German Cockroach Survival Guide

The German Cockroach - What You Need To Know About This Longtime Industry Nemesis
By Robert J. Kopanic Jr., Pest Control Technology

Moving well into the first decade of 2000, the pest control industry is focusing on an increasing number of emerging urban pests, arthropod and non-arthropod alike. Let's take some time to review the basics of one pest that continues to hang in there regardless of what other "vogue" pests might be in the spotlight ... the German cockroach.

Gosh, a few years ago I heard rumors that we had the German cockroach (Blattella germanica) on the ropes. Researchers were having a difficult time finding apartments to conduct experimental trials, calls about infestations weren’t as frequent, and there was some dismay expressed from the industry.

Was the elimination of one of our long-time most lucrative money bugs on the horizon?

I think not, nor did I ever think so, just for the record. I was quite relieved to hear Dr. Coby Schal from North Carolina State University deliver the Arnold Mallis Memorial Award Lecture at the 2006 National Conference on Urban Entomology titled, "The German Cockroach: Reemergence of an Old Foe ... That Never Departed." The talk pointed out some excellent reasons why our good friend Blattella germanica is going to be here to stay ... at least for a while.

In addition, several companies have recently launched new cockroach gel bait products; targeting "bait-aversion," bait palatability and general resistance, acknowledging that PMPs continue to require the best formulations possible to fight this formidable pest. In honor of all of this, I would like to use this space to review some of the basics about the German cockroach.

Where did the German cockroach come from? To change Dr. Austin Frishman's common response to this question about invading species just a bit: "Who cares, they're everywhere [as opposed to here] now!" On a worldwide basis, the German cockroach has specialized in exploiting areas that humans inhabit.

Historical literature mentions two origins of the German cockroach. Cornwell (1968) suggests that this species originated from northeastern Africa, whereas Roth (1970) suggests that eastern Asia is a more likely estimation. As previously stated, regardless of where they came from, they are here now and got here by using humans as their primary means of dispersal. In modern time, the German cockroach has never been found far from humans or human activity; their sole existence depends upon humans wherever they are found.

The German cockroach is no doubt the most important cockroach pest species across the United States. They can be found in every state, and although they are not suited to surviving outdoors in those areas where ambient temperatures dip below freezing from time to time, they don’t need to because they have been able to thrive quite nicely in these less-than-perfect environmental situations by way of sharing the food, water, and shelter provided by homo sapiens.

What are cockroaches after? What do they want with our home? Why do I have them in my bathroom, and why are they so difficult to battle in food preparation areas? I like to tell people in my training sessions that the German cockroach is a lot more like us (humans) than not. That usually results in at least one or two strange stares back from the audience. But after all, they are animals (just like us). Consequently they seek the same sorts of things from their surroundings: food, water and shelter.

Cockroach Reproduction - Power In Numbers
Like so many of our urban insect pests, one factor that has allowed the German cockroach to thrive is its amazing reproductive capacity. Commonly, consumers will say, “I’ve heard that when you see one, there are thousands of others behind the walls that you don’t see!” Now while this isn’t necessarily always true (although I’ve seen some case where it was), this roach is quite capable of producing huge numbers of offspring. As you all know, the German cockroach, like other insects that go through incomplete metamorphosis, have three distinct life stages: egg, nymph, and adult. The nymph is distinguished from the adult by its size, lack of wings, and inability to reproduce.

The nymphs generally go through five to seven molts depending on environmental conditions (temperature, availability of food and water) before reaching the adult stage, and the elapsed time from egg fertilization to adult is usually around 100 days, again depending on the environmental factors listed above. It is important to remember that each fertilized female can produce anywhere from two to six egg capsules, or ootheca, during her adult career that will each contain anywhere from 15-40 individuals (in a one-to-one, male-to-female ratio).

This is what makes the pregnant female German cockroach such an important life state to consider. Given the food and water needed to survive, just one pregnant female stowed away in the bathroom or kitchen can result in a nice infestation within 100 days!

