Ecosystem Forensics: Practical Urban IPM for the 21st Century

This article by Jerry Cates was first published on 25 December 2014, and last revised on 28 March 2022. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 15:12(02):


Summary: The author describes the utilization by EntomoBiotics Inc. of advanced investigatory methods that utilize modern forensic equipment and techniques. He discusses the history of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and IPM’s oftentimes tedious procedures that many see as limiting its utility for routine pests but that are critical for analyzing and managing recurrent, atypical, or unusually destructive/dangerous ones. He explains how deficits in classical urban pest management operations often lead to ineffectual use of pesticides, shrink remediation intervals, and amplify pest diversity and their populations.

He exposes the irony of the classical “pest-prevention” model, to show how — by refusing to practice genuine IPM methodologies — it actually leads to “pest-creation.” By contrast, simply applying the specialized investigative skills and equipment unique to the field of forensics, EntomoBiotics Inc. preserves the best tenets of pure IPM, permits more accurate diagnoses of cause, speeds remediation with minimal or no pesticide use, improves health and safety both for the investigator and the client, and elevates client expectations and satisfaction. We call that program E2M2C™, which stands for Enhanced EcoSystem Monitoring, Management and Control. That’s a mouthful, so, besides the abbreviation E2M2C™, we also refer to it by the concise subtitle EcoSystem Forensics.

While we try to practice a genuine form of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in all we do at EntomoBiotics Inc., we do so with a twist. That twist — a kind of bias, if you will — is expressed most succinctly in our use of a special qualifier. Instead of simply IPM, we practice “BioCentric” Integrated Pest Management.

What does that mean?

The term biocentrism is derived from two Greek words, βίος (pronounced BY-ose,) which means “life,” and κέντρον (pronounced KHEN-trawn,) meaning “center.”  The focus, here, is on an ethical point of view, but we take it beyond ethics, and inject it directly into the practical realm, where the rubber hits the road. We begin, like everybody else, by recognizing the negatives that characterize  the organisms we consider pests, but we don’t stop there. We push beyond that tepid definition to take into consideration all the possible positive contributions, to mankind and to life on earth in general, that each of those organisms may be capable of rendering. That isn’t easy but it has to be done, because those positive contributions matter… a lot.

One of the most important lessons learned by the author, who has been engaged in urban, suburban, rural and wilderness pest management for over 40 years now, is that almost every “pest” organism he has ever dealt with in the course of his pest management career is not just a pest, but is also capable of providing something of value. That truth is particularly demonstrated within those ecosystems in which that organism originated. In general, most “pests” become thought of that way only when they are displaced, into a foreign ecosystem, where their positives cannot be expressed. Sometimes, even within those foreign ecosystems, they are only genuine pests when they’re allowed to attain population numbers above a certain threshold, while — when kept below that number — they can actually provide positive contributions of immense importance.

Those familiar with agricultural pest management, where IPM first gained a foothold and is today still defining, honing, and making that concept even more effective, should recognize the thrust of this approach. BioCentric IPM provides a bridge between the pure IPM practiced in the agricultural sector and the poor imitation of it that is practiced by most of today’s professional pest managers. That bridge is sorely needed, but — except for our meager efforts and those of a paltry few elsewhere — is practically nonexistent. Urban pest management, as taught at the urban entomology departments of our major universities, claims to embrace IPM practices, but profoundly fails in that quest.

The reason?

America’s pest control companies, and the pesticide manufacturers who supply them, make too much money doing it the wrong way. Doing it right requires (1) more education — at least an order of magnitude more, not just for the applicator but also for the customer — and (2) would result in dramatic reductions in pesticide applications. The first cuts into the pest management industry’s bottom line, and the second erodes profits for pesticide manufacturers. Neither sees wisdom in doing things right when they lose money in the bargain. We may understand their motivation, but we simply cannot work that way…

At EntomoBiotics Inc., our bottom line is never allowed to dictate the use of bad practices over good ones. We understand why agricultural IPM is the right way to go, and we know — from experience — that same philosophy works just as well in the urban, suburban, and rural sectors. Instead of making excuses for poor IPM practices, we make good IPM work everywhere. And we achieve amazing successes as a result.

