Monday, December 6, 2010

Is There a Best Way to Remove a Tick?

For me, ticks are nasty things. They creep up on you, stick their entire mouthparts into your skin and just start sucking. You usually don't even feel them until you run your hand across your skin and feel something stuck to it. Ticks are NOT my favorite arthropod.

With hunting season in full force, many people are spending time outdoors in prime tick territory. Cold weather may slow them down, but they are still around, and as soon as you shoot your deer, they are going to leave that now cold body, for your warm one!

Is there a "best" way to remove a tick? There is, but it isn't easy. Ask around and people will say to use petroleum jelly or a match to get them out. Although it may be easy to slather Vasoline all over your tick, it will actually irritate them more and cause them to hunker down further into your skin. Same thing for using a recently extinguished match. Plus you run the risk of burning yourself.

The best way to remove ticks are to grasp them as close to the skin as possible and pull gently. If you hear a snap, you've popped off the head and the mouthparts are still stuck in your skin. Get ready for a little infection that will last at least until the mouthparts work their way out. Tweezers work fine, but you can also find special products meant for tick removal that work even better. These can be found on the Internet or through outdoors stores.

If you think you've been around an area where ticks may be hiding (areas with lots of brush and wildlife), do a thorough tick check. Check areas where the clothes fit tight - around the ankles, waist, under arms, groin. But, also check everywhere. Both times I've come into contact with ticks, they have been on my neck, and others I know have found them behind the ears. Just be thorough and remove them as soon as you can.

Ticks can spread diseases such as Lymes or Ehrlichiosis, so watch the bite area well and look for rashes on the body. If you suspect anything, go to the doctor to get checked out. Usually, early intervention of these diseases will prevent any major damage.

For more information on ticks, visit the Texas AgriLife Extension bookstore. View publication: E-150 "Tick Control".

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Garden Fairies

Our horticulture agent in the office calls green lacewings "garden fairies". I love this name for them, because its very fitting. Green lacewings are a beneficial insect, and by far, my favorite. This time of year, they seem to be everywhere. Shake a tree, and they come fluttering out. Look out your window at night and they are stuck to the screen.

Green lacewings are beautiful, lime green, small insects, as adults. As larvae, they are ferocious predators and eat nearly a nything that crawls in front of them. The adults are somewhat predacious, but its their larvae that do the majority of the good in your garden.

In fact, they are so predacious that the mothers have to lay their eggs on stalks, so that they do not eat each other when the first one hatches. Many people think the stalks are mold or fungus growing on the plant, but if you see them, let them be! Its hard to know if they have hatched, they are so small.

Larvae are smaller than ladybeetle larvae, but shaped similarly. They are green to brown in color, and very active little movers. You normally don't see the larva, you see the adults and eggs, which means you have to have the babies around your landscape somewhere.

Enjoy the garden fairies this fall! They are like little good luck charms eating away at the bad bugs in your garden!

(Photos by Molly Keck and Bart Drees, Texas AgriLife Extension)

Friday, October 22, 2010

It's spider season!!!

Photo by Bart Drees, Texas A&M

Actually, its been spider season for some time now, but it's on our minds with Halloween approaching. In truth, this time of year, my brown recluse calls go up, especially in schools. My theory is that we love to decorate and our nice Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations are wonderful hiding places for spiders. Especially the dreaded brown recluse.

Brown recluses are often misidentified. They are very small spiders, with long legs and hairy bodies. They are much smaller than you would imagine, so the hairs are hard to see without a magnifying glass. Brown recluses are no larger than about the size of a quarter(including legs) at rest.

They do have a fiddle shape on their cephalothorax (back), but since their size is fairly small, I recommend squashing it first and then getting a look. Some house spiders resemble that fiddle-back, so the best identifying feature is the arrangement of their eyes. They have 6 eyes, arranged in three pairs.

If you aren't sure what you have, you are always welcome to bring it into the office and I can identify it for you.

Brown recluses are very common in human dwellings. We accumulate clutter and they love to live in it! Those wreaths and decorations all balled up in boxes, provide a wonderful habitat for them.

