Daniel Perry is an entomologist at Proctor and Gamble working on Zevo, a line of naturally-inspired insecticides. He talks about the various insect problems facing university students in their living spaces.
According to Washington State University, entomologists concern themselves with, “insects and their relationship to humans, the environment and other organisms.” Entomologists may serve in a variety of scientific fields including agriculture, pharmaceuticals and pest control.
How did you get started with entomology?
“I’ve always been interested in insects since I was a little kid. I always thought that they were really fascinating and so different from other forms of life that you see around you. It’s like we’re surrounded by a world of aliens that we only really see the tip of the iceberg of on a day-to-day basis. After graduating from school at the University of California Riverside, I got a job with Proctor and Gamble developing insecticides and that’s where I am now.”
What are the most common pests that university students living in dorms and apartments are going to encounter?
“The most common ones are probably going to be ants and flies for the simple reason that they’re ubiquitous. We are always surrounded by various kinds of flies, and that’s because flies are really well adapted to live in the spaces that we live in and to eat the things that are left over. The more old food and trash there is lying around, the happier flies are. Ants are literally everywhere. No matter where you go, there are probably ants underneath you.
If you’re lucky, ants and flies will be the only things you see, as annoying as they are. If you’re unlucky, you might also see some nastier things like cockroaches which unfortunately are also very good at taking advantage of the spaces that we create. If you’re really unlucky, you might see bed bugs.”
What draws insects specifically to apartment and dorm environments?
“Going back to very ancient history, our ancestors have always lived in something similar to what we live in now. Even when we were living in caves, what we really like to have is something that’s insulating from the outside world. The pests that we see most often are insects that way back then, also liked to live in caves. One really good example of that is the German cockroach. They’re very common and are adapted to live specifically in our homes. It’s actually so extensive to which they have spread through the world to follow us, that scientists aren’t totally sure where they originated. At this point, wherever humans are, German cockroaches also exist. You will never actually see them outside of human residences because that’s where they can live.
There are certain spaces within the house that are really, really good for pests, especially around the kitchen and the bathroom. That’s where it’s warm and moist and there are food sources for them. But if you look at a building that multiple people or multiple families are living in, not only are there multiple kitchens and bathrooms, but there are easy routes for insects to travel throughout the building and go between dwellings. So, if you have a cockroach problem in one apartment in the building, everybody in that building now has a problem.”
Drain flies can be an especially common issue for those with sinks and garbage disposals. How does one go about dealing with them?
“Drain flies live off of the gunk that accumulates in the bottom of the drain. There’s nothing you can do to prevent that because it just happens over time. But once it does happen, your best bet is to have somebody come clean the drain out for you or do it yourself if you know how. Drain flies are highly resistant to things that you would normally think of as good ways to control them. Your first thought might be, ‘Boiling water down the drain, that’ll kill them!’ But it actually doesn’t because they have hydrophobic hairs that keep the water from contacting them.”
A lot of people tend to think that since it’s cold out, insects are no longer a problem. Is this grounded in fact?
“Certain insect pests will die down with the cold. In some parts of the country, it never really gets that cold in the winter and those unfortunate souls will keep dealing with the same issues. But here it gets a little chillier in the winter. Let’s think about the ants that often trail into your home. You’re not going to see them as much as it gets colder because they’ve gathered their food for the winter and they’re going to be lying dormant in their colonies.
But there are other insects, specifically the ones that never really leave, that are still going to be a problem year-round. German cockroaches are one insect that don’t really care what the weather’s like outside since they don’t really exist separate from our residences.
Another example is bed bugs. They don’t really exist separate from our residences. So if you have them in the summer you’re going to have them in the winter too. Then, there are some insects that are hit-or-miss, like house flies. Sometimes they lay their eggs outside and sometimes they lay their eggs inside, so their populations may go down. But they’re never going to entirely disappear.”
Do students need to be concerned about the potential of disease transmission via insects?
“Mosquitoes are very well-suited to carrying diseases between humans and for that reason, a lot of viruses and other pathogens have evolved specifically to take advantage of that. Some common examples today are dengue fever and West Nile virus, ranging up to some really nasty stuff like encephalitis. You always want to be prepared for that risk when you go outdoors.
Talking more specifically about indoor concerns, it gets more related to cleanliness. The more you let things pile up in your residence the more likely you are to have issues with insect pests. Cockroaches are an insect that can definitely carry illnesses from one place to another. That’s because they like to be in warm and moist places like a sewer, but they also like to come up into your home to forage for food. The cleaner you keep your home, the fewer places they have to hide and carry those pathogens around.
Additionally, flies can land on something nasty and then carry pathogens from there to your food, a surface that you rested your arm on or something similar.
My best advice would be to try to control them if you do see them. For example, if you are having a picnic and there are some flies buzzing around, don’t let them sit on your food for any longer than you absolutely have to.
A good rule of thumb is that if something can bite you, it can probably transmit a disease.”
How can students take on prevention and control?
“The number one way to prevent insect infestations is cleanliness. The less stuff you leave lying around, especially trash and food, the less likely it is that you are going to see a lot of insects around because you’re not creating as much food for them or as many places to hide.
Let’s take the perfect scenario. You have a completely empty room. It’s not very livable, but for the purposes of the conversation, it’ll do. A cockroach wanders into that room and it finds nothing lying around. There’s no food for it and there’s nowhere that’s comfortable. So it’s going to leave to look for greener pastures.
On the other hand, if you have an apartment that has piles of trash and clothes everywhere, a cockroach immediately has places it can get nice and cozy in the dark away from prying eyes and with lots of stuff to eat. That one cockroach is going to find plenty to eat, probably another cockroach to mate with and now you have an infestation on your hands.
A dorm is a magnified version of an apartment. It’s a smaller room and they’re more tightly packed together. There are also typically more of them in a building than there would be apartments in a building.
An additional thing that likely applies to dorms more than apartments is bed bugs. The reason for this is that there are more people being tightly packed together and there are more opportunities for bed bugs to spread from one home to another.
Something I would recommend for anybody moving into a new space is to check the room for bed bugs before you move any of your stuff in. Don’t put your bags down on any surfaces, especially not the bed, until you have had a chance to pull back the sheets, pull back the covers, lift up the mattress and look at every surface area for brown or red spots. You should especially check around the corners. If you see anything, don’t put your stuff in there. Go tell the authorities for that building and let them know that somebody needs to come and take a look at that dorm room.”
What positive impacts do insects have on our lives?
“The answer to that is a great, many positive impacts. For example, a lot of insects, including but not limited to bees, provide pollination services that help us grow a lot of the food that we eat. But even beyond that, insects that you see on a day-to-day basis are a vital part of the ecosystems that they live in.
If there are insects in your house and they’re bothering you, then deal with it. But if you’re just on a walk through the park and you see an insect on a tree, the best thing to do is to just leave it alone because it’s probably not hurting anybody and is probably actually benefiting the world by living.”