Our focus on BioCentric IPM is not fanatical. It does, however, forcefully define the way we go about our forensic investigations. Every E2M2C™ exercise begins with a thorough inspection by a knowledgeable investigator-analyst who documents site conditions in terms of the ecosystem as a whole. That leads to the collection of appropriate specimens, followed by their cursory examination at the collection site and later, a detailed analysis at the laboratory. The next step is to formulate a rational plan of action tailored to all the documented site conditions and evidence at hand. The object is to eliminate wasteful guesswork, permit prompt formulation of efficient remedial solutions, and provide for those solutions to work together synergistically, to the benefit of the ecosystem as a whole.


The History, Merits, and Demerits of Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

Fig. 005. This mite, one of several species collected from the floor of an Austin, Texas residence, escaped from a rat's nest underneath the home. The resident was being bitten by the mites, whose bites produced angry red wheals on his skin that could have been misdiagnosed as bed bug bites.

Fig. 1. This mite (magnified 460x) is one of several species collected from the floor of an Austin, Texas residence. It was stained by the E2M2C™ investigator immediately after being collected, revealing details of its anatomical characters and making it easier to identify under magnification. Mites were escaping from animal nests in the crawl space underneath the home. The resident was being bitten by the wandering mites, producing erythematous wheals on his skin that had been misdiagnosed by a dermatologist as bed bug bites.

Jeff Tucker, author of “Implementing Structural Pest Management,” (Mallis, 2011, Ch. 24) points out that, for the past 60 years, structural pest control has been dominated by rote applications of pesticides and rodenticides. For the latter half of that period, he adds, a conceptual shift has taken place in the way pest management services are best rendered. That shift has sought, albeit with great difficulty, to move the application of chemicals to a subdominant role under the auspices of what the industry refers to as Integrated Pest Management, or IPM.

IPM originated in response to challenges faced by classical agricultural pest management approaches. It prescribes the planning and execution of pesticide applications based on a variety of analytical inputs. It also requires continuous monitoring and documentation of pest populations, and restricts pesticide use to those times when population thresholds are exceeded. Ideally, non-pesticidal measures are applied simultaneously, to suppress pests by denying them harborage and sources of food. This further extends the refractory interval between pesticide applications. As a result of IPM measures, pesticide usage in the agricultural setting has dropped markedly over the past half century.

Whether used in agricultural or urban settings, the proper application of IPM requires non-zero pest thresholds. However, while widely accepted in agriculture, that concept has been all but rejected in the urban setting. To illustrate this, Tucker points to the existence of over 100 definitions of IPM, and correctly notes that most are not germane to structural pests or the problems such pests produce.

In most urban residences the threshold for household pests is at or near zero. The typical residential consumer also expects professional pest managers to achieve this threshold through the application of pesticides, alone. Cooperative effort from the consumer, to reduce or eliminate pest attractants, is minimal at best, absent at worst. That’s why many successful pest management companies advertise that they can and will eliminate all their residential clients’ bugs, for a low, competitive monthly or quarterly fee. To successfully prosecute that philosophy while remaining competitive in today’s market, most urban pest managers are oriented away from the rigorous use of IPM techniques. Instead, the classical approach — which relies on cookie-cutter applications of potent but relatively inexpensive broadband pesticides — remains dominant.

Why Cookie-Cutter Pest Solutions don’t work Very Long…

One negative consequence of the classical urban pest management approach is that, even when it works, it doesn’t work for long. Pests mutate to develop resistance to pesticides, especially the more potent broadband pesticides on the list. Pesticide-resistant pests can’t be controlled using cookie-cutter techniques. Furthermore, new pests not seen before applying the classical approach are attracted to and/or get brought in from other locations, and because those broadband pesticides have destroyed the beneficial organisms that should have kept those other pests from gaining a foothold, they not only survive, but thrive in ever increasing numbers until even stronger broadband pesticides can be applied. The result is a never-ending cascade of new pest control problems that template-driven solutions can neither anticipate nor deal with.

