Understanding nature will improve your industry skillset


June 7, 2023

Photo: Tomasz Klejdysz/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Khapra beetle adults and larva forage among seeds. Photo: Tomasz Klejdysz/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

In 1966, I was in graduate school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. I was going for my doctorate in urban pest management, with a minor in ecology.

Such a combination was unheard of in those days. The ecology teacher was unhappy with me because he knew I also was learning about how to kill insects with pesticides. How could a person walk around with two heads, one thinking ecology and the other pest management?

It turns out, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Because of this background, many a challenging pest situation was resolved because of my “two-headed” thinking. Let me share some very practical situations that required an understanding of nature, and how and why pests appeared in an unwanted human habitat. My objective is to make you a better inspector and overall pest management professional.


A food plant was shut down by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for an infestation of cabinet beetles (Trogoderma spp.). Employees could not find the beetles and had no idea what to do. One of the most destructive species in this genus is the Khapra beetle (T. granarium). They remain a quarantined species in the U.S. today and, if allowed to invade our grain silos, could destroy our grain surplus.

Nature’s lesson: I remembered that the word Khapra stems from the word brick, which has cracks in it. Khapra beetle larvae hide in cracks.

A quick look at a paper hat left on the floor led me to many beetles hiding in the creases of the hat. Within minutes, I uncovered hundreds of beetles in the discarded hats. The first thing they did was to stop throwing their paper hats on the floor after a shift. The second thing they did was switch from brooms to vacuum cleaners. The facility was then fumigated, and the problem was solved. Knowing how the beetles behaved in nature led to me looking like a great hunter.


Imagine being able to tell termite control companies when subterranean termite swarmers were going to occur, with an accuracy within a day or two, and that they should have extra staff around to answer the telephone on those days, so they did not miss losing the peak business. That was my parlor trick for many years.

Nature’s lesson: How did I do this? I knew that when forsythia bushes were in full bloom, the temperature reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit or more, and there had just been rainfall, conditions were such that the swarmers would pop. It worked every time.


The dead-rat smell was intense at an office building, but no one could find the carcass — until I came along.

Nature’s lesson: Should you find yourself in a similar situation, take a small piece of meat or fish and place it in the sun. Catch about six live blow flies (Calliphoridae) that land on the bait. Use an insect net to catch them and place them in a jar. Shut the lid.

Bring the jar into the room with the strongest smell. Open the lid, and in less than a minute, the flies will land on a surface where the dead animal is nearby. It may be in a suspended ceiling or inside a wall.

Be prepared to have a respirator, gloves and a large plastic bag, because what you will find will not be pleasant to remove.


If carpenter ants are found in a home and outdoors nearby, but you cannot find the nest, wait for a sunny day. When that day comes, sprinkle some bright yellow granular ant bait outdoors where you see the ants. They will pick it up immediately and head back to the nest. Just follow them — it could be a hollow tree 20 yards away. Once you find the nest, control is simple.

Nature’s lesson: Ants stay on a specific trail to haul food to the nest.


A major food plant had an exterior stone perimeter and large, neatly cut lawns. There was a cluster of low-lying juniper bushes near the building. If a rat were trying to approach the structure, it would feel more secure hiding under the shrubbery, right? Sure enough, I found two active rodent burrows on my first inspection. The client was so impressed that I was hired to inspect every month for the next 30 years.

Nature’s lesson: Think like the pest and imagine it trying to sneak into a building. Where do you hide?

Photo: © Gene White

Termites eat better when they’re cozy and warm — but not too warm. Photo: © Gene White


If you’re trying to entice subterranean termites to hit your in-ground bait stations in the early spring, place a black Frisbee on top of each station. The hit rate will go up if termites are in the area.

Nature’s lesson: The termites are becoming more active and hungry, but are chilly. The Frisbee warms them and the soil around them. By midsummer, you want to reduce the heat: Use a white Frisbee the same way.


