Difference Maker: Dr. Barbara L. Thorne

|  February 10, 2015
Barbara L. Thorne

Barbara L. Thorne

Dr. Barbara L. Thorne is termite expert with the University of Maryland and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

As a child, were you fascinated or fearful of pests? As a kid, I was focused on family, friends, sports and adventures. I did not concentrate on biology — or bugs — until college.

What made you “fall” for this business? In the late 1980s, the removal of chlordane as the go-to termiticide sparked opportunities for innovative applications of the science of termite biology to important, real-world problems and solutions. The industry transitioned from repellent to nonrepellent liquid termiticides, added termite bait systems to the mix of product options,and adjusted methods and business practices to these new realities.

The timing of that reinvention of termite pest management coincided with the core of my career, and has given me enormous satisfaction in having the opportunity to blend basic research on termite foraging, reproductive biology, and population growth with practical applications contributing to termite detection, prevention and control.

Tell us more about your current research projects. My research program has two directions: (1) studies on the biology of termites, including studies in evolution, genetics, population biology, foraging ecology and systematics, and (2) projects contributing to urban and structural integrated pest management (IPM), especially targeting subterranean termites.

Since September 2012, I have served as the science advisor for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ efforts targeting the invasive conehead termite (Nasutitermes corniger). This species was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation research in Central America, and I have since studied it in South America and the Caribbean. When asked by the state of Florida to get involved in trying to put the brakes on this infestation, I felt I had to do my best to assist.

This exotic species was discovered in Dania Beach, Fla., in 2001. It is thought to have been introduced to the U.S. as a “hitchhiker” in wood transported by boat from a Caribbean island or elsewhere in the tropics. 

Conehead termites have expansive tastes, eagerly consuming dead wood from trees (including citrus), shrubs, roots, structures and furniture, as well as cardboard and other paper products. Eradication of this invasive species may be possible because older colonies build conspicuous foraging tunnels and nests. 

Several neighborhoods and natural areas, all within Dania Beach, are the focus of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ aggressive inspection, containment and control initiatives targeting conehead termites. Members of the local, state and national industry, including pest management professionals (PMPs), associations and manufacturers, have been outstanding in supporting and participating in this program. The team’s efforts have made substantial progress controlling the termite on residential properties, although continued vigilant monitoring is essential — especially for young colonies, which may occupy an area for years before showing visible signs of activity.

Eradicating conehead termites from overgrown woodlands and wetlands is an immense challenge. The key strategy is to clear and remove enormous quantities of dead cellulose (trees, shrubs, grass, litter) that conehead termites use for food and harborage. Removing debris from natural areas has helped deplete termite food. Clearing dead plant materials also facilitates improved inspections (assisted by a scent dog) and enables termiticides to reach the soil. Continued intensive actions are urgent to halt this invasive species before it spreads further and becomes a powerfully damaging, expensive, obnoxious and permanent pest.

Top 3 industry achievements to date: 

1. Contributing to the development of termite bait technologies and concepts.

2. Bridging knowledge about basic termite biology with relevant applications to understanding and improving IPM for subterranean termites.

3. Helping to train and provide objective updates to PMPs at many venues, particularly as co-leader (along with Breisch) of the University of Maryland’s Interstate Pest Management Conference that hosts more than 600 professionals each year.

Which structural pest do you, as a professional, have the most respect for and why? If you mean the pest I consider most challenging, bed bugs take the lead as current “badass bug.” Scientists, manufacturers and PMPs are making progress with technologies, strategies and best practices to address different infestation levels and locations, but bed bugs have a thick playbook — the details of which we are just beginning to understand. Especially in buildings where owners and residents cannot afford comprehensive treatments, vast challenges remain. Progressive momentum will continue such that a decade from now, the bed bug battles will have advanced considerably, but the steep learning curve the industry is riding now is complicated and expensive.

Without mentioning any brands or suppliers, which pest management technologies do you think will take off during the next decade and why? New, exciting, transformative technologies will become reliable essentials in the industry’s toolbox within the next 10 years. The pace of research and technological advances will continue to fuel novel products and methods. Clever discoveries and applications in the fields of genetics and neurophysiology are examples of drivers that will result in further development of “smart bombs” to precisely target specific pests. Accelerating features of mobile devices and cloud computing will empower significant enhancements in training, data management, customer relationships and efficient business practices.

What do you see as the Top 3 obstacles facing the pest management industry today? 

1. The current regulatory landscape is challenging for manufacturers and the industry — and often for hard-working, well-intentioned regulators themselves. Some important guidelines, procedures, and testing and performance standards would benefit from clarification and streamlining. This is difficult, because all parties understandably want to be comprehensive and responsible, but the current complexities, ambiguities and expenses surrounding regulatory issues form a speed bump that all concerned are eager to improve.

2. There is an enormous cost of developing new products, especially new chemistries. This is due, in part, to some of the challenges mentioned in point 1, but also due to the huge and expensive scale at which screening must be conducted to identify promising new chemistries. As with medical drug development, only a very small percentage of prospective molecules and formulations continue to meet criteria as tests continue toward product development. For pesticide development, discovery of new chemistries centers on agricultural applications, with use in the structural pest management market a far smaller sector spin-off. Bringing new types of active ingredients into our industry is thus an extremely expensive enterprise, which means that novel classes of pesticides will debut relatively slowly and rarely.

3. The evolution of pest resistance to current classes of active ingredients is a reality, impacted by the infrequent introduction of novel chemistries (see point 2). Fortunately, there is no known case of termite resistance to pesticides, probably because of their relatively long generation time, but it certainly could happen.

What are the industry’s Top 3 opportunities? 

1. We should make the most of online opportunities to strengthen the reputation of the industry at large, as well as individual companies. For example, we should enhance web-based information sheets, training sites and photos; capitalize on social media for outreach and public engagement; and earn strong reviews and ratings from customers for service, professionalism and results.

2. The tight job market offers an opportunity to recruit young talent who otherwise might not have considered going into the pest management industry. This is an opportunity to infuse companies with bright, tech-savvy, enthusiastic women and men representing the next generation.

3. We should lead proactively with environmental sustainability and stewardship. Many companies have already taken this initiative. Leading change from the bottom up will enable the industry to better shape its own future, and capitalize by promoting its responsibility.

At a Glance
Titles and organizations: Professor Emerita and Research Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland and Science Advisor to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regarding the invasive conehead termite program.

Years in pest management: My research has centered on termites for more than 35 years, including a significant applied focus for more than 25 years — and counting.

Industry mentors: My Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Edward O. Wilson; the late termite biologist Dr. Bill Nutting; Dr. Nancy Breisch, urban entomologist at the University of Maryland; Jay Nixon, president of American Pest; and my termite research colleagues nationally and internationally.

Mix served as editor and publisher of PMP for more than 20 years and is a member of the PMP Hall of Fame (Class of 2005). Reach him atjnmix@aol.com.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Difference Makers, Human Interest, Termites

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