Brown recluses lay egg sacs and the babies do not wander far from where they hatch - this makes them especially dangerous and able to increase their populations exponentially! As their name implies, they are reclusive. They don't like to come out into the open or areas that are commonly disturbed, so most people come across them accidentally. Usually, when putting on clothes or shoes that were laying unused for a while, or brushing up against them when crawling around in the attic or under a deck.

Brown recluses bite when they feel threatened, but they do not actively search you out at prey. If something is biting you regularly in your home, it is not a spider. Spiders are smart enough to know that you are too big for them to eat. They bite out of fear, to protect themselves.

Brown recluse venom contains a cytotoxin, which is necrotic. The severity of the bite depends on your sensitivity, where you were bitten and how much venom you received. It can leave a nasty sore or scar (and sometimes result in amputation of an extremity to prevent the spread of necrotic tissue), but they are not deadly. Secondary infections resulting from not caring for the wounds may lead to life threatening situations, but the venom itself is not deadly to humans.

If bitten, it is best to contact a physician and try to capture the spider for identification. In most cases, the initial bite goes unnoticed, its not until you notice the sore that you realize you were harmed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yikes! Yellow Jackets!

Yellow jackets are a small, nasty wasp that live in the ground. Most people that see them assume they are bees, because they are yellow and black striped and about the same size as bees. If you looked closely, though, you would notice that they have no hairs on their body, which makes them wasps.

The name also confuses people because we usually grow up calling the yellow and black/brown paper wasps yellow jackets. Those are, in fact, paper wasps. TRUE yellow jackets are ground-living wasps that make their nest out of cellulose material and make it look like a paper mache. If its a stinging insect coming out of the ground, living in a colony, its probably a yellow jacket. Bees do not live this way.

This time of year, they seem to be thriving. Actually, summer through the warmer parts of fall, they thrive! They are very common nesting in Asiatic Jasmine - probably because it provides a bit of shelter for them.

These are nasty wasps, so be careful around them! Most people don't know they have them until they are mowing or weed whacking and they get attacked - and it can be bad! They get that way when they feel the vibrations of the mower and come out to defend their colony. It really makes maintaining your yard difficult.

If you've got them, you can control them using a pesticide in a dust formulation. Find that hole they are coming in and out of, and sprinkle some dust in and just around the hole. When they enter they will grab some on their body and spread it around inside. Depending on how big that nest is, you may have to do this a few times. Be VERY careful when you do, because they can be pretty cranky. Be ready to run and try to do it around dusk when they are less likely to attack.

Winter will knock them down, but we never freeze long enough in Central Texas to kill them off completely, so you will see them back again in the spring if you try to wait them out.

Southern Yellowjacket nest at base of tree Southern yellowjackets
photo by M. Keck photo by B. Drees

Friday, August 13, 2010

Whiteflies in the Landscape

Lately, we have been receiving many calls at the office about tiny, whitish, flying insects on veggie garden plants and around trees. These insects are probably whiteflies, a sap sucker that can be a pest of ornamental or agricultural plants.

People who have them are noticing a wet feeling when they stand under trees where the bugs are present. This is probably their honeydew. These guys are sap suckers, and in order to get enough nutrients, they have to get rid of the extra water they suck up. What they "pee" out is honeydew. The honeydew can encourage ants to come to feed and can also cause sooty mold to grow. In most cases, sooty mold is just ugly, its not a problem for the plant.

Whiteflies seem to thrive in tomatoes and sweet potatoes in our area. If you have those plants, and they are infested with whiteflies, there are a few things you can try. Cultural control measures include:

  • Prevent over watering, which can encourage whiteflies

  • Avoid planting new plants when populations are high (they will just spread!)

  • Use covers to keep populations stuck on one plant and prevent spread

  • Avoid planting plants that attract whiteflies (tomatoes, sweet potatoes)

  • Control weeds (adults use these to rest)

If you feel the need to treat, make sure they are actually causing some damage. On ornamentals, trees and shrubs, they seem to just be a nuisance when you walk past the plant than they are actually doing damage. There are some products you can try: insecticidal soaps and oils which will give you a short-lived knock down. Only use soaps and oils when you see whiteflies present, otherwise you won't kill anything. Remember, there is no residual with those. Other products that contain the active ingredients acephate, bifenthrin or cyfluthrin can be effective as well. Be sure the product you use is labeled for the plant you will be spraying it on (for example, don't use a tree and shrub spray on your veggies).