Often, when new pests arrive they appear, to the naked eye, to be identical to native pests that are easily controlled. Unless pest managers collect specimens of all the pests encountered, and subject them to microscopic analysis, the presence of newly arrived non-native species go unnoticed until something bad happens. It is often costly, both to the client and to the pest manager, for pest control personnel to neglect using IPM techniques until egregious control failures are recognized, long after serious damage has already taken place.

Consumer Expectations…

There are several “good” reasons, however, for the pervasive use of template-driven pest control solutions. Chief among them is the fact that competition within both residential, commercial and industrial marketplaces is fierce, and using templates enables pest control companies to hire inexperienced personnel, pay them relatively low wages, and still retain a full book of regularly-paying customers. Still, the dynamics at work within each of these settings vary in unexpected ways. While residential customers usually demand total elimination of pests at competitive rates, many commercial and industrial clients focus more on pricing and less on quality of service. This leads to low pest control fees, which invariably means lower levels of service.

Thus, for example, some restaurants accept by default non-zero population thresholds for cockroaches in their kitchens. Though such thresholds are considered a tenet of IPM, when adopted for economic reasons they are bereft of the IPM safeguards that protect against runaway infestations.

Similarly, most nursing homes and hospitals also favor pricing over quality of service, usually by granting pest management contracts heavily biased toward, if not firmly based upon, the lowest bids submitted. Such contracts generally neglect proactive services in the grounds of the institution, as costs for such services — when done right — rival those associated with treatments performed inside the institution’s structures. As a consequence such institutions learn to view the presence of visible, endemic populations of noxious pests such as fire ants in landscaped areas as acceptable. They justify such views on the theory — sometimes reinforced by respected authorities in academia — that control of such pests, to the point that they are not being casually observed, is an unreasonable goal.

In each of the above examples, the commercial/industrial consumer’s expectations — regarding the quality of services it receives from its pest management provider — become subordinate to the costs for those services. Especially at the corporate level, keeping recurring service fees low often trumps quality of service despite the risks.

The Risks Associated with Inferior Pest Management can be Enormous…

Restaurants pay a high price for scrimping on pest management services. Most diners who find roaches in their food, or crawling on their tables, are generally moved to never, ever set foot in that corporation’s restaurants again, but that’s not the end of it. They also broadcast the disgust they feel to their friends, who also tend to avoid those restaurants in the future. The losses in revenue caused by inadequate pest management are significant for the restaurant industry, where even minor slips in profit margins are capable of bringing otherwise good restaurants to their knees.

EntomoBiotics Inc. services restaurants that know better than to allow this to happen. The fees charged to those restaurant clients, though not high, are usually somewhat above average. It costs more to provide the superior services provided under the E2M2C™ program, so it is natural for service fees to reflect those added costs. Yet those restaurant clients are happy to pay the nominally higher fees they are charged. Our restaurant clients recognize that venues like theirs require specialized methodologies, of the kind performed by knowledgeable, well-equipped E2M2C™ analysts. The restaurants under our care are, as a rule, quickly made free of pests and — together, in an explicit spirit of cooperation — we and the restaurants’ staffs work hard to keep them that way.

Hospitals and nursing homes also pay dearly for inferior, lower-priced pest management services, though the costs are not as easily discerned. Failures in infection control are often caused by pests capable of spreading disease, and the costs in terms of health and safety for the elderly, who are typically immunocompromised, increases the incidence of morbidity and mortality within their resident population. Though such effects are difficult to quantify, others are easily discerned. For example, fire ant stings received by patients confined to hospitals or nursing homes often produce dangerous, life-threatening reactions or deaths. Subsequent lawsuits, filed by the families of those so affected, generally settle for six-figure sums.

