Obviously, pesticides are a key part of the solution for these problems, but as in agriculture, they are only one part of an integrated system that includes several other tools (one of my most-read blog posts is titled “5 Ways That Farmers Control Pests Other Than Pesticides”).

For homes and businesses, the expert identification and blocking of entry points is an important strategy. Repellants are an attractive option. Trapping technologies are very important as a way to avoid unwanted exposure of people or pets to toxic agents. Traps are also widely used as a way to detect a new infestation so that it can be dealt with early before it becomes a big problem. One state-of-the-art approach is traps that can communicate back to the control company (e.g. via SMS) so that those busy service vans can be even more efficiently deployed.

One reason to talk about this annoying issue of pests is specifically to acknowledge that it is part of our common experience and something we need to address as best we can and without stigma. I recently heard a lecture about bedbug issues in schools while attending the 2016 Conference for the New Jersey Environmental Health Association.  Apparently bedbugs are quite proficient at traveling between homes and schools by hitching rides on kid’s backpacks. The speaker strongly emphasized  the importance of not stigmatizing the finding of these pests because their presence has no reflection on the cleanliness of a home. If a family discovers bedbugs, the best thing is to immediately inform the whole class so that other families can check for infestations. So with that example, I’ll leave you with the following advice from once my favorite characters, Wesley.

Specifically not "as you wish"