3 OCTOBER 1992, Page 19


Isabel Wolff helps to celebrate

a great landmark in the history of British pest control

I'M NOT really sure what the collective noun for pest controllers is. A 'swarm', quite possibly, or perhaps, rather more unkindly, a 'plaque'. Anyway, there they were, lots of them, in Canterbury last week, celebrating 50 glorious years of the British Pest Control Association. Readers may wish to know that 1992, according to their literature, is the BPCA's 'Golden Jubilation' — an occasion marked by a three-day international conference. 'Who Will rid me of this turbulent pest?' is not exactly what Henry II said of Cantuar in 1170, but the BPCA has adopted this as its slogan anyway. So there were lectures on Fifty Years of Rodenticides', 'Pest Pre- cautions at the Channel Tunnel', 'The Insect in War and Peace' and, rather con- troversially, 'If You Can't Beat Them Eat Them — Pests on the Menu'.

There's nothing wrong with eating insects,' says Dr Richard Vane-Wright from the Natural History Museum, whose lecture caused something of a stir. 'They're a perfectly good source of protein. Just think of cockroaches as flying scampi. It's Only in the States and in Europe that peo- ple don't eat insects — everyone else does because it's perfectly sensible.' Whether he was advocating this as a means of controlling pest populations was unclear, but it all goes to show what a long way pest control has come since Britain's first professional 'vermin exterminators' shakily bashed their first rat back in 1942.

`We do everything now,' said Peter Bateman, a director of Rentokil (the only pest controllers with a royal warrant), as we walked around the exhibition stands during the coffee break. He stopped to

examine the 'Telescopic-Sewer-Bait- Depositor' — a 15-foot length of collapsi- ble plastic drainpipe.

`It's not just rats, you know,' he contin- ued. 'It can be anything from flies to fleas, to cockroaches, to mites, to mosquitoes, cocoa moths, wasps, woolly bears, wood- worm, red-rust flour beetles, silverfish, weevils, carpet beetles, bed bugs.' He stopped for breath. 'You name it. We do it.'

I paused to have a closer look at the `Lo-Line Roach Trap' CA sticky end for cockroaches and other crawling insects', according to the blurb). 'That's a bit like the American "Roach Motel",' Peter Bateman explained. 'You know the one? "They check in but they don't check out". Here, look at this,' he enthused, waving a small plastic box in front of my nose. Inside were what looked like two brown baby armadillos. 'Hissing Madagascar cock- roaches. Wonderful specimens. Listen.' He gently pressed the back of each one, and they emitted a noise like the winding-on sound of an automatic camera. 'And these little ones here are German cockroaches (Platella germanica), which are the kind we get all over Britain.'

`We do? What do you use to get rid of them?'

`Demon 40WP, a pyrethroid insecticide. Knocks them out a treat.'

`Aren't insecticides rather, you know, bad news?' I ventured.

`Not really. It depends. Anyway, we're finding other methods.' He picked up a small white bucket with a red lid. 'This is a Pheromone Funnel Trap for moths. We've chemically simulated the female moth sex pheromone, which persuades the male moths to linger longer at the bait. They fly in thinking there's a Miss Moth in there and then, bang, they get hit with a whiff of naphtha.'

`So what's the biggest pest problem in this country?' I enquired. 'Rats?'

`Oh no. Mice are much worse,' he replied vehemently. `Burns' wee timorous cowering beastie' is no such thing. You can get rid of rats, but it's almost impossible to mouse-proof a building.' (I suddenly noticed that Mr Bateman was wearing a Mickey Mouse tie.) House mice (Mus muscu/us) do just as much damage as common rats (Ratus ratus) and brown rats (Ratus norvegicus), he explained. They chew through pipework and electric cables, spread disease, contam- inate food and urinate copiously at every opportunity. They have rather unconventional blad- ders,' he said. 'What they dribble is worse than what they nibble. Beatrix Potter never told us that.' `How do you despatch them?' I asked. `Efficiently, kindly and humanely, as the law requires,' he responded gravely.

`There are lots of different methods but I think that calciferol's the best. It's a huge dose of Vitamin D, which means they all die in great shape.'

As long as they agree to take the bait. Apparently a new breed of `supermice' is emerging — in Birmingham, for some rea- son — which is behaviourally resistant to rodenticides.

`They're so suspicious,' said Dr Jane Hurst from Nottingham University.

`They walk round the traps; and they'll starve to death rather than eat the laced bait we try on them. If this is behaviour they've learnt, then we're all in big trouble.'

We wandered on through the hall, stop- ping at a foliage-covered stand set up in one corner by the London Zoo. Paul Pearce-Kelly, the zoo's keeper of invertabrates, had brought along some of his charges. On the table were two snails of monstrous proportions. Most snails carry their houses on their backs. These ones had blocks of flats. Over a foot long and at least nine inches high, these pulsing gastropods would cover an average tea- plate.

`Giant African land snails,' Mr Pearce- Kelly explained. 'Splendid creatures really, but, sadly, a pest in many parts of the trop- ics.' Giant snails, he explained, are a major food source in West Africa, but people have a habit of putting them in their hand luggage when they go abroad and now they're causing problems in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

`You can imagine how much green stuff they chomp through,' said Mr Pearce- Kelly. This required no imagination what- soever.

'Are they in love? They appear to be exchanging body fluids,' I asked, watching their slithery, mucoid embraces.

`Oh no, they're just being friendly,' he replied, lowering his voice.

`Actually, they're hermaphrodites. They can reproduce without sex.'

`Those guys are a huge problem in Cali- fornia,' said Norman Cooper, president of the American Pest Control Association. `They can strip the paint off houses; and when they cross the road and get run over they go all squidgy and mushy and it's real dangerous.'

I was beginning to feel relieved that in Britain we have so little in the way of hideous creepy-crawlies. But, says Peter Bateman, this is a dangerously complacent attitude, given the likely effects on insec- told life of global warming. If meteorologi- cal projections are right Britain's average temperature is set to rise within the next 50 years by an average of 1.5 degrees centigrade, which would put us on a par with central France. This could result in termites, scorpions and other entymologi- cal exotica establishing themselves quite happily.

We could have colonies of black widow spiders and tarantulas,' he said.

`When they come in with the odd crate of bananas now, they die pretty soon because it's too cold. But they could, in future, thrive quite happily. Makes you think, doesn't it?'

Yes, it does. It makes me think about buying shares in pest-control companies. Rentokil has a stock-market value of over £1.6

`I suppose we are doing rather well,' said Mr Bateman, without a hint of smugness. `Our profits are going up by 20 per cent every year. But then it's a guaranteed mar- ket — wherever you see a rat or a mouse.'