What would happen if every one of these offspring survives and mates, and then those females produce offspring? Although it’s just theoretical, you do the math!

Needless to say, the economic pest threshold for German cockroaches in homes or commercial establishments is different than the threshold of, say, aphids or corn earworms in our garden.

Do you know what that threshold is? ZERO of course! Just one cockroach can result in an infestation that is going to result in a phone call to the PMP.

Shoes Were Made For Walking
We generally think of German cockroaches as nocturnal creatures, but studies have demonstrated that they do most of their exploring and foraging for food and water three hours before it is dark and again one hour before the light. In situations where humans are involved these patterns may be changed or not always necessarily observed. We’ve heard it before when discussing ant foraging behaviors: the best time to find certain ant species foraging is right at dusk or at night. Perhaps this isn’t a bad idea for locating cockroaches either! It’s not always feasible to get into accounts during these times, but where possible it could assist you in discovering where roach populations are concentrated.

Eating Machines
There are a lot of accounts in the old literature about just what cockroaches will and won’t eat. Basically, there is the short story; they’ll TRY to survive on anything that has calories! Cockroaches haven’t been able to survive for hundreds of millions of years by being finicky eaters. Some of my favorites that are repeated over and over are cardboard, soap, hair, eyelashes and fingernails (of living humans!), not to mention each other (cannibalism), their fecal material (coprophagy), and regurgitated food (emetophagy). If you’ve been around long enough, you probably have a few favorites of your own. Bait manufacturers have created superior bait products by utilizing the aforementioned behaviors of cannibalism, coprophagy and emetophagy to their advantage. By incorporating active ingredients that are either slower acting, not metabolized or metabolized into other toxic (to the roaches) compounds, manufacturers have developed a deadly weapon against Blattella germanica. The theory is to use one cockroach that does wander into a bait placement as a carrier of material to other roaches that are in the colony. Several published studies have demonstrated the phenomenon of secondary kill or horizontal transfer. This allows the PMP to reach non-foraging or hiding individuals in an infestation without necessarily having to spray or treat directly deep into harborage areas. It also reduces the amount of material that has to be put down in an account. Furthermore, I think that most consumers or clients perceive baits as lower-impact pesticides. Bait placements should still be strategically placed as close to the harborage site as possible to maximize secondary/horizontal effects, so don’t skip that all-important step of inspection!

Just how little of a crumb is required for a German cockroach to survive? This depends on what survive means. There are plenty of studies on this topic, but first it is important to know that they can survive longer on water alone that on food alone. In the absence of both food and water, the mean survival time for adult females was shown to be 13 days and for males, eight days. However, if the proper amount and type of food (dog food being better than cardboard!) is available to them, it has been demonstrated that adult females could live for more than 300 days (that’s almost a year). Now just because the individual is alive, say in the case of the female roach above, doesn’t not mean that it is capable of reproducing. A diet with at least 5 percent available protein is required for the female to produce viable eggs. This is a bit of an academic point in must field cases as the food available to roaches in these conditions will likely have no problem meeting this protein requirement. Then again, it has also been demonstrated that in the absence of suitable protein sources, the German cockroach can compensate for this deficiency by eating larger amounts of lower protein food. Amazingly, but to their credit, cockroaches have been around for hundreds of millions of years! The thought that I’m hoping to trigger in your brain is the MOST important rule in German cockroach control: sanitation.

Sanitation Is Key
It doesn’t matter how attractive or palatable the particular bait you are using is, if you don’t take proper measures to insure that basic sanitation practices are followed, i.e. cleaning up the alternate food and water sources, your treatment program could be in jeopardy. I can see you shaking your heads out there, and I know, sanitation is easier said than done, but make every effort that you can to incorporate sanitation into your treatment programs. It will pay off with happy customers in the long run.