EntomoBiotics Inc. has extensive experience servicing hospitals, nursing facilities, and medical clinics all over Texas. Administrators of the facilities under our care realize the importance of keeping pests under control, not only inside their structures but in their grounds as well. Their personnel trust and understand the value of cooperating directly with our E2M2C™ investigators. They quickly implement the practical habitat-modifications we recommend to fix the underlying structural conditions that are causing pest issues. They eagerly follow the pest prevention protocols we prescribe so pest issues don’t emerge in the first place. And they use their keen, native observational skills to detect and report the presence of invasive pests that cannot be prevented — as when new residents bring roaches or bed bugs with them in personal effects — as soon as those pests show up. As a result, the E2M2C™ program keeps their facilities free of pests with a minimal use of pesticides. Only rarely are applications of pesticides inside those facilities ever needed.

Today’s Pest Management Industry at a Turning Point…

Fig. 001. Bed bug specimens being examined under a dissecting microscope.

Fig. 2. Bed bug specimens being examined under a dissecting microscope, on a neutral gray staging slip. Adult male and female bed bugs must be examined individually to identify them to genus and species.

America’s pest management industry is, today, at a crucial turning point. As never before in history it must look deeper within to find answers to its most vexing problems. One of the questions the industry faces is this: why aren’t more pest management customers demanding superior solutions to today’s pest management challenges?

The answer, to us, is that the pest management industry has demonstrated that it is, as a rule, presently unable to provide such solutions. We believe that is unacceptable, especially now, when it is possible as never before to bring forensic science to the table. There is no excuse for failing to provide the pest management consumer with scientifically based solutions, capable of quickly solving the most complicated challenges we face, using minimal amounts of pesticides.

Every day, however, EntomoBiotics Inc. proves that forensic science and pest management naturally go together. That’s what drives the E2M2C™ program.

EcoSystem Forensics: Not Just a New Name for IPM…

E2M2C™, which is our way of carrying out forensic pest management, was developed within and emerged directly from decades of our own work within the pest management industry itself. It fills in the gaps that routine pest management operations cannot. But what exactly is forensic pest management?

Fig. 002. Bed bugs examined under low magnification, using a digital dissecting microscope with images displayed on a lap-top computer.

Fig. 3. Bed bugs examined under low magnification, using a digital dissecting microscope, whose images are displayed on a lap-top computer. The client, who sees exactly what the investigator observes, actively participates by asking pertinent questions during the investigation, making the entire process more informative and satisfying.

Recently an experienced landscaping architect, who happened to also be a licensed pest management professional, spied one of the EntomoBiotics Inc. vehicles parked next to a home he was landscaping. Seeing our investigator outside, next door, he called out with this question: “What on earth does forensics have to do with pest management?

When asked if he knew what the word, forensics, meant, he replied “Sure, it describes what investigators do when they collect clues and conduct analyses of crime scenes. I’ve just never seen it used with pest control…

He’s not alone. Most people automatically associate forensic science with criminology. That’s how it’s portrayed on entertainment television and in the movies. Most people are surprised to learn that forensics and pest management are closely aligned. Many are surprised even more to learn how the term forensics, used in its broadest context, is deeply rooted in classical Western history.

The noun forensic refers to “an argumentative exercise,” and derives from the Latin root forensis, meaning “of the market place or the forum, public…”. The earliest meaning in English was “belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts or to public discussion and debate.” Thus forensics refers to the logical assembly, analysis, and debate of information, in the form of defensible premises offered in response to reasoned inquiries. On TV and in the movies, the bodies of inquiry that most often receive forensic analyses today are grand or petit juries empaneled in service to a court of law. In reality, however, any genuine inquiry requiring a logical answer may generate a forensic investigation, followed by a forensic debate involving arguments on each side of a defined question as offered by their advocates. The inquirer may be a formal or informal body composed of one person or a group, and may address either a broad or narrow range of causes and effects.

Forensic science, therefore, embraces considerably more than criminology. Indeed, the American Forensic Association (AFA), founded in 1949, exists for the express purpose of promoting organized debate, as part of academic speech programs, with a focus on argumentation and advocacy.

