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.

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