University of California at Berkeley

Shoo Fly

Whatever's Buggin' You, Pest Control Specialist Art Slater and His Team Have Got a Nature-Friendly Remedy

 by Robert Sanders

Irrespective of the other pests that may hang around campus, you won't find many of the animal or insect variety.

For more than 20 years, pest control manager Art Slater and his team have kept cockroaches, ants, yellow jackets, rats, doves and numerous other annoyances in check with innovative methods that not only work better but also minimize the use of pesticides.

Since he took over in 1973, the program has reduced its use of pesticides by 90 to 99 percent.

In addition, Slater's team has come up with some truly imaginative control methods, from raising and releasing parasitic wasps to attack cockroach eggs to designing low-cost yellow jacket feeding stations to protect children's play areas.

To see their handiwork, all you need do is look around. The eaves of the Hearst Mining Building are netted to keep pigeons from getting a foothold. Bee traps surround several of the campus's eateries, including the Golden Bear restaurant on Sproul Plaza. And five-eyed balloons peek out here and there to discourage nesting doves.

Their dramatic success on an urban campus that resembles a small city has now won Slater and his three-person team the state's highest award in integrated pest management, an IPM Innovator Award from the California Environmental Protection Agency's Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Integrated pest management draws on a broad range of tools, from biological control to chemical pesticides, but includes also simple changes in human behavior. The goal is to reduce the cost as well as environmental and human risk of pest control.

The award was presented Sept. 9 to Slater and his team, Margaret Hurlbert, Lafayette "Mac" McIntosh and Stephen Comrie, by James W. Wells, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

"UC Berkeley's pest control program has pioneered the adoption of integrated pest management practices in urban settings -- even as people were saying it couldn't be done," said Wells. "For nearly 20 years, Berkeley has used its own campus as a model for what can be accomplished in the area of urban integrated pest management."

"If you look at this campus, with 30,000 students and lots of old buildings, you'd think we would have problems with cockroaches or rats or ants. We have the conditions that are very attractive to these kinds of problems," said Johnny Torrez, director of Physical Plant. "But we don't, and that's because of the work of this group, in particular Art Slater."

Slater, 54, modestly ascribes his success to patience and a problem solving approach to each situation.

Consider the invasion of the brownbanded cockroach. In the late 1970s he and his crew noticed that while the common German cockroach succumbed to boric acid powder, a more agressive cousin did not. Hailing from the Nile Valley, the brownbanded cockroach often pushed out the German and slowly took over several large campus buildings, including the Life Sciences Building.

Fortuitously a tiny, flea-sized parasitic wasp showed up in the insectary in Wellman Hall and in slightly over a year both cockroach and wasp had disappeared.

"The wasps are so good at finding and parasitizing the cockroach eggs that they tend to put themselves out of business," Slater said.

Slater investigated this godsend, which evidently had hitched along with the cockroach from their African home, and on a hunch decided to mass rear them and release them in campus buildings.

It wasn't long before Margaret Hurlbert had established cockroach colonies from which she harvested eggs in which to grow the wasps. Her release program was successful -- within a few years she had the brownbanded cockroach under control. She estimates she has scattered more than 100,000 wasps around the campus since 1978.

Hurlbert also is working on solutions to the perennial problem of abandonned cats. Once dropped off by people in the surrounding community or by students when they depart for the summer, they breed profusely.

Rather than try to eliminate them, she captures the kittens and places them in foster homes until she can find someone to adopt them as indoor cats.

"We've reduced the numbers dramatically," she said.

Then there are the yellow jackets that each year annoy the hyenas in Strawberry Canyon's animal care facility. The colony is kept for behavioral studies, but researchers complained that the wasps made the hyenas too irritable to study.

Slater took his typical low-cost approach and punched a few dime-sized holes in a plastic mustard jar, mixed a little ground turkey with a small amount of poison, and hung the yellow lanterns out of reach around the outdoor colony. The hyenas and researchers both were happy.

"Art is an excellent tactician on how to control insects," says Cooperative Extension entomologist Vernard Lewis, who worked with Slater to evaluate the wasp program while a graduate student here in the 1970s. "A lot of my pest control skills I learned from Art, and when I get stuck with a problem I still call him."

Aside from the desire to minimize the use of toxic pesticides, Slater has a broader goal. Studies have shown, he says, that pesticides sprayed in one part of a building tend to spread throughout. In research areas such chemicals could subtly alter the outcome of animal studies.

In response he and his team reduced the use of pesticide sprays in laboratory buildings by more than 99 percent. Instead they encourage simpler alternatives such as emptying trash cans frequently, working with dog owners so they don't bring fleas to the office, or using one of his preferred solutions -- a vacuum cleaner.

Slater's scientific approach to insect control -- his father was a professor and Slater himself obtained a masters degree in entomology from Berkeley in 1974 -- has led to collaborations with researchers on and off campus and boosted his reputation nationally as a leader in urban pest control.

He's also eager to share his knowledge. In addition to disseminating his techniques at meetings, he developed a correspondence course though UC Extension on pest control, teaches a three-hour lecture each year to architecture students, has consulted on pest control problems on all campuses and reviewed Harvard's pest control plan in the 1980s. He has written three pamplets on pest control for UC Cooperative Extension. The one on cockroach control is their most popular ever.

His approach to pest control, he says, is like that of a health maintenance organization, as opposed to a prescription approach that in the past meant mainly one thing -- spraying.

Though he prefers not to dwell on current challenges, which include guarding campus museum collections and old books and manuscripts from the odd insect (including "odd" beetles), he is confident there is a solution to each and every problem. It just requires a little thought, time, experimentation and good luck, he says.

Has he ever met a pest he couldn't lick? "Nope," he says. "Except perhaps some humans."


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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