Insect infestations in our homes – think thousands of cockroaches or bedbugs – can trigger a host of emotional responses.

In addition to embarrassment, those pests contaminating our living spaces can leave people feeling ashamed, defeated, and tainted.

The age-old clash between bugs and humans drives Dini Miller. The entomologist is impassioned about making life better for anyone tormented by pest infestations. Through her practical research and educational efforts, she is working hard to ensure that insects don’t make us feel like guests in our own homes.

Miller, urban pest management specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension and a professor of entomology in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is conducting a year-long experiment in two states that could all but eradicate German cockroach infestations in multi-unit housing communities and transform standard pest-management protocols.

“Much of my work through the Dodson Urban Pest Management Laboratory is focused on eliminating pest problems in underrepresented communities. I would like to change the way that pest control is handled in public housing. A lot of people are living with a lot of cockroaches, and they don’t need to be. This problem, we can solve,” said Miller.

Each month, she travels to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) communities in Richmond and Hopewell, Virginia, and Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where she is engaged in an assessment-based program to treat homes infested with large numbers of cockroaches.

In Rocky Mount, a sleepy southern town once known for its tobacco and textiles, just an hour east of Raleigh, Miller is working to make life better for residents in 31 test homes. Her success, less than 10 months into the experiment, has made her a champion to residents including Sharon Jones.

Jones resides in a one-story, ranch-style duplex in a Rocky Mount HUD community.

“Once the cockroaches showed up, they multiplied quickly,” said Jones, a retired grandmother who has lived in her home for 16 years. “One Thanksgiving, I was cooking and they were so bad I couldn’t leave the food on my stove for a moment. I had to put everything on a table in the middle of the living room to try to protect it.”

In the middle of the night, Jones would awaken to find hundreds of cockroaches swarming across her sink and washing machine. In the morning, she often discovered the pests in her breakfast cereal.

Jones’ neighbor and friend Tomeika Ferrell experienced such a severe infestation that she feared her lease would be terminated when the number of cockroaches prevented building managers from painting her apartment despite monthly insecticide treatments by a local HUD-contracted pest control company.

“The exterminators made me feel like I was a bad housekeeper, like I wasn’t cleaning,” said Ferrell, a mother of three, whose home is welcoming and lovingly decorated with artwork and textiles. “My daughter has bad asthma and was experiencing an allergic reaction. I cleaned so often that I almost took the paint off of the counters. Nothing helped. Then, when the exterminators sprayed, the problem seemed to get worse, and I worried about how the chemicals would impact my daughter.”

Prior to exterminations, residents are asked to clean their homes, wash dishes, remove trash, and vacuum. They are also expected to remove all of their belongings from closets, cupboards, and other areas targeted for insecticide, such as the top of refrigerators, stoves, and other large appliances.

“Residents have to go through this process routinely, often weeks before the pest control company visits since they don’t know the exact date,” said Miller. “They have nowhere to put their belongings. But, the worst part is that when conditions aren’t perfect, the residents are blamed for the pests. The excuse is always that they didn’t prepare properly for treatment. It’s unfair, and it’s putting the blame in the wrong place.”

Miller’s protocol requires no prior cleaning, no spray insecticides, and is ingenious in its practical simplicity. Best of all, residents are not required to change their living habits in any way.

The entomologist places sticky traps in each unit the day before treatment. The next day, she counts the number of cockroaches in order to quantify how much bait to place in each apartment. She and her team then place bait containing an insecticide throughout the units, focusing on areas where the insects congregate. 

“We used this process to save time,” said Miller. “Wax paper squares worked best for massive bait distribution. You can put them into cracks and crevices without contaminating anything. We found that even when attractive foods, such as pizza, are left out in the apartments, the cockroaches still eat the bait.”

Miller’s assessment-based, decision-making methodology – quantifying the number of cockroaches prior to treatment and utilizing a food bait rather than pesticide spray to kill the cockroaches – is innovative. Best of all, it’s working. In Rocky Mount, cockroaches have been completely eliminated in the test units. Hopewell has had a 99.7 percent reduction in cockroaches, while Richmond populations have decreased by more than 98.9 percent.

Although her method requires more time and money at the outset, it offers a greater reward: fewer roaches and fewer treatments over time, not to mention happier residents. This is the message she wishes to impart to HUD officials, apartment managers, and pest control operators. Buoyed by her success, and by the relief of her residents, Miller is now working to develop a new set of standards and a check list for pest control contracts in HUD communities across the country.

“There are two issues: the practical side (baiting), and the political side (how contracts are written for pest management companies),” said Tim Kring, head of the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology. “Unless HUD requires its managers to adopt the new guidelines, this will be a slow process.

“As people are forced to change, they will change. It’s easy to see that Dr. Miller’s protocol is better. But, it costs more. And, under the current HUD guidelines, spraying is the most economical treatment – but, it has not controlled the problem,” said Kring.

In the meantime, Miller has made life better for residents, whose relief is palpable. Ferrell has not seen a roach in months. She also reported that her daughter’s asthma has improved.

“This process has eased my mind so much,” said Ferrell. “Now, I can have company over and cook without worrying that roaches will jump on them. It’s much happier around here. I finally feel comfortable in my own home.”

Ferrell is joined by a chorus of satisfied residents, including Sharon Jones; Lakeyshia Mayo, a mother of one; and Marcia Simms, a Jamaican-American mother of four – in addition to residents in Hopewell and Richmond, Virginia.

“The change has been dramatic, and I didn’t have to remove anything from my home,” said Simms. “I was skeptical at first when I didn’t see any spray or chemicals, but whatever Dr. Miller is doing is revolutionary. I’m so appreciative to have been on her list. If there’s a Grammy Award, she deserves it.”

Miller may not qualify for a Grammy, but something even better is in the works. This summer, the Urban Pest Management Program received an endowment that will help ensure that work of this caliber will continue for many years to come.

In June, Joe and Mary Wilson, of Fredericksburg, Virginia established the Joseph R. and Mary W. Wilson Endowed Urban Entomology Professorship. Wilson is the former owner of PermaTreat Pest Control, a leading pest control company located in Central and Northern Virginia. The endowment will support urban entomology research – research that promises to lead to the types of discoveries that underpin Miller’s work.

“This gift is truly transformational to our program at Virginia Tech,” said Kring. “There is a void in basic foundational research for urban pest management. We want to expand our program by adding a research component to our toolbox in order to pioneer next-step treatment options for indoor pests. No insecticide lasts forever. So, coming up with a new tool requires research.” 
 

— Written by Amy Painter