They may not be the most destructive pests or the biggest threats to human health, but for many homeowners and property managers, centipedes, silverfish and springtails are the quintessential nightmarish creepy crawlers. For PMPs, dealing with these pests also can be a nightmare without adequate training and education. That’s why, at NPMA PestWorld 2012, George Williams, general manager and staff entomologist for Environmental Health Services, Boston, shared his insights into these pests and the unique techniques, challenges and opportunities in treating them.
Identification. First and foremost, proper identification is key. According to Williams, most jobs involving these pests are sold over the phone, which means customers have already made their own identification of the pest, which may or may not be accurate.
“Doing a proper inspection…is an area where a lot of companies minimize what they do as far as solving any pest problem. A lot of the information you need, you are going to find out as you are doing the application,” said Williams. For instance, customers often confuse springtails with fleas because of their similar size, tendency to appear in large numbers, and characteristic hopping and jumping.
Many home and property owners also confuse silverfish, often called “bristletails,” and firebrats, which can coexist in the same environment. To treat for these pests, however, it is important for a pest management professional to recognize that silverfish prefer humid environments whereas firebrats prefer dryer climates, and both pests will congregate in areas that meet their respective needs.
Due to their number of legs, centipedes are less often misidentified; however, PMPs also must be familiar with the other names, such as “hundred leggers,” that customers may use to identify them. Williams breaks down pest identification into two categories: behavior and biology.
Behavior. In terms of behavior, centipedes and springtails are both considered exterior pests most active in the spring and summer or warmer months, though they do exhibit some levels of activity in the winter months. Though these pests prefer exterior habitats, Williams notes that unfavorable changes in environmental conditions often can drive them indoors.
“For the most part, these pests don’t want to be inside…if they come inside, conditions [usually] are not going to be favorable enough for them to support the infestation and also thrive,” said Williams. Both inside and out, their ideal conditions are dark, damp, humid and covered (for protection). As a result, centipedes and springtails are often found hiding under stored heavy items in basements and crawlspaces or living in exterior leaf litter, mulch or woodpiles, or under fixed items like planters and decks.
Silverfish also prefer warm, humid conditions, but are often found in a wider variety of indoor locations such as basements, attics and bathrooms. These pests are normally active at night and will forage great distances for food until they find a source, at which point they will stay relatively close to the food area. Like centipedes and springtails, silverfish prefer protected areas, which means they often have complex harborage sites such as under cedar shingles, in poorly ventilated soffits and eaves, beneath attic insulation or under stationary stored items.
Biology. Biologically, the three pests are also very different.
Centipedes, as their nickname would suggest, are known for their numerous legs, though the number of legs can vary from 10 to 100 or more. This number also increases through the molting process, and, during later molts, the last pair of legs become more lasso-like to catch prey. The house centipede is found throughout the United States, but grows to different lengths depending on how favorable the conditions are. In warmer climates, for instance, the giant centipede species grows up to 8 inches in length. Some centipedes can live up to five or six years and, during warmer months, females can lay more than 30 eggs throughout the reproduction process. Williams notes that centipedes are generally harmless to humans; however, they can have a venomous bite that many people compare to a bee sting and can be dangerous to small children and those with allergies to bee stings (anaphylactic shock).
Springtails are quite small, certainly much smaller than centipedes, and even though they can molt more than 50 times a year, their size does not change much after their 15th molt. This pest is entirely dependent on moisture and will, therefore, move in search of moist conditions. Springtails congregate in large numbers, sometimes as many as 50,000 per cubic yard, and will exhibit the same pop and jump of fleas, but, unlike fleas and centipedes, springtails are not biting pests.
Silverfish are often a silver-gray color and can molt 50 times in a year. They reach sexual maturity in as short as a few months or in as long as two to three years. Female silverfish will lay between one and 20 eggs per day, though the eggs need temperatures between 72 and 90°F and high humidity to survive. Silverfish can live three to five years and can survive weeks without food or water and up to 300 days without food when water is available. While centipedes are often predacious insects, feeding on other bugs, silverfish prefer carbohydrate and protein items like paper products and fungi. Silverfish have the ability to digest cellulose. “They’re going to ingest it and digest it, in addition to causing damage to it,” said Williams.
Inspection. Understanding how and why each pest behaves as it does will help any professional perform a proper and thorough inspection. When customers arrange for a technician to inspect their property, Williams says the first thing the technician should do is discuss the process with the customer to manage expectations. “Doing that,” said Williams, “is going to make it easier on the tech and it’s going to minimize complaint calls going back to the office.”
Before inspecting the property, the technician also should question the customer about the pests, such as how long the problem has existed and where the majority of the visible activity has been occurring. “What they’re going to say usually is ‘everywhere,’” Williams said, so you have to probe further for more information. Technicians also should ask about any recent changes to the landscape or the house, such as any remodeling or construction within in the past five years.