Distinguishing between General Forensics and Medicocriminal Forensics…

Even when the term is used more narrowly, as within the field of entomology, its association with criminology is tangential. That fact is plainly asserted in the authoritative book, Forensic Entomology, 2nd Ed., edited by Byrd & Castner, and published in 2010. Robert Hall and Timothy Huntington, authors of the book’s introduction, list the term “urban entomology” as the first of three principle areas within the field of forensic entomology. They then list “stored products entomology” and “medicolegal entomology” (the latter of which they alternately describe as forensic medical entomology and medicocriminal entomology) as the second and third areas in their list. The focus of the book they are introducing is, however, medicocriminal entomology, as the following excerpt makes clear:

Medicocriminal entomology is one of three areas in the broad field of entomology that routinely is involved in forensic applications. Although litigation involving urban entomology and stored products entomology typically occurs, it is the area of medicocriminal entomology that is directly utilized by law enforcement agencies in death investigations, and is what most people think of when they hear the term forensic entomology.” Hall & Huntington, introduction, Forensic Entomology, 2010 (p. 12)

Both “urban entomology” and “stored products entomology” have enjoyed common usage within the pest management field for decades, though actual practitioners within those fields mostly make use of cookie-cutter pesticide applications, and rarely conduct rigorous investigations of causes. True, IPM has shifted the emphasis toward analyzing cause-and-effect, but — as previously pointed out — only with great difficulty. Most pest managers make a sharp distinction between immediate pest resolution and the more complicated job of cause remediation. Their focus is, more often than not, extermination, not habitat modification.

Medicocriminal entomology, on the other hand, has typically been restricted to crime scene analysis. For that reason, what is typically thought of as “basic forensics” today is — due to the limited frame of reference pointed out in Byrd & Castner, 2010 — more narrowly termed “medicocriminal forensics.” Such a limited focus, confined to the collection and analysis of clues involving criminal acts, slices but a small portion out of the much larger pie that the broader term forensics, when used without a qualifier, embraces.

Using EcoSystem Forensics to Improve Quality of Life…

In the United States most law enforcement agencies conduct their own medicocriminal forensic investigations. They use investigators and technicians in their employ to collect and analyze forensic data. In many other countries, such investigations are carried out by private, non-governmental companies and investigators specializing in the field of medicocriminal forensics. Even in the United States, though, experienced, trained pest management professionals often use the same tools and equipment, and adhere to many of the accepted protocols used by medicocriminal specialists when collecting entomological clues at the sites they work. Such PMPs are fully capable of practicing their arts within, and throughout, the entire field of forensic science, including those areas narrowly defined as medicocriminal forensics.

Because medicocriminal forensics focuses on determining how and when a crime occurred, its object is promoting justice for victims and perpetrators of criminal acts. As such, the art of medicocriminal forensics is an essential component in the maintenance of law and order within modern societies, ostensibly making life safer and less dangerous. Forensic pest management, on the other hand, uses similar if not identical tools to identify the source and nature of the insects, arachnids, molds, mildews and other agents of decay, plus rats, mice, raccoons, opossums, skunks and other wild animals that — separately and together — are capable of causing human pain, misery, and discomfort, demonstrably improving the quality of life for those benefiting from it. In other words, in the abstract, the final object is identical for both medicocriminal forensics and forensic pest management.

Utilizing the raw information it collects and assembles, forensic pest management next analyzes it, hones in on causal organisms and agents, and identifies them to an appropriate level of detail. It then uses that information to produce a plan of action designed to remove the identified cause and return the setting under examination to its optimal state, i.e., one of pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort. Thus forensic pest management covers the full range of activities needed to identify the problem, bring it to an immediate halt, and perform all the habitat improvements essential to the long-term maintenance of a healthy, sanitary, long-lasting living space for humans and their companion pets.

EcoSystem Forensics and EntomoBiotics Inc.

