Pest Control, Naturally

Local firm offers a low-impact pest control alternative

Chances are you have had this experience: It’s the first truly warm day of the year—late March, let’s say—and you have just gotten back from an unseasonably balmy park walk or seashore picnic. You walk through the front door, take off your shoes, head to the kitchen to start preparing the night’s dinner, and happen upon a trail of slowly moving black specks on the counter.

GA WingedCarpenter JosephCalevPhotograph by Calev

Carpenter ants. Dozens of them—and those are just the ones in plain view. In New England, carpenter ant infestation constitutes one of the most common pest problems, affecting some tens of thousands of households in New Hampshire alone and causing millions of dollars of damage nationwide. While there is no shortage of professional exterminators capable of eliminating these destructive critters, rarely does the process take on a collaborative air that touts a more efficient use of the tools of the trade.

Enter Tom Pray, founder of the Eliot, Maine-based Ecotech Pest Control and a degreed entomologist with over 25 years of experience in the field. Settling on the trade as much for the science as for his fascination with the insects themselves, Pray launched Ecotech in 2000. His aim was to help homeowners beat pest problems, not through hard-hitting chemicals alone, but by managing the environment responsible for fostering the infestation. Indeed, Pray prides himself on building a collaborative, communicative dynamic with his clients—an approach he says has helped expand his customer base.

“People much prefer actual, scientifically-backed information over a sales pitch—it just makes them feel more comfortable with you as a business,” Pray says. “Folks have commented that it’s because of that information that they’re empowered to do more themselves to help the program I lay out with them to succeed.”

Though Pray’s prescription calls for on-going annual inspections of home and yard and two exterior applications, he says it amounts to far less than what the industry standard typically calls for. It is known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM for short), and Pray has leveraged it to not only minimize his business’s environmental impact, but to impart peace of mind as well. The key, Pray says, can be found in the word integrated.

“Using a delicate and strategic treatment application is part of the package, but so is fostering environmental awareness,” says Pray, who recently joined the Portsmouth-based Green Alliance in an effort to promote his business’s unique sustainability efforts. “It’s about educating homeowners and how they can play an important role going forward.”

Conveying the biological underpinnings of invasive pests—both in person as well as through his website, which boasts tutorials and testimonials in equal measure—makes his a business just as concerned with education as it is with selling a service; the IPM tab on Ecotech’s website includes an impressive list of DIY tasks and pointers, from trimming the vegetation immediately surrounding the home to filling access points, typically no bigger than a finger’s circumference, to close them off to rodents.

A less forward-thinking businessman would point to such free information as antithetical to the bottom line. Not so, Pray says.

“So often it’s the education that sells it anyway and the necessity of helping people with what can be a scary situation,” he says. “It’s amazing how people will be willing to listen if you’re genuine about talking to them and explaining to them what they never had time to study up on themselves.”

Carpenter ants in particular offer a bounty of educational fodder, owing in part to their uniquely intricate breeding habits. According to Pray, they remain by far the most reported pest problem in the Seacoast region.

“Once the phone starts ringing, it’s a pretty steady stream of distressed people,” Pray notes. “As soon as ants get into your kitchen and start redecorating, it’s pretty hard to ignore.”

The infestation cycle begins with what is known as “swarmer season.” Typically on the first real stretch of warm springtime days, a group of carpenter ant queens, fresh off a winter of “fattening up” in Pray’s parlance, will leave their nest to search out a male with which to mate. Just about every nest in northern New England will commence swarming within days of each other. When the nest is in or near a residence, the home or building becomes the ideal site for the propagation of hundreds or even thousands of carpenter ants. Sometimes their numbers can be so overwhelming, people find them outside and inside the house and almost always in the kitchen. What is worse, the ants are not just after your food; in some cases, untreated carpenter ant infestation can lead to significant damage inside the home and compromised structural integrity.

“Oh, I can tell you some tales,” Pray says. “I had one guy a number of years back who went outside one morning to enjoy his cup of coffee, and when he stepped out on the deck it just gave way. Luckily it was only a few feet off the ground, but the ants had detached the deck from the house.”

Or the family whose sliding door came unhitched because of extensive ant damage. Or the numerous homes whose owners do not realize that pests have eaten away the window frames until Pray, summoned by a non-panicked request for his services following a casual encounter elsewhere in the house, investigates the property a little further. The common denominator with all of them, naturally, is what he calls biological cues. 

“Ants innately seek out the dead limbs or rotting knot holes in trees,” he says. “Wood is what they use to build their own homes, and those are the same conditions they look for inside your home. Once they’re in the kitchen, they forage inside and out for food. That’s why people see them coming and going.”

But if the ant’s propensity for propagation—to say nothing of its targeted destruction—amounts to species strength, it may also be its chief weakness. Carpenter colonies may include several nests scattered across multiple acres or property, but they behave essentially the same way. Pray exploits their predictability with his low-impact program.

“An ant’s natural behavior is to forage in large areas, and that obviously includes outdoors,” Pray explains. “So we’ll do a walk-through around the whole perimeter, inside and outside the house, to determine exactly what and where to treat. And that process is unique to each customer.” 

Pray is quick to point out that his understanding of insect behavior—insects either want to eat your food, your house, or you is one of his more vivid mantras—remains a cornerstone of his business. 

“Most pest-control companies are not as efficient as they could be in terms of their impact on the environment. They over treat when they don’t have to, instead of managing the problem,” he says. “It’s just outdated.”

Of course, carpenter ants are not the only critters squarely in the Ecotech crosshairs. Ticks, which become a serious problem later in the spring, and mosquitoes, a summertime staple, both fall under Ecotech’s pest-control purview. As with his ant control techniques, Pray’s approach to these and other New England nuisances maintains as its aim the ideal balance between effectiveness, efficiency, and safety. In particular, Pray cites the use of Select TCS tick boxes. Designed to eliminate the Lyme-carrying arachnids at their source, the system involves a baited box that laces the backs of rodents with a safe treatment, which then targets and kills the ticks at all stages of development; it is like recruiting the rodents already on your property as a tick-battling army.

At this time in the season, however, Pray’s eyes and mind are trained squarely on the armies of black six-leggers lying in wait like a nightmare deferred. He expects the first swarm and the requisite distressed dispatches any week now, commencing a six-month stretch of battle with the insect world.

It may sound daunting, but Pray would not have it any other way.

“It’s a challenge—you have to remember that you’re dealing with people’s lives and homes,” he says. “But it’s worth it when you solve the problem and give people back their peace of mind. You help them realize that something they thought was out of their control really isn’t at all. It’s totally in their control.” 

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