Monday, September 30, 2019

How Humanity Manufactures Its Own Pests

There are only a handful of insects that are associated only with our species, Homo sapiens. The rest of what we call pests are products of our own personal, social, and industrial behaviors, plus media sensationalism. We have become experts at creating adversaries that do not exist naturally.

Yellowjackets are not pests, they are pest control

Human lice of three species, and the bed bug (Cimex lectularius) are the only naturally occurring pests of humanity. They are so closely adapted to our bodies and lifestyles that they cannot exist without us. We are their food and habitat rolled into one. Why, then, do we insist that other insects, and often spiders, scorpions, and other invertebrates, are also pests? At worst we could maybe call each of them a "nuisance," something that interferes periodically with the comfort and progress of our personal lives, disrupts the social order or, more importantly, causes financial hardship.

Carpet beetle larvae eat your woolens, but the adults pollinate flowers (in this case it is the invasive tamarisk tree, though)

As I wrote in the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, "'Pest" is a label we ascribe to any organism that competes for 'our' resources. It is an artificial concept. Nature recognizes no ownership...." We have only ourselves to blame for most of the creatures we call pests. The worst pests are those that have been introduced from abroad, either intentionally or accidentally, and unleashed in landscapes where they face few, if any, natural predators, parasites, diseases, and other mortality factors. Meanwhile, we grow their favorite host plants as vast monoculture crops and then wonder why they show up in droves to feast on them. Spraying pesticides to suppress one pest often leads to the explosion of another pest that had been previously outcompeted by the one you are now controlling.

The Turkestan Cockroach is one of our "newer" invasive species

Back in the city, nearly all of our domiciliary (structure-dwelling) cockroach species have their origins in tropical Africa. Is this the bad karma we are forced to endure for the slave trade of our ancestors? Since urban slums suffer the most from cockroach infestations, that is apparently not the case. Cockroaches do have another quality to their profile that is independent of race and economic status: they take full advantage of our often sloppy housekeeping habits. Well, we can't possibly take responsibility for that, so we label roaches as pests.

This is less of a conspiracy theory than it is a shrewd business model and marketing strategy.

It is important to note that while cockroaches have been implicated in the mechanical transmission of bacteria and other contaminating pathogens, they have never been proven to do so. Cockroaches, and also "filth flies" like house flies, blow flies, and flesh flies, groom themselves constantly, as they must to prevent themselves from suffering diseases, as well as keep their delicate sensory bristles, hairs, eyes, and antennae sharp enough to detect potential predators. Yes, prolonged exposure to large cockroach populations can trigger asthma, especially in children. That is a fact.

Termites break down dead wood into soil

Let us revisit our own culpability in pest creation. We insist on having cats and dogs live with us, but wage war on fleas and ticks. We build our homes out of wood but won't share them with termites. We plant our gardens and yards with exotic plants that are not acclimated to our region and are therefore more vulnerable to even native insects and fungi and viruses. We covet animals and plants from other countries, creating commercial demand for wildlife that has no place in our captivity, while unintentionally creating invasive species. Yes, I am exaggerating with the first two examples, but my goal is to have you understand how your personal choices have consequences. You can avoid most perceived pest problems by making different choices, like planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers instead of weak, exotic cultivars, for example.

It is terribly ironic that humanity is more tolerant of invasive foreign species than it is of human immigrants and refugees.

Our desire to externalize our problems, and their solutions, falls perfectly into place for those commercial industries that feed off of our laziness and failure to understand how ecosystems function, be they outdoors, or inside the home, office, or tool shed. That alone is not enough to satisfy the desire for profits, so these industries create additional villains that can only be slain through the products and services of said industries. This is less of a conspiracy theory than it is a shrewd business model and marketing strategy. It is no accident that caricatures and CGI effects are employed in advertising to convince us that a given creature is a menace. It is the equivalent of war propaganda and institutional racism.

Female Anopheles mosquito. What good are mosquitoes? Ask a Plasmodium.

One of the tragic consequences of a "pest mentality" is that it can eventually spill over into how we view members of our own species. This is dramatically evident in today's political landscape. It is terribly ironic that humanity is more tolerant of invasive foreign species than it is of human immigrants and refugees. If one defines a pest as a competitor or predator, then it is easy to paint other people that way, especially in economic terms since economies are essentially ecosystems of only one species: us.

The Gypsy Moth was introduced in hopes of starting a silk industry in North America. That worked out well....

We have allowed ourselves to be conditioned by corporations and corporate media into viewing every other organism, every other human being, as either good or evil, an asset or a liability, a boon or a bane, guilty or innocent. The physicians' pledge to "first, do no harm" should perhaps be applied to every profession, including law enforcement, but maybe to the agricultural, nursery, and landscaping industries most of all. It should well be a personal motto, too. Do your homework. Do not blindly accept the so-called truths repeated by industries that profit from ignorance, and shame you for an unkempt house or yard. Promote biodiversity, exterminate instead the predatory practices of the marketplace.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Can "Enting" Be a Thing?