You and your customer notice piles of fine sand granules around several active ant holes in sidewalk cracks. It does not take a genius to know the ants did it. Now, suppose the customer asks you why the ants are doing this.

If your response is “I dunno, I just kill them,” don’t expect the customer to recommend you to others.

Nature’s lesson: It’s always better to educate yourself, especially when the answer is this simple: The soil in the ground was moist and cool. The ants needed to bring it up to dry and heat it. The warm, dry sand particles are returned to the nest to keep the eggs and young larvae warm.

Photo: PatSee/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Resist the urge to retort, “Maybe they’re competing in a digging contest?” Photo: PatSee/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images


Every fall, many homes and office buildings tend to use cornstalk bundles and pumpkins outdoors to decorate their front entrance. They then leave it for weeks or months. This is screaming for house mice or deer mice to come set up shop. As soon as it appears, compliment them on their nice decorations — and offer a rodent protection plan.

Nature’s lesson: Explain that the mice are attracted to the décor as potential harborage and food sources. Let them know how you will protect the setup with an integrated rodent pest management program. As Mayberry Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife was fond of saying, “Nip it in the bud.”


In a Japanese garden open to the public, one of the wooden handrails was chewed on by paper wasps (Polistes spp.) for nesting material. Pesticide could not be used because below the handrail was a pond stocked with very expensive Koi. How did we stop the wasps?

Nature’s lesson: Once we know what the pest is and why it is there, we eliminate the source. Thus, replacing the wooden rail with plastic that looks like wood solved the problem.


In an upstate New York hamlet known for its trout fishing, there’s a custard stand that remains open at night in the summer. Around the lights of this small building is heavy spider webbing, loaded with insects. Many fly-fishing enthusiasts come to the custard stand specifically to look at the webbing and see what was caught that day. They then buy or make their own dry flies to mimic the real insects.

Nature’s lesson: In nature, aquatic insects emerge from streams in large numbers. The species vary from day to day and sometimes hour by hour. We call it “match the hatch.”

What does that have to do with pest management? If you want to avoid spiders and their webbing on a structure, place lights away from the building. Have lights shine at the structure. The insects are attracted to the light source, but not the structure.


Oak trees are dropping an unusual number of acorns this year. As a result, you can predict that next year, the deer mouse and white-footed mouse populations will increase.

Nature’s lesson: Oak trees do not drop an equal number of acorns every year. They have to have larger numbers in certain years so the rodents and birds will not eat them all. They had an abundant supply of food last winter and thus, more survivors. Nature is showing the way all the time — you just have to look, think and predict.

Photo: Wirestock/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The European paper wasp (Polistes dominula) is one of the most commonly encountered species of social wasps in the U.S. Photo: Wirestock/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images


Many times, I can determine on which side of a structure subterranean termites are making their initial entrance.

Nature’s lesson: Underground, termites follow the water table. Where weeping willows are present, for example, the water table is high. The termites are most likely to enter the structure on the side of the house closest to the willow tree.


Early in my career, flesh flies (Sarcophagidae) were found in an operating room of an urban hospital — more than once. Normally, you are looking for dog or pigeon excrement as a breeding area. After two hours of inspecting and finding no source, I called Arnold Mallis, author of The Mallis Handbook of Pest Control and a fellow Pest Management Professional Hall of Famer (Class of 2007).

Nature’s (and Mallis’) lesson: Mallis asked me what hospital and what city. When I told him, and knowing it was July, he told me to go to the side of the hospital facing the city park and look for the cherry trees. I did and when I entered a custodian’s office, the window was open, and no screens were present. Four live Sarcophagidae were on the window ledge.

Mallis knew that there is one species of Sarcophagidae that parasitizes tent caterpillars: Sarcophaga aldrichi, commonly known as the large flesh fly. That was the source. Obviously, his understanding of nature on this case was way beyond mine. Now I know. And now I am sharing it with you.

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