I don't have a good reason why they seem to have exploded this month, but they certainly have. People who have never had whiteflies before are seeing them. As you start your new fall gardens, be sure you remove and destroy all old plants that may be providning harborage for your whiteflies. And remember, destroying doesn't just mean pulling it up and throwing it across the fence; remove them completely from the area!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Yes, it does seem like the crickets are out of control this summer! And, yes, you are right, there are more this summer than there have been in the past. Crickets are a normal occurrence each summer, but during wetter years their populations explode. They will remain through the fall, but their number will be dramatically reduced.

Right now, the crickets are dying off in most areas of town. The mass explosion of the populations have ended, but next comes the worst phase in my experience: the die off! Now that all these crickets have lived their lives, they will start to die and cook in the sun. They seem to be especially attracted to the lights of large buildings, congregating there at night staying there during the day. They can make their way indoors, sneaking in through tiny cracks and crevices.

But, since they emerge from the egg nearly all together, their short lives will end very close together. This leaves large masses of dead crickets to rot in the sun. Crickets are pretty large bodied insects, and when they die they do stink. For many businesses, this is worse than then jumping around outside and making their way indoors. What many people don't realize is that crickets around buildings, businesses, and other locations has nothing to do with sanitation. However, when they start to die off, this does pose a sanitation issue.

The only solution is just to sweep them up as often as they die and throw them away. I rarely advise anyone to treat for the crickets, because their life is so short, you really never know if they died naturally or from the pesticides - and there's no use applying pesticides to the environment if it won't do any good. The best thing to do is turn off outdoor lights at night and within a few days they will subside.

Give it a couple more week or less, and we won't see a cricket explosion like this until the next wet summer!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Plague of Red Grasshoppers and Other Strange Things

The San Antonio area has been plagued by an outbreak of Central Texas Leaf Katydids. These katydids resemble red crickets or grasshoppers. They do come in two forms: green and red, but red seems to be more prevalent this year.

They are starting to die off, which means they will disappear in a few weeks. Katydids only have one generation per year. They emerge from their eggs around late spring, early summer, eat as much as they can, become adults, mate, and lay eggs which will remain dormant until spring.

In rainy years, the eggs seem to do better than drier years, which is why we've seen them explode this summer.

Their noise can be deafening and they can cause some defoliation when numbers are too high. However, these guys have been around as long as our native trees have, and they will recover. Management is not really necessary. Their population, noise, and damage is peeking right now, and you will start to notice it dying down in the next few weeks. You may have already noticed that there are hundreds dropping dead from the trees right now. The course of their natural life is ending, and soon they will disappear. For more information, visit

You may have also noticed there seem to be more flies this year than there have ever been. While, I'm not sure if there are more this year than before, there are quite a lot. The reason is also because of the wet spring. Flies are need a moist environment to lay their eggs and the rain provided that. It may seem like every time you open your door, 30 fly in, but there really isn't much you can do about it.

Sanitation practices may help - throw out trash regularly, keep the trash bin away from the house, and check the area for breeding sites of decaying organic matter that is moist.

Use fly paper in the meantime for the adults, and keep the windows and doors shut if possible. This is another thing we'll have to wait out. As our trash cooks in the big trash bins, expect them to continue to breed!

I'm also making a prediction for fleas and ticks to be bad this summer. I'm not psychic, its just that we ALWAYS have flea and tick problems during San Antonio summers. My best advice, treat the pets, outdoors and indoors ALL at the same time, or you will just be chasing them in circles. Try to use products that contain an insect growth regulator for fleas to keep the females from laying more eggs, and spray where the fleas are found (where pets or animals rest and in shaded areas with some foliage).

Enjoy the summer outdoors, but remember, we have to share it with all the other creatures, and they were there first!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Texas Giant Centipede-Myths of their Danger!

There are many pieces of misinformation about insects and arthropods floating around out there, but one that bothers me more than most are myths about the "deadliness" of certain bugs.