The short answer is "yes." The more appropriate answer is "it has to be." There is precedence in other scientific disciplines for actively engaging the public, and training people in proper techniques for observation, identification, and documentation. Entomology is lagging behind at a time when we are desperate for more information. Insects are more than a little challenging compared to vertebrate animals, and present unique problems, but let's recognize and address those shortcomings now instead of waiting until it is too late.

Birding and Herping and Enting, Oh, My!

Birding, the scientific and recreational observation of avian organisms, has been around for decades, if not a century or more, and is experiencing a renaissance of sorts thanks to the likes of Jeffrey Gordon, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, and a host of other ornithologists and experts who make a point of recruiting new "birders" to the ranks. Jason Ward is among the new generation of birders making birding more popular and inclusive than ever.

.... if birds are everywhere, insects are "everywhere-er-er."

Meanwhile, "herping," the seeking of reptiles and amphibians, is also a popular hobby that contributes substantially to our collective understanding of the abundance and distribution of snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, turtles, and their kin. There are rules for how to undertake the activity with minimal stress to the animals, and maximum reward for the participating humans. Collaborations between professional herpetologists and amateur enthusiasts are common and encouraged.

"Ent-ers" observing a hornet nest from a safe distance

So, in light of the success of birding, herping, and other wildlife-watching, why not "enting?" The appeal of birding is said to come from the fact that birds are everywhere, and so are instantly observable anywhere. Well, if birds are everywhere, insects are "everywhere-er-er." You don't even have to leave the average home to find them, nor even look out the window. Just point a flashlight into some dim corner of the basement. Ok, maybe start somewhere less spooky....

The Void and The Fun

Entomologists lament that they have little data to chart the abundance and diversity of insects over time, but are reluctant to admit that citizen scientists can inform that discussion in any fashion. The scientific community either wants data or it doesn't, and there are only so many professionals to go around. Most of those experts are busy identifying potential crop pests or inventing new ways to combat existing pest species.

Given the irritating connotations of "bugging," not to mention the scientific inaccuracy of such a term if it were applied to insect-watching, "enting" is probably the most all-encompassing and appropriate name for the observation of insects, and by extension arachnids and other arthropods as well.

© Amanda Accamando
"Mothing" during National Moth Week

"Mothing" is already a recognized pursuit, usually involving deployment of a blacklight and/or mercury vapor light, a reflective white surface such as a sheet, and a camera or phone to record whatever is attracted. Sometimes mothing involves "sugaring," painting a fermented bait onto tree trunks. "Oding," pronounced "O-ding," is the quest for dragonflies and damselflies. This ideally requires a catch-and-release technique such that one can document the external genitalia of male specimens, often the only way to achieve a solid identification beyond genus.

The Obstacles to Overcome

One enormous hurdle that must be overcome is the insistence of some professional entomologists that the only viable records of a species are those that involve a collected "voucher specimen." Collecting, and imaging of live specimens, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two complement each other. Photos often give more context than specimens because the host plant may be included in the image, a certain behavior depicted, or even the ecosystem itself be recorded. This is especially true for quality videography, but still images are also valuable. Lastly, if you cannot identify something as unique as a Filigree Skimmer dragonfly from a photo, then I question your credibility as an authority.

Filigree Skimmer dragonfly, male

While some scientists must be convinced of the capacity of the public to aid them in truly scientific investigations, the public has to be convinced they can be brought up to speed in ways that can make them the most effective contributors to the cause. One impediment to embracing insects as wildlife is the lack of "common names," the English labels assigned to some species, but completely absent for most invertebrate species. Species are assigned standardized Latin or Greek (or combination thereof) names by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. They abide by strict rules governing such things as name "gender," and engage in exhaustive research for historical synonyms and other matters that affect the naming of species. Tasking the commission with the creation of English names is simply asking too much.

A Plea For a Common Names Initiative

It may be worthwhile to create a complementary body that does precisely that: generate standardized English names for insects, arachnids, and other arthropods. It would be no small feat, involving at minimum the translation of the Latin and Greek. While the Entomological Society of America has a Common Names Committee, we need something bigger. This could help the public understand just how descriptive and appropriate (and sometimes whimsical) scientific names can be, while making the study of the organisms more user-friendly. Further, it would enhance the appeal for conservation measures if the insect had a more easily-pronounceable name for media relations. In some cases, common naming rights could be auctioned as a conservation fundraiser, probably with fewer objections than the same mechanism for generating scientific names for newly-discovered species.

The Future is Now

What can we agree on, then? Surely we see the value in encouraging and rewarding public curiosity about arthropods, and the potential viability of public contributions to scientific knowledge. Between Master Naturalist curricula, and advanced naturalist workshops, we can coach the ardent entomophile in the art of insect and spider identification, equipping them with the tools necessary to achieve meaningful, reproducible results. Do scientists really need to be convinced that these are worthwhile exercises?

Bugwatching can be a social pursuit, too.

It is highly encouraging to see the influence of social media, spearheaded by the most youthful generation of scholars, in sparking public interest in insects and related invertebrates. Facebook groups are full of stories of how once-fearful entomophobes have been converted to insect- and spider-lovers and advocates. Time to take the next step and turn these friends into scientific allies. Let the "enting" begin.