Schools learning to keep pests away without toxins, Law requiring advance notice of chemical use led officials to try steam, kites and noise.


By Edwin Acevedo
Staff writer

Instead of using dangerous herbicides to get rid of weeds, some Central New York schools steam them away. Shrieking noisemakers scare off seagulls at North Syracuse’s athletic stadium, while floating scarecrows keep them out at Liverpool. Border collies might be brought to North Syracuse to chase away Canada geese, which create a poop problem on school fields.

And instead of putting out poison bait to catch mice, school workers now caulk holes, store food more securely and clean regularly. Any mice that still get into buildings eat their last meal on the end of a snapping trap.

Pests that once met a toxic end now stay away from school buildings, or they die an environmentally friendly death. A new state law requires 48-hour notice before use of certain restricted pesticides. Schools all over New York have been looking for poison-free ways to rid their buildings, playgrounds and athletic fields of pests.

The process is called Integrated Pest Management or IPM. Cornell Cooperative Extension researchers have started a three-year study at the North Syracuse schools to see if IPM techniques can save time and money – something every school district wants.

The techniques focus on closing access for pests into buildings and deterring their presence on grounds. If they do get in, regular housekeeping and secure food storage help ensure pests don’t stay.

“If you’re not supplying food to mice, they’re not going to hang around,” said Joe Hammond, Liverpool’s superintendent of buildings and grounds. “They’re going to go to where the food is.”

Schools used to hire exterminators, Hammond said. The problem was that those contracts typically required regular spraying, whether the buildings and grounds needed it or not. The pesticides also left a nasty residue on curtains, desks and floors, which schools would have to clean up.

Ants are the top nuisance in New York’s schools, according to a survey conducted last year by the state IPM program.

Keeping them away can be as simple as mopping an ant trail, which confuses them, Hammond said. Boric acid, a non-toxic powder that becomes inert after a few days, destroys an ant’s cell structure and usually stops ant trails. Weeds are another pesky problem. Overgrown sidewalks, fence lines and parking lots leave a bad impression with students, staff and visitors.

Two years ago, Hammond persuaded his bosses to buy a device called an Aquacide, which steams weeds to death. Baldwinsville, Fayetteville-Manlius and Indian River schools each bought one a year later. The machines cost about $11,000 to $20,000, depending on the features, said Nick Redanty, salesman for S.V. Moffett Co. Inc. of West Henrietta, a distributor for the machine.

Liverpool’s Aquacide uses a diesel engine to heat tap water to about 260 degrees.

A small gas engine fires the steam through a gun-shaped tube tipped with four nozzles. Liverpool groundskeeper Paul Hoag recently demonstrated how the device works. He waved the nozzles over a doomed morning glory that took root on the fence line at Liverpool High’s athletic stadium.

The morning glory turned shiny bright green, then became a dull, deep green. It looked and smelled like cooked spinach. Once it dries, it will turn brown and blow away, Hoag said.

About 100 feet away, students played football on the artificial playing surface, where seagulls had left droppings and feathers after attacking garbage left over from a football game. Screeching noisemakers, which make sounds like predatory birds, work fine in North Syracuse, said Jennifer Grant, coordinator of New York State Community IPM project through Cornell Cooperative Extension. Hoag said Liverpool tried the noisemakers, but they bothered neighbors. The answer was helikites, which are helium-filled mylar balloons covered in nylon, tethered to old tires by kite string.

“They’ll bob up and down, fly to and for, spin in the wind,” Hoag said. “I think that motion helps because the birds don’t like what it’s doing.”

Bees are another hazard. The state law was relaxed to allow 18-ounce aerosol cans of pesticide to be used, but mint oil also is a proven bee killer, Hammond said.

Canada geese are becoming more of a problem, especially in North Syracuse, Grant said. Goose droppings turned the marching band practice field into a slippery, disgusting mess.

Border collies and similar herding dogs have successfully controlled geese in parks and golf courses around the state, and they may show up next spring in the North Syracuse IPM study, Grant said.

“In the spring, the time when the geese are originally nesting, is when you want to fluster them the most and make it an inhospitable place,” Grant said. “Then, periodically bring in the dog to the site, and running them will keep the geese away.”

Grant said there is talk of teaching IPM to New York’s students, modeled after Pennsylvania’s curriculum.

“This is a great way to learn science in the field,” Grant said. “IPM is required in the curriculum in Pennsylvania state schools. … In the fourth grade, a kid is supposed to know what IPM is as part of the testing process … and it goes all the way up through so that in high school, you have to do projects on IPM.”