As stated earlier, water is a much more limiting factor for the German cockroach than is food (in facts it’s the same for us and all other animals as well), so managing sources of available water through sanitation practices is as important if not MORE important to your sanitation strategy. A suitable water source for a German cockroach doesn’t have to be much; it can be a small drip in a leaky faucet or pipe, condensation on a sink or toilet bowl, moisture around a commercial dish-washing area or even an extremely humid moist area underneath a kitchen sink. The German cockroach will also travel surprisingly great distances from the harborage to get to a water source. But when conducting those inspections, find the water leak or source of moisture and you’ll find the cockroaches if they are there. A pregnant female cockroach can stay in the harborage and go without water for as long as five days! When was the last time you went without a drink of water for five days? This to me is an amazing adaptive benefit to limiting the amount of time out in the open and therefore susceptibility to predators (or the bottom of a shoe!).

Have you ever noticed that in a large infestation of German cockroaches you tend to see more nymphs and adult males foraging (out of the harborage) than females? Adult male German cockroaches seem to require more frequent visits to water and food resources. There is at least one good explanation for this occurrence. Appel et al. (1983) demonstrated the water loss rate of adult male German cockroaches was three times higher than that of adult females. They lose water through their cuticle more rapidly than the more robust adult females and must therefore take in water more often. Silverman (1986) conducted laboratory studies demonstrating increased frequency and duration of feeding bouts when cockroaches had to travel to get to the food/water resources, particularly at higher population densities.

When resources were much closer to the harborage, frequency and duration of feeding bouts decreased in particularly high density populations. One suggested explanation for this is that increased competition for the same resource results in feeding disturbances. What does this mean for the PMP? You’ve heard it before: use more and smaller bait placements - i.e. dots - rather than fewer larger ones. You’re less likely to encounter the above cockroach behavior if you have more available food sources, especially in that one really tough account with thousands of roaches!

We have reviewed just some of the basic principles of cockroach biology and survival. There is, of course, a whole lot more to it than that we’ve discussed here. An excellent book dedicated entirely to the German cockroach, Understanding and Controlling the German Cockroach by Rust et al., is a great resource for those who want to learn more about the lowly but fascinating German cockroach. I hope this article has reminded you to think of some of these principles when you are out there baiting or spraying for cockroaches, and that you don’t rely on only the chemicals alone, but on a good understanding of what allows your enemy to survive as well as it does. Remember, you’re a lot more like a roach than you are different…

What Are WDI & WDO Reports?

This is a home in Franklin VA that is being sold. Suffolk Pest Control Inc. was contacted by the buyer's real estate agent to perform a Wood Destroying Insect & Moisture Report (WDI) for the mortgage company who is providing the loan. The inspection appointment was then scheduled.

The Suffolk Pest Control technician/inspector completed the WDI & Moisture Reports. The inspection revealed active Wood Destroying Fungus to the sub-floor, joist and beams in the under-structure of the home.

The Suffolk Pest Control technician/inspector recommended that a fungus treatment be completed prior to closing. A proposal for a fungus treatment was then written and provided to the buyer's real estate agent.

The buyer's agent submitted the proposal to the seller's real estate agent who then informed the sellers of the recommended fungus treatment.

The sellers agree to the treatment and called the Suffolk Pest Control office to schedule the treatment.

The treatment was completed and the SPC technician/inspector recorded the treatment on the Wood Destroying Insect & Moisture Report.

The reports are then emailed to the buyer's agent who sends them to the seller's agent and the buyer's mortgage company as proof that the fungus treatment has been completed.

The buyer's mortgage company used the WDI & Moisture Report as a determining factor in the loan approval process for the buyers of this home. In most cases, the mortgage company approves the loan for the home and the buyers make the purchase.

The buyers have a one year warranty on the fungus treatment. After one year the buyers have the option to renew the warranty  every year thereafter. An annual warranty inspection is required along with the renewal fee. If fungus returns and the home is under warranty, the home will be retreated at no charge to the homeowner. This is called a re-treatment warranty.