The Texas Giant Centipede or Giant Redheaded Centipede has been called a deadly animal, when in fact, it is not! They can inflict a painful bite, but they are NOT aggressively looking for you, and their bite is not deadly.

Texas Giant Centipedes are found throughout our area pretty regularly. You may not have come across them before, but if you live in Texas long enough (especially in rockier areas), you definitely will. They are especially rare, and during warmer and drier months, will make their way indoors, probably looking for moisture.

Most people find them on their porches or sidewalks, sometimes in the garden, and every now and then inside the house.

Texas Giant Centipedes can reach lengths of up to 12 inches, so they can be very frightening. They also have a nasty look, in my opinion. And, like most other things that are brightly colored, it usually means -"don't mess with me!"

It is best never to handle a centipede, as they can bite. They have a pair of modified legs that act as poison claws. The poison claws are under the centipedes head (if you aren't familiar with centipedes, you can't really tell which end is the head!) and when they are disturbed or capturing prey, they use the poison claws to inject venom. The venom hurts, but it will not kill you, unless you have a very strange allergy to it. The pain is similar to a wasp sting - which to me hurts pretty bad.

Texas Giant Centipedes can also cut your skin with their other claws, so don't allow them to run up your arm or across your feet, that will hurt as well.

Just be careful around centipedes, but remember, they won't kill you. If you come across one, you didn't just escape death - you were very safe all along!

Photo courtesy of
Elizabeth Brown, CEA-IPM
Travis County Extension

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Mother's Day Swarmers-Horror Story in the Summer!

Yes, it sounds like a Halloween horror story in May, and they should be feared! Around Mother's Day is the time of year we find Formosan Termites doing their mating flights, or swarming. These are definitely not good termites to have!

If you see termites swarming this time of year, contact a qualified pest control company who deals with termites on a regular basis. Formosan termites are very destructive termites, that can cause major damage in less time than our active subterranean termites.

"Formosan vs Native Sub Termites"
Photo courtesy of University of Georgia, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

Formosan Termites are also bad because they do not always need an association with soil, which means they can remain trapped in your attic, continuing to do damage, even if you've had a barrier treatment around your house. Therefore, identification is extremely important.

Formosan Termites have been in Texas for decades, and have been found in Bexar County in several locations. It is highly thought that they are spread through human movement of landscape timbers and railroad ties. They can also feed on live trees, and research has shown their favorite to be pecan trees.

Formosan Termites swarmers are light brown in color; their wings are tinted brown and translucent, as opposed to the dark brown and whitish winged native subterranean termites. Under the microscope, an entomologist looks at the veins as well. Workers look very similar to subterranean termites, but the shape of the workers head is tear drop shaped, not rectangular. If you think you have them, contact the Extension office or a qualified pest management professional who can either identify them positively or send them to A & M for identification.

These are not termites you should "sit and wait out". Treatment is important, and proper treatment is vital!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Crane Flies, Crane Flies, Everywhere!

Has anyone else noticed tons of crane flies stuck to their window screens and sides of the house lately? In the past few weeks, crane flies have been quietly and patiently waiting by my porch lights for the door to open so they can escape indoors and irritate my dogs and husband.
(Photo by Bart Drees)

Crane flies are commonly (and incorrectly) called a number of different things such as: mayflies, mosquitoes, and mosquito hawks. Crane flies are in the same order as mosquitoes (they are both considered a type of fly), and they may look like giant sized mosquitoes, but they are far from it. I grew up mistakenly calling crane flies mayflies, but these are also very different insects.

Crane flies do not suck blood, do not bite, and generally don't do much except irritate you when they fly around your lights in the house. As larvae, they feed on decaying organic matter and are most common in very moist habitats. Well... we've had a lot of rain this winter, which has probably allowed them to proliferate so well. The adults don't feed on anything - they don't even have working mouthparts! The warmer and sunnier days with warmer evenings has allowed them to move around much better than they would if it was cooler.

Crane fly adults are attracted to lights, and as long as the soil is somewhat moist, we should see the around through the spring and maybe even into the winter. If they get indoors, gently catch them and release them outside - they are very delicate, though, so don't be surprised if a leg falls off. No need to spray anything, these are not damaging insects in our landscape!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Spring Break Camp

If you are looking for a fun way to keep your kids entertained during Spring Break, Extension may just have the thing for you! Texas AgriLife Extension is hosting a Spring Break Camp, March 15-18, 9am-2pm.