The EntomoBiotics Inc. investigator possesses the tools, equipment and training needed to conduct a wide range of on-site forensic investigations, analyses, and pest management. As with any forensic operation, additions and improvements to our tools, equipment, and training is an ongoing process that never ends. Ideally, our present ensemble enables the performance of most, if not all, analyses on site, and in-house. The work performed lies within the broad fields of scientific, civil, and — if called upon to do so in emergencies — even criminal investigations. Our investigator’s primary concentration, however, is on collecting and archiving clues relating to deficits in human economy, health, and safety. Evidence from such investigations drives the formulation and execution of favorable habitat-modifications that remediate the underlying causes of human discomfort.

Though taking advantage of forensic pest management resources may seem beyond the reach of the average urban pest management consumer, it isn’t. While it may appear unnecessary for remediation of routine pest problems, the mindsets of applicators skilled in forensic methodologies lead to rational pest management approaches that are markedly different from classical ones, and that produce much better, and longer lasting results. By comparison, applicators whose mindsets mirror the classical model are capable of undoing, in a single application of broadband pesticides, years of work carried out to bring an ecosystem to its optimum state of organic stability.

Though forensic pest management also becomes crucial when faced with serious, unusual, apparently intractable pest issues that acutely impact health and safety, the foregoing brings home the importance of practicing it in every facet of pest control. When the routine management is done properly, in fact, it is rare for the serious, unusual, seemingly intractable issues to pop up. That explains in a nutshell why the methodologies of forensic pest management are so important, across the board.

Bed Bugs — A Case in Point.

Forensic pest management is the best way to deal with most pests in most settings, but in certain settings it is absolutely crucial. Pest management in high-risk settings, such as scientific and industrial laboratories, hospitals, and nursing homes, for example, should always be conducted by forensic pest specialists. In other situations — for example restaurants or residences beset by recurring pest issues that are not being resolved by their pest management providers — forensic pest management is the only way to obtain and maintain control of even routine pest issues. But when special, non-routine pests rear their ugly heads, the imperative of forensic pest management is most visible. Bed bugs are an excellent example.

A previous article posted here last October mentions that some 30-40% of the bed bug inspections performed by EntomoBiotics Inc., even for clients who were 100% convinced they have bed bugs, yield negative results. No bed bugs are present. Though the humans living in those homes are suffering from recurring skin lesions that are consistent with bed bug bites, their lesions are caused by something other than bed bugs (OTBB). Another, earlier article, published here in September, 2013, describes some of the OTBB agents and organisms that are often responsible for such lesions.

Fig. 003. Examining bed bug genitalia under high magnification to identify the species involved.

Fig. 4. Examining female bed bug genitalia (specifically the paragenital sinus, or ectospermalege) under high magnification as an aid to identification of the specimen to genus and species.

Let’s say you are one of those people. You or another member of your family suddenly come down with recurring skin lesions that look just like the photos of bed bug bites you find on the Internet. You make an appointment for an exterminator to come out and deal with what you think is a bed bug infestation. The exterminator arrives, looks at the red, angry wheals on your skin, and agrees that they look just like something a bed bug would cause. The exterminator may or may not examine the bed, now that “it is obvious” to everybody that bed bugs are the culprit. Even if insects resembling bed bugs are found in the bed, the exterminator neither collects the insects for later study, nor examines them under a high-powered microscope capable of identifying them to species. After all, what’s the point of going to all that trouble, now that everybody agrees with the diagnosis?

So, an expensive treatment for bed bugs follows, and — at least for a time — the skin lesions disappear. You feel convinced that you’ve gotten your money’s worth. But six months later, often even sooner, the lesions resume. Is it a new bed bug infestation, or a resurgence of the old one? Were bed bugs even present earlier, in the first place? If so, were they brought in by a human, or by wild animals roosting or nesting in the attic? If you have the exterminator re-treat for bed bugs — for the same fee as before since whatever warranty was given for the earlier treatment has already expired — will that be the end of your troubles, or will they be back, again, in six months or less?