Fleas On The Rebound – Theories Abound Regarding The Resurgence Of Flea Calls

On The Rebound, Theories Abound Regarding The Resurgence Of Flea Calls
By Lisa Lupo, Pest Control Technology, July 2006

It’s a fact that fleas are reemerging across most of the U.S., but it’s pure speculation as to why this is happening. flea_eggTen to 15 years ago, fleas were a significant piece of business for most residential pest control companies. Then in the 1990s on-pet application with actives such as fipronil, imidacloprid and the IGR methoprene, were introduced, due in part to the research of Dr. Michael Dryden, professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University (KSU). Dryden and others found that dog- and cat-infesting fleas cannot survive apart from their host and need constant host relationship for reproduction. The breakthrough, says Dryden’s KSU website, led to the development of topical and systemic flea treatments “which can be applied directly to the pet without having to treat its environment.”

As a result, the slice of the service pie allocated to the pest management industry steadily shriveled to virtually nothing. It stayed that way for years, with companies getting calls now and again for fleas, but veterinarians and their on-pet products taking over the bulk of the business. Gradually pest management companies quit training on flea treatments; flea products disappeared from inventory; and a generation of service technicians was raised with no flea service experience.

Even the Ninth edition of the Mallis Handbook of Pest Control, a virtual bible for PSOs, stated, “In the last decade, flea control products killing virtually 100% of on-host populations have been developed…Using these host-targeted products has minimized the necessity for environmental treatments, switching flea control out of the professional pest management market.

During the last few years; however, these revolutionary on-pet products seem to be losing control of the fleas. The industry is once again getting calls, buyers are scrambling to research and stock product, and technical directors are rewriting training programs. The amount of resurgence, however appears to vary by area:

Florida - “We’ve seen an increase in fleas population; we’ve also had increasing difficulty in controlling them,” says Ron Box, director of education and scientific affairs for Hulett Environmental Services, which has 10 Florida offices.

Minnesota - Though the season starts a bit later, Jay Bruesch, technical director of Fridley, Minn.-based Plunkett’s Pest Control, says they have been seeing more fleas in recent years, “not…this spring, but late last summer things were really hopping.”

Illinois - McCloud Services, Hoffman Estate, Ill., is primarily a commercial service company, but in both the apartment buildings and residences they service, they are experiencing increases in calls, says McCloud Technical Director Pat Hottel.

Flea service requests seem to be picking up again for Peter Schopen, president, Schopen’s Pest Control, McHenry, Ill. “Fifteen to eighteen years ago, I remember that I used to do three or four flea jobs a week,” he says. “Now I do maybe only ten over the whole summer; although in the last couple years, it seem that it’s a little on the rise.”

John Forbes, who is now a sales representative for Univar in Illinois, previously worked as a pest control technician. “We were doing flea jobs several times a week,” he says, then the spot-on products came along. “When that happened, the flea market dropped probably 75 percent.” But two years ago, he says, the market began to revive.

Texas - Bart Foster, technical director of Bill Clark Pest Control, Beaumont, Texas, says calls have been fairly steady the past three years. “We are getting calls,” he says. “It’s a pretty constant challenge for us.” A challenge, which that very morning had been the subject of a training meeting and for which the company is still seeking an effective product.

California - The story is a bit different on the West Coast, where some companies are reporting no increase in flea calls at all. Keith Willingham, technical director of Anaheim, Calif.-based Western Exterminator, reports that Western actually had fewer flea jobs in 2005 than it did in 2004, and its calls continue to be low this year. Scott Crowley, technical director of Lloyd Pest Control, San Diego, concurs, stating that the few calls they receive are typically from pet owners who are not familiar with available products or are having problems with wild animals.