This is an educational camp, and we will be covering food nutrition, earth science (weather), entomology & horticulture, and doing some fun team building exercises. Some of the activities planned for this year include making healthy snacks, learning how to identify clouds and predict weather patterns, learning how bees communicate, and plant propagation. We had a blast last year, so we're trying it again this year.

All campers will earn a 4-H project group in (at least), earth science, youth development, and food nutrition.

Campers ages 7-11 are invited, and older kids are welcome to act as camp mentors/counselors (same fees apply). The cost is $50 per camper, which will cover snacks and materials for the week. Please bring a sack lunch and let us know if you need special accommodations or dietary needs.

Space is limited to the first 25 paid, complete registrations, so give us a call if you are interested! (210-467-6575 and ask for Molly).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Let's Rodeo San Antonio - Bug Style!

Every February is Rodeo month in San Antonio and Texas AgriLife Extension has been blessed with receiving half of an entire building to use for an educational display. We do this in coordination with the Bexar County Master Gardeners.

This year, we have an extra special exhibit with live insects and arthropods. There is a butterfly garden, display with just ladybugs, and aquariums holding tarantulas, scorpions, vinagaroons, preying mantids, termites, rhino beetle grubs, and hissing cockroaches!

If you time it right, you just might get to see a tarantula come out from her home to eat a cricket!

In addition to the awesome insect displays, you will find displays about tilapia farming (with live tilapia), vertical farming, sustainable agriculture, hardscape and xeriscape ideas, and propagation. Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer all your gardening related questions.

For the kids, we will also have germ, hand washing station. Kids of all ages, will get the chance to see their germs glowing on a screen, using special lotion. You can wash your hands and re-check to see how well you do in fighting germs!

Extension has also built a mock-kitchen with other safety ideas and tips to keeping your family healthy. The ISEC (Identify, Sanitize, Exclude & Control) Home Pest Management Program is highlighted, giving additional tips on how to prevent and manage bugs in the kitchen.

If you are out at the Rodeo this year, come by the Texas Experience Pavilion. There will be food, fun, and all sorts of information to take home! We spent over three weeks putting the barn together, and we're proud of how it looks, so come enjoy it with us!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hmmm... Club Soda the New Fire Ant Killer???

Every so often, an email starts circulating claiming that club soda is the new, awesome thing in killing fire ants. "And it really works!" You've probably received it lately, if you subscribe to any gardening type email blasts, or have friends that do.

The most recent email is claiming to be touted by Walter Reeves on his Georgia Gardener radio program. It claims to use two cups of club soda, poured on the center of the fire ant mound. Since carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it will push all the oxygen out of the mound and suffocate the colony. The whole colony is supposed to die within a couple days.

Now, there's no environmental hazard to trying this, that I am aware of. It should not contaminate ground water, and doesn't harm beneficial insects, wildlife, humans, pets, etc. The bad thing is, it won't really harm your fire ants either!

In 2009, my colleague, Wizzie Brown (who also has a bugblog, tested the club soda theory in field trials. The emails that have circulated don't site any scientific testing to back them up, so she decided to give it a shot. That way, when we are asked about it, we have a true answer, not just a hunch.

After replicated experiments, it didn't work. There were no ants climbing to the surface, gasping for breath, and no evidence that there was any control at all.

One thing you may find, is that the mound moves over a few feet because they are irritated. And for some, if that means moving into the neighbor's yard, that's control! I am definitely not one to argue with success, so if you've tried club soda and swear by it, keep it up! As researchers, we just can't recommend, endorse, or encourage management practices that we find in replicated field trials not be effective (it would be like claiming a diet pill will make you loose 20 pounds without ever testing its efficacy or safety).

In addition, Walter Reeves has since stated that he has not endorsed club soda as a sound treatment to fire ants.

If you are interested in learning more about our results with various home remedies (molasses, garlic, aspartame, and others), check out and peruse our IPM handbooks. All the field work we do is written up in those yearly handbooks. There is also information about successful and low impact options for fire ant management.