Editor’s Note: The PMP staff is saddened to report that Walter passed away Dec. 17, 2010. He was 103. Learn more here.
The father of urban entomology. That’s how most PMPs and entomologists describe Dr. Walter Ebeling. A dedicated research entomologist, accomplished author, international consultant and valued teacher, Ebeling forged paths in insect behavior and control and laid the foundation of strong science for pest management professionals.
Ebeling’s commitment to the science behind the industry keeps his name at the top of conversations about techniques like urban pest management, heat treatments and IPM. At 95, Ebeling is currently retired and living in Los Angeles.
“He is a pioneer in many aspects of entomology, and his publications are considered the ‘holy grail,'” says Gary Maxwell, vice president of regulatory affairs for Target Specialty Products, Santa Fe Springs, CA. “Dr. Ebeling represents sound science and dedication to all in the pest control industry.”
The Industry Standard
“To the PEST CONTROL OPERATOR, in Recognition of His Contributions to Health, Comfort, and Quality of Life in the Urban Community.”
That’s how the dedication in the front of Ebeling’s hallmark book, Urban Entomology, published in 1975, reads. The book is out of print, but those lucky enough to have a copy — probably passed down from a mentor — refer to it as the bible of urban pest management.
Dr. Jules Silverman, the Charles G. Wright Professor of structural pest management in the department of entomology at North Carolina State University, calls Urban Entomology “one of the most useful urban entomology texts available today.”
It covers arthropod pests found in urban environments and homes, and it runs the gamut from identification to treatment. Chapters on pesticide application and equipment give way to food pests, pet pests, allergy-producing arthropods and even vertebrate pests.
Just a glance at the table of contents shows the range of coverage in the book, and why it’s still a treasured text.
“My copy is battered and bruised,” jokes Dr. Bill Robinson, president of Urban Pest Control Research and Consulting in Christiansburg, VA. “It’s become routine for me to do a shakedown on my graduate students before they leave. They’re not stealing Ebeling from me!”
Robinson is currently in the process of revising and expanding Ebeling’s book to update some of the information new since 1975, and include a more international focus.
It’s a widely used and quoted text in modern university entomology programs worldwide, from the department of insect biology at the University of California, Berkeley — Ebeling’s alma mater — to the forensic entomology department at Rhodes University in South Africa.
References pop up in public health guides, and his related articles in leading entomology journals are often cited. Obviously, the demand for this information is still high. But while Urban Entomology may have made Ebeling’s name more recognizable, he had been building his career steadily since long before 1975.
A Publishing Career Begins
Born in 1908 in Beaumont, CA, Ebeling received his Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley and began his entomology career at the Riverside Citrus Experiment Station, where he developed strategies for controlling scale and mites in citrus.
He stayed on at Riverside, teaching and researching, until 1946, when he became a tenured professor at UCLA. Until 1972, he taught courses and did research on citrus, avocados, crops and urban ornamental plants.
In 1951, he published his first book, Subtropical Entomology, which is still used by citrus and avocado researchers. This set off Ebeling’s career as both author and international consultant on many forms of pest control and insect behavior, particularly in agriculture.
He published Subtropical Fruit Pests in 1959, and became known as an expert in fumigation and alternative pest management strategies.
Throughout his career, he traveled around the US, Mexico, South America, India and Asia, assisting independent citrus growers and government agencies dependent on citrus for their economies.
Urban Entomology Takes Form
In 1958, Ebeling won a Fulbright Professorship and spent a year in Egypt researching insecticides. Africa ignited his interest in termites and the damage they cause. He started researching how desiccant dusts could control termites, cockroaches and houseflies.
By then, “he recognized the need and importance of controlling an array of urban and structural insect pests,” says Don Reierson, staff research associate in the department of entomology at UC-Riverside. “His focused, innovative and quality research rapidly developed into urban entomology, then considered a new area of research.”
Ebeling was breaking ground in this new discipline. During his years on staff at UCLA, he became the first researcher in the western US to promote urban entomology and its research.
“He was the first researcher to combine laboratory, simulated field trials and actual field trials to develop borates and silica gel dust for household and structural pest management,” says Dr. Arthur Appel, professor of entomology and plant pathology at Auburn University, Auburn, AL. “Ebeling’s work still stimulates discussion among PMPs and researchers alike.”
This dual commitment to entomology research and its application to the growing science of public health and pest control cemented Ebeling’s place in the history of the industry.
He became an expert in pantry pest management, and spent time in India doing research on grain storage. His work using native acid-activated Indian clays rather than pesticides to protect bulk grain became an early IPM approach.
This work led to Ebeling’s induction as an honorary fellow into the Indian Academy of Pest Control Sciences. His interest in the endemic products of India has continued throughout his life; in 1986 he published the Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America.
Ebeling pioneered experimentation with desiccant dusts as control chemicals for termites, cockroaches and houseflies.
“He was the first to advocate amorphous silica gel dusts, pyrethrin dusts, borates for insect control, termite pretreatments and residual insecticides for controlling insects indoors,” Reierson says. “His initial accounts of insects’ abilities to learn, and the relationships between repellency and control were controversial, but are now considered essential elements of IPM programs.”
By 1972, Ebeling was back at Riverside, where he would stay until his retirement in 1975. In 1973, he received honorary membership in the Entomological Society of America. 1980 brought the publication of his next book, Fruited Plain: The Story of American Agriculture, and the beginning of his pioneering work on heat treatments to control wood-destroying pests. Ebeling had been working on alternative methods to control termites since the 1950s, when he first started using sand as a barrier during construction.
In the 1980s, he and research partner Dr. Charles Forbes looked at how high heat can eliminate termites and other insect pests from homes.
“There is a growing demand from homeowners for nonchemical alternatives to pest problems,” Ebeling told researchers at the 1988 ESA meeting.
The process they developed involved pumping air up to 120°F into tented houses. This killed termites, German cockroaches, flour beetles and Argentine ants quickly with few side effects to homes.
Ebeling and Forbes built houses to test the procedure, licensed their methods to personally trained PMPs, and eventually sold their process of thermal pest eradication to Troy Sears and David Hedman in 2000. They market it today as ThermaPure.
“Dr. Ebeling is a man of many firsts,” says Lee Wozniak, branch manager of Target Specialty Products’ San Marcos, CA, facility. “He has always stepped up to the plate to solve problems for others’ benefits.”