Why the resurgence in most states? We spoke with more than a dozen industry specialists, including researchers, manufacturer reps, technical directors and PSOs, asking for their thoughts and speculation on what might be the reason. The most common answer: “I just don’t know.” But once assured that the speculation would be positioned as just that, as a guess as to what may be happening – They gave it more thought and provided some fairly consistent theories.

By far, product resistance was the most frequently proposed theory, with the researchers tending most toward this view. “We always think of insect resistance,” says Dr. Nancy Hinkle, entomologist at the University of Georgia and author of the Mallis flea chapter. “We’re never surprised, when an insecticide is used intensively and extensively, to see insect’s resistance.”

The “general chatter” in the research community is that it is resistance, agrees Dr. Gary Bennett, professor at Purdue University. All the on-animal products came out at about the same time, he explains, and flea control shifted from the pest management industry to the veterinarian. As a result, “I think we’re starting to see resistance, “he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised because most of the components being used are reaching the points in their lifetimes that you see resistance cropping up.”

“The suspicion is that there may be some kind of resistance,” Forbes agrees, adding that manufacturers are working on some product formulation changes. “They are still being used, but I think the problem is that they sold so much and used so much that fleas started developing a resistance.” The lesser problem in California could even be a result of the state’s strict regulations and aversion to pesticides in general, Forbes speculates as a “best guess.” As eco-friendly as the state is, the on-animal products may have been used less heavily, with California retaining instead a stronger emphasis on an integrated pest management approach to flea control.

Bruesch says that during the last few years, “I heard predictions that we were going to start seeing flea control work again because fipronil would start seeing failures.” The increased work for the pest management industry would be, he says, “due to an expected development of resistance to the products being used by veterinarians.”

However, there are those who disagree with resistance as a cause. In a 2004 presentation at the Western Veterinary Conference, Dryden stated, “While insecticide resistance may cause organophosphate- and pyrethroid-based flea products to fail, no one knows the extent of insecticide resistance to fipronil, imidacloprid, lufenuron, methoprene, pyriproxyfen, or selamectin in cat flea populations. Even today, if a product containing fipronil, imidacloprid, lufenuron, methoprene, pyriproxyfen, or selamectin fails, some veterinarians cite resistance as the cause. But in my experience, true product failures are rare, and most problems stem from poor compliance, application or administration errors, and a lack of understanding of important biologic and epidemiologic parameters in the flea life cycle.” Dryden’s research has been recognized for its significance in modern veterinary dermatology.

Jeff Smith, Univar’s e-business content manager who coordinates and deals with PCOs across the nation, says he has not had a huge surge of question on fleas, but he has noticed a gradual reemergence of the pest. He has not really thought much about why, he says, but “I am loathe to say, ‘there must be some resistance.’ That’s an easy cop out.”

With excessive growth and expansion common to cities across the U.S., our wildlife is being increasingly pushed from its established habitat – evidenced in many areas by the increasing number of animals lying dead on roadsides. Are some of these animals resisting the push, or even moving further in to seek home, and bringing with them parasites – such as the resurging flea?

Box, for one, has seen an increase in feral and nuisance animals in Florida. “We’re always constantly destroying their normal areas of habitation,” he says.

Hinkle cites a study by Dryden showing that raccoons, opossums and such feral animals in urban areas support more fleas than those in rural areas. The animals are attracted by the cities’ safe living conditions as well as accessibility of food, such as particles found in open dumpsters or pet bowls left outside, which results in more wildlife per area in the city than in rural areas. Thus, she says, “they have increased opportunity to interact with one another and share their fleas,’” and to interact – and share fleas – with house pets as well.

This interaction is, according to Dryden’s KSU biography, an area of cooperative research. “As a result of continual urbanization, displaced wildlife often finds refuge and seeks food in suburban areas. Interactions with some of the most common species of urban wildlife, such as raccoons, skunks or opossums may pose serious health risks to humans and their pets.”