The answer to all those questions is this: nobody knows, one way or the other, because the exterminator did not treat your infestation as a forensic pest management exercise. Had that been done, good answers to all the questions listed above would already be known. Sometimes those answers tell the forensic pest manager that no treatment should be done. In some cases, particularly when OTBB issues are involved, the best thing is to thoroughly vacuum, de-clutter, and wipe down the home with microfiber cloths, something the homeowner can do alone, without professional assistance.

Even when actual bed bugs are found in a bed by an exterminator, unless they are examined under a high-power digital microscope by a trained investigator who possesses the knowledge needed to confirm the species of bed bugs involved, even the best possible bed bug treatment — conducted solely inside the living area of the home — may not resolve the actual source of the infestation. 74 species of bugs are presently recognized in the Cimicidae family, which contains all the bed bugs and their kin. Although only two cimicids regularly feed on humans, practically all 74 species are capable of feeding on human blood and many are capable of thriving in human bedrooms. Many of those not normally associated with humans are commonly associated with very specific wild animals. If, for example, the bugs escaped from undetected bat roosts or bird nests in a home’s attic, the source of the infestation remains viable even after a thorough bed bug treatment is performed in the home’s living space. Later, the sufferer’s skin lesions may resume, when more bugs escape from attic roosts or nests and re-enter the bedroom. Sometimes they resume in a matter of months, other times in a year or so, when the bats or birds migrate and some of the bugs in their roosts or nests go in search of a fresh reservoir of blood, like that of a human, on which to feed.

Mites and Hastisetae-exposure — More Cases in Point.

Fig. 004. Dermestid beetle larval hastisetae, magnified in the EntomoBiotics lab to approx. 750x. Note the spearpoint heads on each hastiseta, and the tubercles --- spaced along each hastiseta shaft --- that are arranged so that, as the shaft penetrates deeper into the skin, mushroom out to contaminate the wound path with microscopic allergens and microbes picked up as the larva forages for food.

Fig. 5. Dermestid beetle larval hastisetae, magnified in the EntomoBiotics lab to approx. 750x. Note the spearpoint heads on each hastiseta, and the tubercles — spaced along each hastiseta shaft — that are so arranged that, as the shaft penetrates deeper into the skin, they mushroom outward and contaminate the wound path with microscopic allergens and microbes, picked up from the skin of the affected individual or earlier, as the larva foraged for food. Such contaminants can be significant causes of irritation, considering that it is common for human skin to host a variety of pathogens, and that such larvae often feed on carrion.

In many cases the cause of a sufferer’s skin lesions has nothing to do with bed bugs, or is a consequence of inordinate stress conditions in the individual’s life, including that of having to deal with a suspected case of bed bugs. Lesions caused by mites, or by hastisetae exposure from carpet beetle larvae, that produce dermatological eruptions in susceptible persons, are good examples. Many other OTBB issues, like necrotizing spider bites, and bites from ticks, chiggers, and so on, can produce bed-bug-like signs and symptoms in people.

For these reasons it is very likely that a large fraction of the bed bug treatments carried out in Texas today are done in response to OTBB issues when no bed bugs are involved. Much of the time, the consumer will actually believe the treatments they paid for were worth the cost, because the lesions cease. Usually, though, when OTBB issues are involved, that is not the case. If the lesions were caused by chiggers, the sufferer’s skin lesions would have ceased even if no treatment whatsoever was carried out. By contrast, when bat or bird bugs that emanate from nests or roosts are involved, the cyclical recurrence of their infestations can continue for years and result in much needless expense, annoyance, and emotionally-draining experiences.

That’s why, whenever skin lesions of any kind are suspected to be caused by insects inside a home, forensic pest management provides the best chance of getting things right.

But, isn’t Forensic Pest Management More Expensive than Classical Pest Control?