Even if the customer is able to give a specific location of pest activity, Williams recommends that technicians perform a thorough inside and outside “walkabout” in order to gain context for where and why the infestation is occurring. “I have the habit of wanting to go around the outside first,” said Williams, “Reason being…if you know the outside, you can figure out what’s contributing to the inside problems.” Once inside, Williams also recommends moving items around — with customer permission — to force out any hiding pests and to check habitat conditions. Plastic bins, for instance, may keep items dry, but their bottoms can form a vapor seal that retains humidity and attracts pests.
Inspection focal areas should be those that are known harborage sites for these pests such as basements, attics, attached garages and anywhere else that the pest has been spotted. During the inspection, technicians should note all conducive conditions and findings in their notes. If conditions are ideal for infestation, these notes will help in any follow-up services and could be the difference between a single successful visit and multiple re-treatments that cause you to lose money.
For any inspection, Williams also recommends that all technicians be equipped with a rechargeable flashlight, backup flashlight and multi-use tool and be trained in how to properly use them during the inspection process.
Treatment. Before any treatment can occur, Williams warns that pest management professionals must understand local, state and federal regulations regarding certain treatment processes. For some states, if the pest is not listed on the product label, that product cannot be used to treat for that pest; however, in states that operate under the federal label, Williams says, “you don’t need the pest on the label as long as the site is on the label, so, that gives you a lot of flexibility.” For firms operating across multiple states, state-specific education on treatment regulations should be incorporated into any training regimen to ensure full compliance with all applicable laws.
Once the problem has been identified, technicians should then discuss the treatment process with the customer. First, the technician needs to ensure that the customer understands the expected outcomes of the treatment process. “Insecticide treatments are not a silver bullet. You’re not going to go in there with a magic wand and solve things,” said Williams.
Before beginning any treatment, the technician also needs to determine if the customer has performed any DIY treatments or used other professionals in the past. “There can be a situation where you make an application and that particular product that you’re using could not mix well or reside well with the product that they use,” warned Williams. Finally, once a treatment has been determined, the technician should realize the paperwork is a legal document, ensuring that all writing is legible and accurate.
To treat for these pests, Williams uses a variety of products, depending on the location and degree of the infestation. In indoor places such as voids, he recommends dust formulations (organic dust for sensitive areas). Nuvan Prostrips can be used in unoccupied areas (occupied by people less than four hours per day) to offer long-term control. Boric acid is a mold-retardant residual that works in damper environments, whereas Williams prefers Tri-Die aerosol on pipe runs “because it adheres very easily to the surface that you apply it to [which means] aside from it controlling the activity, it can actually repel pests away from the area.”
In unoccupied areas or where there are organic materials such as wooden shingles, when possible, aggressive treatments, such as removing insulation and treating underneath, are preferable. To treat cracks and crevices in upper floors, Williams says he uses Arilon, a water-dispersible granule, because it is a low-impact active ingredient with a favorable environmental profile. When treating upper floors, however, Williams cautions against only spraying baseboards because while that may supress pests in the living area, it will not actually treat the infestation. Around the exterior, Williams uses various residual formulations to treat the foundations of the property, especially entry points (such as windows and doors), and applies the product 3 feet out from the building, depending on the product’s label restrictions. Williams also recommends using granular insecticides in concentrated areas outside of the liquid treatment zone. When treating mulch areas or other piles, the piles should be moved or disturbed, and then treated thoroughly.
In addition to insecticide treatments, Williams has found that treatment for these pests is also possible through various Integrated Pest Management (IPM) solutions, many of which have the potential for upselling additional products or services. In living areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms, one of the simplest IPM measures is vacuuming or otherwise keeping floors and other access areas free of food sources.
One of the most profitable IPM solutions is selling exclusion services, such as installing door sweeps and offering structural pest proofing and sealing. These services can even be sold in advance and honored during slower seasons. Other potential IPM opportunities include selling dehumidifiers and offering services such as gutter cleaning or lawn care. These IPM solutions will minimize some conducive conditions and may even eliminate or reduce the need for other treatments.
As with all services, investing in the proper tools is necessary for effective treatment. For instance, Williams recommends investing in a Technicide Duster or B&G Versaduster for the interior and a gas-powered backpack mister or power sprayer for the exterior. He also suggests that a company develop a comprehensive website, uses formulated emails, and designs fact sheets and pest vulnerability reports so that all materials and services meet a standardized level of quality and accuracy.
Final Thoughts. Silverfish, centipedes and springtails are all common pests that can create many challenges but also many opportunities for increased profit and growth. Using knowledge of these insects’ biology, proper inspection techniques and targeted treatment solutions, trained technicians can work with customers to manage expectations and deliver effective solutions. In the end, says Williams, it all comes down to training and common sense: “Think of your environment. Think of what’s going on. Read the label. Know the pest. And make a proper application.”
The author is a PCT contributing writer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.