The industry has seen it with both cockroaches and bed bugs: The efficacy of cockroach bait brought with it an over-reliance on that product to the neglect of integrated management, and the industry’s departure from baseboard treatments is suspected as enabling bed bugs to regain a hold in hotels and residences. Has the homeowner’s concentration on on-pet applications and neglect of integrated treatment enabled fleas to rebuild their populations?

In PCT’s November 2005 article “Back to the Future,” Medical Entomologist Jerome Goddard, of the Mississippi Department of Health in Jackson, was cited as noting the reemergence of fleas. At that point he stated that the cause was uncertain, but theorized that it could be products not working as well as they used to, pet owners using over-the-counter products and making inadequate applications, fleas becoming resistant, or owners not taking an integrated approach. Today, Goddard affirms, the cause is still uncertain. It may be possible that there is some resistance developing, but there is no evidence of this, he says, adding that, rather than speculating on causes, “I’d stick to the facts. Flea problems are getting worse again,” he says. He advises technicians: “Pay attention to what you’re doing and do it right. Don’t get sloppy. Don’t depend on veterinarian products to take care of it.”

While the on-animal products were revolutionary, they are not the whole answer. “I think we saw that a little bit with baits for cockroaches. People think, ‘That takes care of it so I don’t have to do anything,’ “he says, “but the basics of pest control have not changed.” An integrated approach including sanitation and physical measures is needed. “You have to still do those things.”

Perhaps the homeowner is getting lax, a few experts speculated. They haven’t seen flea problems in a while and, as a result, have become less diligent with their applications or veterinarian visits. Pet owners may not be bothering to apply flea products at all or neglecting to reapply the product at regular intervals, and with even a few of the pet-owning experts of this article admitting to slipping in this area, this could be an implicator for the fleas’ comeback.

As with most pesticides, there are definite limits to the efficacy of flea products. “You have to reapply it every month on an animal,” says Michael Chapman, technical service and field development representative, Bayer Environmental Science, Placentia, Calif. “That’s a limitation of the product. There’s a constant potential for re-infestation.”

With fleas in virtual remission for more than a decade, there is an entire generation of pest control technicians who have never dealt with the pest, and a host of others who have not conducted the treatment in so long that the finer points have been relegated to some far corner of the mind - if retained at all.

“When I was a technician, that was my route, doing flea work,” Chapman says. “Then the on-animal stuff came along and that market really dropped off to almost nothing. You still had calls, but it wasn’t like it used to be.” As a result, he adds, technicians are no longer getting trained in flea control, they’re not aware of flea biology, they’re not communicating with the customer to find out where the pet travels and spends its time, they’re not integrating adulticides and insect growth regulators, so they’re ending up with hit-and-miss service, which doesn’t result in effective control.

“A lot of new people have come along who have not had to do many flea jobs,” Hinkle says. And the fact that the newer technicians have not been trained in flea work could be a reason we are seeing an increase in populations. “We need to go back to what we were doing 15-20 years ago,” she says. Technicians need to understand the pest biology and life-cycle as well as its relationship with its host and how to effectively target the flea.

“It’s really more re-educating them on the flea biology,” Chapman says. “We have some good products to target that as long as you know the biology.”

Thus, it’s not just the homeowner who may have become lax in treatment or even an understanding of fleas and proper control methods. Forbes provides an example of a visit he made to a dog track with a customer. “The fleas out there were beyond belief,” he says. The primary reason was that the dogs were being kept in a sandpit next to the track. “Fleas and sand go hand in hand,” and with the greyhound’s thin skin and low body fat, they were suffering. The track did have a pest control service, but it was obvious that a great deal more product was being used than should have been, Forbes said. Though it is a singular incident by an individual PCO, the situation does provide a concrete example of the need for training, not only on service practices but on flea biology as well.

Unfortunately, though, it is a training that many companies gradually eliminated over the last decade because of the lack of need. As flea calls now become more and more numerous, management is dusting off old programs, taking a look at updated techniques and products and reintegrating fleas into training programs while working on-on-one with newer technicians who are getting calls that they’d never had to deal with in the past.