It is natural to suppose that having a pest management issue diagnosed by a forensic pest manager costs more. Because most forensic pest inspections require added training and equipment, a nominal inspection fee may be charged, particularly if the inspection results in a recommendation that no treatment is appropriate or necessary. Often, though, when it is explained prior to an inspection visit that a small inspection fee — to defray the costs incurred by the investigator to come to the site and perform the inspection — will be incurred, the prospective client will complain that most exterminators perform bed bug inspections for free.

That’s true.

What most consumers don’t realize, however, is that free bed bug inspections are rarely free. Those who perform free inspections still have to cover their expenses, especially if the inspection finds no bed bugs are present. Because it is easier to offer free inspections, though, many inspectors offer their services for free, expecting to cover their expenses with post-inspection charges. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to detect the presence of, and then perform a chargeable treatment for, the pests for which they are inspecting. The inspector knows the client already believes serious pests are present, usually because members of the household are suffering from recurring skin lesions of some kind. These days, the most likely culprit — according to conventional wisdom — is bed bugs. Because bed bugs are so difficult to treat successfully, bed bug treatments are significantly more expensive than most other pest management procedures. Thus bed bug inspectors who inspect at no charge have a built-in incentive to quickly find conclusive, or — at minimum — circumstantial evidence that bed bugs are present, to justify recommending a treatment that often is not needed. Free inspections are, therefore, strongly biased toward finding bed bugs, whether they are present or not.

A forensic pest investigator must, by definition, render a thoroughly objective analysis. We at EntomoBiotics Inc. know from experience that 30-40% of the inspections we perform will find that no bed bugs are present at the inspection site. When that happens, another agent — which either requires no treatment at all, or which can be handled merely with habitat-modifications  — is implicated in the skin lesions the client is experiencing. Forensic investigators know what to look for and where to look, and are most capable of finding and identifying the actual cause of the sufferer’s skin lesions. Once that is done, appropriate remedies can be formulated and carried out. Then, both the inspector and the client can rejoice, together, knowing the real problem has been addressed.

On the other hand, if worst comes to worst and bed bugs are actually found, the forensic inspection automatically takes the added steps needed to distinguish between the rooms that need to be treated, and those that do not. That can cut the costs and annoyance associated with the treatment considerably. Furthermore, by determining the actual source of the infestation, when such a determination can be made, the likelihood of a recurrence of the infestation later on is reduced, so — unlike with many classical urban pest management companies — the forensic pest manager is able to provide a substantial warranty against resurgence or reinfestation.

Once all these pluses are added up, the costs of having a home inspected for and treated against bed bugs by a forensic pest manager are no higher than those charged by most classical urban pest management companies, and often turn out to be much less. So, no, forensic pest management is not more expensive. In fact, it is more effective and costs less than any other means of resolving challenging, atypical pest issues.

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References:

  • Byrd, Jason H., and James H. Castner. 2010. Forensic Entomology: The Utility of Arthropods in Legal Investigations (2nd Edition). CRC Press.
  • Mallis, 2011. Handbook of Pest Control, 10th Edition. The Mallis Handbook Company.
  • Tucker, Jeff. 2011. Implementing Structural Pest Management. Ch. 24 in Mallis: Handbook of Pest Control, 10th Edition; The Mallis Handbook Company.

Additional Reading Recommendations:

  • Gennard, Dorothy. 2012. Forensic Entomology: An Introduction (2nd Edition). Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Goddard, Jerome. 2011. Ectoparasites, Part Two: Mites & Ticks. Ch. 7 in Mallis: Handbook of Pest Control, 10th Edition; the Mallis Handbook Company.
  • Goff, M. Lee. 2000. A Fly for the Prosecution. Harvard University Press.
  • Krantz, Gerald W., and David E. Walter. 2009. A Manual of Acarology: Third Edition. Texas Tech University Press.
  • Maples, William R. and Michael Browning. 1994. Dead Men do tell Tales. Broadway Books.
  • Roach, Mary. 2003. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. W. W. Norton.
  • Walter, David E., and Heather Proctor. 2013. Mites: Ecology, Evolution & Behaviour: Life at a Microscale. Springer.

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