"From the time he's an infant, the average person is brought up to believe that all bugs are bad and that we should annihilate em all immediately," says antipesticide activist Debbie McQueen. "The truth is that there's a purpose for every bug in the world--whether we like it or not."
McQueen, who confesses she's "terrified" of moths and grasshoppers, isn't in love with the insect world. But she's even less enamored of commercial pest-control methods. Several years ago, McQueen claims, she and her family became ill when a field behind her Glendale home was repeatedly used as a dumping ground for crop-dusting chemicals. As a result, she and her family fled the neighborhood and have since moved to east Phoenix.
"Pesticides cause cancer, birth defects and developmental effects," charges McQueen, founder of the five-year-old group Residents for Alternative Pest Policy (RAPP). "I know of no insect that causes cancer or birth defects. I don't like bugs, but I've learned to live with them. Does it really make sense to bring poison into your home just to get rid of a few pests that aren't bothering anyone?"
Not to the members of McQueen's statewide organization. Devoted to the concept of "integrated pest management" (IPM), the group opposes what it views as excessive use of chemical pesticides, a widespread practice McQueen calls a "quick fix." "That's all pesticides are," she says. "Because the insects' resistance to pesticides has been skyrocketing, this stuff doesn't even solve the problem, anyway."
Instead, McQueen's group--which recently participated in a seminar focusing on IPM in schools--advocates a variety of alternative pest-control scenarios that, wherever possible, involve no toxins. McQueen explains that schools were singled out for special attention because children (whose bodies are more susceptible to toxins) often play on the floor, putting them on the same level as the pesticide residues. Furthermore, many modern schools are relatively airtight, possibly forcing young students to breathe unventilated poisons day after day.
Programs like McQueen proposes have been around in other states for years, most notably in California, which has been active in IPM since 1972. Still, McQueen says that Arizona has been slow to embrace the movement for a number of reasons--ignorance, misinformation and fear of insects among them.
But perhaps the biggest stumbling block has been resistance on the part of the extermination industry, a reluctance to change for which the public may have no one to blame but itself. Quite simply, integrated pest management is a tough sell.
So says Michael Hendrickx, believed to be the only commercial exterminator in the Valley currently using IPM techniques. "When you talk about IPM, everyone says, 'Oh, yes, that sounds very good--but go ahead and do whatever it takes to get rid of those darn bugs,'" says Hendrickx, owner of Discovery Integrated Pest Management, a registered branch of College Pest Control. "IPM is a much slower process, and people don't always want to wait." Apparently, they're not very interested in watching the IPM practitioner perform prosaic tasks like sucking up cobwebs with a vacuum cleaner or stuffing steel wool into baseboard gaps, either.
"People like to see power-spraying," claims Hendrickx, who used traditional extermination techniques before turning to IPM 18 months ago. "They want to see that big tank on the back of the truck, because it makes them feel like they're getting their money's worth. A lot of what goes on in traditional pest-control operations is strictly for show." Clouding the issue further is the fact that pests are in the eye of the beholder. "If it weren't for people, all these organisms out there wouldn't even be considered pests," says entomologist Bill Currie, an instructor at a three-day IPM seminar held at Paradise Valley Community College two weeks ago. "These so-called 'pests' are just doing what they naturally do. It's not until they interfere with people that they even become considered pests. All of these things have their purpose." Yes, Virginia, that even includes the lowly cockroach, the bug world's answer to dumpster divers.
"Cockroaches are scavengers that feed on detritus and food particles," explains Currie, who jokes that he has spent 30 years learning to think like a cockroach. "If we don't clean up, they will. And the sloppier we are, the more likely we're going to have a big population of cockroaches."
Of course, Currie concedes that this gratis cleanup operation is not without its downside: Because these nocturnal "janitors" spend so much of their off-duty time lurking in sewers and clammy drainpipes, they frequently carry disease into the home.
Short of calling a spray-happy exterminator, what's a homeowner to do?
For starters, know thy pest. Because effective treatment of the problem can vary so drastically from pest to pest (remedies may range from the Heloisian simplicity of a household hint to the introduction of natural enemies), experts stress the importance of correctly identifying the vermin that's causing the problem.
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Why make a mountain out of an anthill when the nontoxic solution may be as near as your microwave oven? "If you can find the opening to the colony, pour boiling water down the hole and fry those suckers," advises McQueen. "Two dumpings should do it nicely." Too cold-blooded? Simply whip up a citrus-peel paste in your blender, then pack the mound with the goop. The citric acid gets em every time.
Cockroaches? Bill Currie reports that an imported squadron of parasitic wasps may be just the ticket. Although so small that they are able to fly through a screen, the wasps have an acquired taste for yummy cockroach caviar. But even Currie admits most people aren't going to sit still for insect warfare in a public place.
"We're not saying, 'Never use chemicals,'" Currie says. "There are some situations where you've got to use something. Say you own a restaurant and the cockroaches have somehow gotten out of control. You've got the health department standing outside with a two-pound hammer and a 16-penny nail, and they're going to nail your door shut if you don't do something now. We know that the pests didn't arrive overnight, so you're not going to get results overnight, either." Currie suggests some judicious spraying to "knock the population down, then do the long-term measures afterwards."
Activists also emphasize the importance of gauging the extent of a pest problem: One vinegarroon does not an infestation make.
"You've got to know what you're dealing with, then use our knowledge of that species to figure out a way to exclude them from that environment," says Currie. "In IPM it's not enough just to say, 'Eeek, a bug!'