“We took flea training out, literally because there were no fleas to control,” Bruesch says of Plunkett’s training. Now the company is rewriting its SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) on fleas.

Here are some other theories behind the flea resurgence from various experts contacted by PCT.

Weather - Until recently, it had been extremely dry in Florida, Box says, a condition that helps promote the growth of fleas.

Subterranean Crawlspaces - Perhaps it is because of the increased in-city wildlife, but Hulett now makes treatment of subterranean crawl spaces mandatory for any flea job. This has become an essential step to gaining control, Box says.

Placebo Effect - Smith wonders if homeowners who used the on-animal applications actually overlooked the fact that they still had fleas. He cites a study in which ultrasonic flea collars were used on pets. Although ultrasonics have been proven to have no effect on fleas, pet owners in the study swore that the fleas were eliminated. “Maybe it was a placebo effect {with the application}, and reality is just catching up.”

With all the suppositions, thoughts and theories on Why?, the fact remains that fleas are back and, once again, are a pest that technicians are being asked to understand and control. Though many companies are having to dust off and re-introduce their flea training manuals, the positive.htmlect is that they are able to do just that with very little change. The steps for control are essentially the same as they were 15 years ago. And most experts expect the reemergence to continue. “I think we will continue to see these pests as a problem,” Hinkle says. “We never completely eliminate anything. There’s always a reservoir.”

The best part about the flea reemergence is most consider it a boon for the industry. Bruesch agrees that “there has to have been a whole reservoir of fleas” to have spurred the resurgence, and he expects it to continue and increase, adding, “I’m glad about it actually. Fleas were one pest that if you knew you did a good job, and covered all your bases, you could always get control.”

Smith concurs, adding that he hopes fleas continue to increase. “We didn’t cause it,” he points out, but it certainly is good for the industry. “Fleas are my favorite pest!”

Don’t Panic Over Termites

By Shirley Mozingo, At Home, June 10, 2006

In early May, a friend and resident of Southern Shores saw some insects flying around inside her living room window that she believed were termites. She quickly called the local office of a national pest control company and a representative came out the next day.

"He went under the house and said the termites were coming up inside the cinderblock foundation. He said they would have to come in and drill holes in the cinderblocks to inject an insecticide and bury traps around the house," she recalled.

After signing an annual contract for termite treatment to the tune of $1,342, she was telling a neighbor about the flying termites when the neighbor said, “I’ll bet you don’t have termites. You have flying ants.”

“That bothered me all night,” my friend admitted, “So the next morning, I Googled ‘flying ants’ and there they were – those little guys that had been flying around my window. It was real obvious they weren’t termites.”

She called the pest control company and rescinded the contract. The Federal Trade Commission’s Cooling-Off Rule gives consumers three days to cancel purchases of $25 or more and get a full refund if they buy an item in their home.

“Many times people get swarming ants diagnosed as termites. That’s because most people who come out and do termite inspections are also salesmen and they are on straight commission. When you’re on straight commission, there can be a tendency to be a little less than honorable sometimes when you’re getting a percentage of a $1,000 contract,” said Robert Hancock, 57, president of Outer Banks Pest Control.

Fraud has become so prevalent in the industry that so-called “bug lawyers” – attorneys who only handle lawsuits against pest control companies – are increasing throughout the termite belt, which includes North Carolina and most of the southern states.

Reported complaints include improperly applying fungicide; performing “windshield” or “drive-by” re-inspections for customers with annual contracts; submitting fraudulent pest inspection reports; performing ineffective or illegal treatments; billing for services not performed; falsifying records or reports; and practicing misleading sales tactics, such as signing customers up for monthly inspections but switching them to quarterly ones with no reduction in cost or, as in my friend’s case, leading her to believe that the insects she saw were termites.

“I love this industry. That’s why I’ve been in it for almost 40 years, but it does lend itself to a lot of unscrupulous people,” Hancock said.

