Domestic beasts and how not to find them

Vitali Vitaliev addresses a pest controllers' professional gathering and learns of their technologies, old and new.

At a recent hotel technology exhibition in London, I stumbled upon a stand of JG Environmental Ltd Pest Controllers, manned by Sam Devereux, the company's young and charismatic general manager. Among other things, the stand featured squeezable toy bedbugs, made of plastic... “Don't you feel a bit out of place here, among hospitality tools and gadgets?” I asked Mr Devereuex. “Not at all!” he smiled. “Do you know that nothing puts off potential hotel guests so much, as bedbugs? They can put up with lousy meals and rude staff, but never with those tiny brown insects that tend to inhabit mattresses and duvets.” Having said that, he gave the toy bedbug he was holding a mighty squeeze. I could almost hear the oversize plastic insect squeal with pain. “Helps to relieve stress,” he explained.

Mr Devereux had every reason to feel stressed. Rentokil Pest Control has seen a 140 percent jump in inquiries about the blood-sucking insects since the end of last European summer. As a headline in one British tabloid characteristically put it: “Are you next? Blood-sucking bedbugs overunning Brit homes at epidemic levels” (it wasn't a metaphor for immigrants, not this time).

As for the pest-fighting technologies, I had always been of an opinion that they had not progressed far beyond the classic fly swatter and, perhaps, the powerful air gun, with which one belligerent London pest controller tried to shoot a hapless rat that got trapped in my toilet (he missed,  and the rodent eventually escaped through sewage pipes). I was wrong. And whereas JG Environmental Ltd are offering simple, yet effective, 'heat treatments' for 'same-day guaranteed eradication' (of bedbugs, no doubt), in Southampton University they have developed Exosect - an electrostatic pest-control technology, and in the States - according to a specialised professional magazine PCT ('Pest Control Technology'), in particular to its recent 'Cockroach Control' focus issue  - they routinely use electronic hardware, heat sensors and data management in their ongoing warfare with creepy-crawlies. A fly swatter, or else a slipper, can of course prove handy (in the true sense) when dealing with a lonely wasp  or mosquito, yet it is entirely useless against a cute rugby-ball-shaped-and-sized wasp nest in your loft, as I myself experienced recently. A pair of the Grim Reaper lookalike (masked and hooded) pest controllers arrived armed with a giant fumigator and, having finished the job, told me to stay away from the loft for a week and not to be scared.

Little did they know that, having spent several years in Australia, I had acquired in-depth experience of dealing with pests – a kind of PhD in Pestology. On my imaginary 10-point scale of pest scariness, with a poor little bedbug at the bottom and a wasp nest at, say, 4 points, a rat in the loo would probably score significant 7, with all the spaces above (8,9 and 10) taken by the Australian species, starting with huge and fluffy (yet entirely harmless) huntsman spider.  I am too scared to mention the top two... 

Here I have to confess that until my spell in Oz, of all 555 medically described phobias – from ailurophobia (fear of cats) and soceraphobia (not fear of soccer, but that of parents-in-law) to pantophobia (fear of everything including phobias themselves), I used to suffer from just one :  arachnophobia – fear of spiders. That phobia was initially enhanced by my first encounter with the huntsman down under. The hairy creature on the ceiling straight above my bed one sunny morning was the size of a dinner plate. Its protruding beady eyes rotated and followed my very movement (or so it seemed). When it walked unhurriedly up and down the wall, its long spiky legs made a soft shuffling sound, like an old man’s worn-out slippers dragged along the floor. In fact, it looked more like a domesticated octopus than a spider.

Since I was then totally unfamiliar with any effective pest-controlling technologies, my next move was to grab a broom (a swatter would have been much too small) and try to hit the monster with the handle – a totally futile attempt.

With time, however, I got somewhat accustomed to my silent creeping neighbours and could even admire the patience of quiet and self-important garden orb spiders weaving their webs under the roof. I then went to speak with an entomologist from Exopest Australia who reassured me that only two percent of Australian spiders – and normally the smallest ones – were poisonous, and that their scary looks were nothing but a means of biological self-protection. He told me about a garden spider capable of throwing its web like a lasso to catch a fly (the 'cowboy spider'?), and about another one that could catch and eat up a whole mouse.

Frankly, I could still understand one ‘cowardly’ Australian driver, who, having spotted an 'innocent' huntsman on the windscreen of his car (huntsmen spiders like hiding in cars), fled from the vehicle and had it towed to Exopest for fumigation. But my arachnophobia was all but cured. So friendly did I become with the pest  controllers that they even invited me to speak at their annual conference gala dinner. I was at a loss as to what to say and ended up with something like: “It is nice to take part in your feast. But while consuming your wine and food and discussing new technologies to eliminate creepy-crawlies, please remember that at the same time – in dark attics and cellars all over Australia – spiders, flies, wasps and other pests are having little feasts of their own, simply because you are here today. The may also be having their little annual conferences to discuss the simple technologies to keep you, pest controllers, at bay, and while doing so, rubbing their little legs in glee and thanking you from the bottom of their little hearts for having granted them one day of peace and quiet...”

The joke was met with complete silence. As my friend Bill Bryson would put it, it was so quiet  in the room that one could hear a fly sneeze.

Since then, while maintaining enormous respect for pest controllers, I stay away from speaking at their gatherings, having left them to their own devices (read technologies), and myself – to the good old swatter.


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