Pests are a part of life—wherever there are people, vermin of one kind or another are sure to follow. This is particularly true in a subtropical environment like that of Western and Central Florida. These insect pests are not merely gross. Many of them pose threats to humans, pets and property, so controlling or eliminating them is a major concern for all boards and managers.
Two key factors complicate the control of pests in Florida. The first is the climate. While insects will not be much of an issue during the winter in, say, Minnesota, Florida especially is warm year-round—and thus a literal hotbed of bugs and other animal life.
A Breeding Ground for Pests
“The rainfall and the climate here in Central Florida greatly impacts the insect population,” says Rick Gardner, a sales representative at Pestguard Commercial Services in Sarasota. “It's the perfect climate for insects that thrive on heat, humidity and moisture. There is an abundance of these, so that just means more bugs. Furthermore, the rain also impacts how well the pest-control treatment works. The more rain that we have, then the less effective our treatments will be because the treatment begins to get diluted and will wash away.”
The second, and more overlooked, factor is Florida’s popularity with tourists. The Sunshine State is a huge draw for people from all over the United States, Latin America and, indeed, the world. This rampant tourism puts Florida at huge risk for invasion by foreign species.
“Here in Florida we have a very transient society,” says Greg Rice, marketing director at Hulett Environmental Services in West Palm Beach, “and the world’s gotten so much smaller because of travel and international shipping. And we have seven or eight major shipping ports here in Florida, and there’s always a new species of something being brought in and establishing itself. Bugs like it here, and they proliferate.”
Dr. Catharine Mannion, associate professor and extension specialist in ornamental entomology at the University of Florida/IFAS extension office for Broward County, also notes the proclivity of new species entering the state. “Florida is a hotbed for new invasive pests coming in. We probably get one or two new pests every month, and about 60% of them come in through the bottom of the state, so we’re on the forefront.”
These invasions happen in waves, she’s noticed. “The typical pattern for an invasive pest is that it comes in, and it’s pretty bad for a few years, and then it does sort of drop off as the pest moves around and spreads further. For example, with one species of whitefly, we’re not having as big a problem with it here in Miami-Dade County, but counties farther north and west are still having lots of problems.” That includes homes in Western and Central Florida.
The gravest insect threats to HOAs throughout Florida are whiteflies, silverfish, bedbugs and, the number one pest, ants.
“The invasive pests that have caused the most issues in Florida in the last several years are whiteflies,” Mannion says. “The whitefly is an invasive species that came in from outside the U.S. about five to seven years ago,” Rice reports, “and has been slowly working its way up from the Miami area, on both the east and west coast of the state. It’s an outside bug that attacks shrubs and trees and is particularly fond of the ficus, the big manicured hedges that a lot of communities use for privacy and aesthetics. When these whiteflies came in, it was almost as if they could defoliate an entire 12-foot-high hedge overnight. The affected hedges almost looked like they had been burned with chemicals.”
These pests can wreak havoc on the landscaping—and on an HOA’s budget. “The economic impact for property owners can be huge,” Rice continues. “A lot of buildings or communities have an annual budget that covers managing whatever pests they normally have, and then something new comes in and becomes a huge problem, and that’s not in their budget. For example, one of our whiteflies attacks ficus, which is used as privacy hedges. There’s a huge number of developments that literally have miles of these hedges. So now, if they have a whitefly problem, they have miles of the problem. So they might be spending fifty or a hundred thousand dollars trying to manage this.”
But tough as they are, they can be managed. “We use a systemic granular insecticide that we put down in the roots of the hedge and we also use a topical spray on the foliage,” Rice says. “So we got them in check, but they’re still here, and communities have to keep on top of them. And then a few years ago, a new version of this insect, called the spiraling whitefly, came in, and it’s going after coconut palms, tropical ornamentals and hardwood trees. And it leaves a black sooty residue on the trees that’s unattractive, and also very damaging to the host plant.”
“Silverfish and book lice are both species that can occasionally present problems,” says William H. Kern, Jr., associate professor of urban entomology at the Ft. Lauderdale Research & Education Center (FLREC). “Silverfish are strictly a nuisance, but they’re hard to get rid of. It’s a good idea to store books and papers in plastic containers rather than cardboard boxes, because silverfish will chew paper to get the starch out of it.”