Hancock has a degree in entomology and studied insects for 10 years while working in the regulatory division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. He owned five pest control companies in Oklahoma before retiring and moving to the Outer Banks, where he opened a family run company six years ago.

One of the first lessons Hancock teaches his clients is how to distinguish between swarming ants and termites.

Ants have elbowed antennae and a constricted midsection (a “waist”) while termites have neither. If wings are present, the front and back wings of ants will vary in shape and size, while the front and back wings on termites are very similar in shape and size.

This is the time of year that both kinds of insects are swarming and, contrary to rumor, ants and termites can coexist, said Tommy Jump, president of Four Seasons Pest Control.

"I’ve opened up bait systems and found ants in the top and termites in the bottom."

“Ants will eat termites if they come across one, but termites live off cellulose,” he said. Termites survive by ingesting cellulose, which is found in wood and wood products such as books, carpets, drywall, flooring, paneling, canvas, cardboard and furniture.

The destruction they can cause is related to their unique ability to convert the cellulose in wood and paper to sugar. The do this with the special aid of protozoa and bacteria that live in their digestive tracts.

It's been said that, if you live on the Outer Banks, there are three types of termites: those you had, those you have and those you will have.

In reality, there are more than 45 different species of termites in the United States that fall into three major types: the drywood, subterranean (also called ground termites) and Formosan.

In North Carolina, our main problem is with subterranean termites, the little critters that normally live below ground before tunneling into our homes. Pest control experts attribute 95 percent of the annual damage done by termites in the United States to the subterranean species.

To make a house less susceptible to wood-chewing insects, foundations should be as impenetrable as possible and there should be no direct contact between the soil and untreated wood.

“Laying wood debris or firewood beside the house is a ‘no no.’ If you have any untreated wood next to your house, that’s basically inviting termites in,” said Jump. “You also don’t want sand building up against the side of your house because that creates a bridge that termites can cross to get in and avoid treated areas.”

Finding tunnel-like pathways on your foundation may be evidence of infestation.

“Mud tunnels are the first things to look for. You should have a qualified person come out and take a look at that. Hopefully, it will be somebody honest who will tell you what is going on under there,” said Jump, who recommends that homeowners go into the crawl space with him so he can show them evidence of infestation.

Other indications that a house may have termites include sagging or spongy floors; cracking paint; moisture problems; soft wood that’s easily penetrated with a knife; loose plaster; jammed doors or windows; wood that sounds hollow when tapped with the handle of a screwdriver; and a thin, gritty gray-brown film on the surface of damaged material.

Once termite infestation is confirmed, it’s best to get at least three estimates and then evaluate what each company is offering in terms of both the treatment and a guarantee. You should not feel pressured into making a quick decision.

“If you suspect you have termites, don’t panic,” said Fawn Pattinson, executive director of the Agricultural Resources Center Pesticide Education Project, a nonprofit consumer advocate group based in Raleigh that works to prevent human and environmental exposure to toxic pesticides.

“There’s a misconception that, if there are termites at your house, they’ll destroy it instantaneously.

“So, people often make decisions before they get all the information. You do have time to gather all your options and make an informed decision.”

Termites eat about a foot to a foot and a half of a 2-by-4 a year, Hancock said. “That’s not much wood when you talk about the overall structural integrity of a house,” he said.

The best treatment depends upon the house, its location, the extent of infestation and your budget, the experts say.

“You ask yourself, ‘How old is the house? Where are the termites coming up? Why are they coming up in that spot?’”Hancock said

Treatments may include a partial or whole-house application of a termiticide, wall injections, foam treatments or bait stations.

Hancock prefers treating a house with Termidor, a liquid that is applied to the home’s foundation walls and creates a continuous treatment zone that is guaranteed for 10 years.

If a house shows no signs of infestation, Hancock recommends no treatment “unless the people will worry themselves to death about termites. Then I tell them to get on a program,” he said.