Gardner warns, “You can get do-it-yourself products for silverfish that might be able to control them for a little while. However, more silverfish will just return. A lot of silverfish infestations are unique. What technique may work on one place might not work on another. That is why a professional with experience should be used in order to identify, locate and solve the source or sources of infestation and use the right technique for that specific job,” he says.
These hideous creatures were once known only for their presence in the old refrain, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.” But for reasons not clear—global warming, perhaps?—recent years have brought them back with a vengeance.
“From the 1950s on, you almost never heard anything about bedbugs,” says Kern. “If you look at the pesticides that we have available—and for indoor use that is primarily the pyrethroids—they have the exact same mode of action as earlier insecticides like DDT and chlordane. And these were so effective that bedbugs were almost exterminated from the United States. But the problem is that we’ve been using this same mode of action to control bedbugs for over 60 years, and now we’re seeing fairly high levels of resistance. They’re harder to kill now than they used to be. And if you have a resistant population show up anywhere in the world, it can get carried around by people. So now we’re seeing those high levels of resistance pretty much throughout the U.S.,” says Kern.
Bedbugs were brought to Florida from parts unknown. “Bedbugs are a continuing and escalating problem. Orlando got hit first,” due to its number of tourists, he says, and then the problem spread throughout Florida.
Treatment of bedbugs is perhaps the most difficult job a pest control company will see. “The first thing is to contact a pest control professional who has experience,” Kern says. “When there’s an outbreak of bedbugs, a lot of people are apprehensive about mentioning it to anybody. But they need to let management know, because it may end up having to be a building-wide treatment. You can’t just fumigate one unit. It’s unsafe and illegal. You can do heat treatments in one unit but there’s a lot of debate about whether these heat treatments are effective. Before it gets hot enough to kill the bedbugs, it might drive them into adjacent apartments. But you can use freezing, you can use spot heat treatments, you can use spray insecticides. A lot of times companies will use a combination of things. It requires a real thorough treatment. A tenant can’t just spray some stuff around the baseboards, or worse yet, spray the beds. You need a professional who deals with bedbugs.”
“Ants are still the number one structural pest problem,” Kern says. “These are primarily nuisance pests. Occasionally they’re able to sting, and they can contaminate food, but mostly they’re a nuisance. And most of the really bad ones are exotic, introduced invasive species. They’re the same pests you’ll find anywhere in the world. One big concern is the tawny crazy ant. We occasionally still have problems with the Florida carpenter ant, mostly on the ground floor, but possibly higher if you have tree branches touching balconies or roofs. White-footed ants and farrow’s ants are also important ones. One that’s very common here in south Florida and is slowly spreading north is called the big headed ant. They have a stinger, but they don’t seem to sting people. They’re voracious foragers for other insects, so a lot of times they actually help to keep other pest ants under control, like fire ants. But they will come into a home, and sometimes in large numbers.”
Once inside, they are very difficult to get rid of. “For ant control in general, your best choice is one of the various baits,” Kern says. “We have lots of very good baits now, liquid baits, gel baits, solid baits. Another option that seems to be helpful for some of these really large colonies of ants like the tawny crazy ants or white-footed ants is perimeter spray treatment. And that’s to keep them out of the structure.”
There are a few things residents can do to stem the tide of pests. “The first thing that anyone should do is to be a good housekeeper,” Rice says. “Reduce clutter. Clean up food sources that are attractive to pests. Number two: most bugs are hitchhikers. You bring your groceries and other things into your building or condo, or bring plants onto your balcony. Inspect these things closely. But the best thing you can do is to have a good, pest control company that’s experienced in working in your type of building or community. We’ve had subterranean termites in 20-story condominiums, working their way up. And that never should have happened. You should have annual inspections.”
With pest control, the key word is control. “We cannot rid the state of pests. But we can contain them,” says Rice. “Insects are programmed to survive,” he adds. “Even though we have great pest-control products and very effective ways to get those products to the pests, in time, a lot of these species will stop taking those baits that have been a mainstay for us. And we have to figure out another product that they’ll start taking and carrying back to their nests. It’s never-ending.”
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Western & Central Florida Cooperator. Staff writer Judy Hill contributed to this article.