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Posts Tagged ‘insects’

A Brief History of Insect Control

November 17, 2014 | by

Long before environmentalism, Charles Valentine Riley had a problem with pesticide.

Spraying the capitol with pesticide, 1886.

In science, good ideas often trump great ones. Take, for instance, Charles Valentine Riley, the most prescient scientist of whom you’ve never heard. The man had a great idea. Then came Leland Howard, his prickly and calculating successor. He had the good one.

These men were late nineteenth-century entomologists, a humble vocation by the standards of the day. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture—new then, having been formed in 1862—asked them to accomplish something not so humble: they were to learn everything there was to know about agricultural pests, and then to destroy them. The intended beneficiaries of this project were panicked farmers whose fields were being decimated by insect invasions. Riley and Howard were charged with exterminating the very creatures they studied. If the irony registered, they never said so.

Riley was the older of the two gentlemen. He’d assumed leadership of the U.S. Entomological Commission in 1876 after spearheading the country’s first Grasshopper Commission. His big idea—the great one—was to merge the observational folk-wisdom of everyday farmers with the financial largesse of the federal government to help insects kill insects. Biological control, we now call it. If the concept of exterminating insects with insects seemed moony, American farmers were game. They’d seen it happen on the ground and they were desperate. Between 1860 and 1900—a time when agriculture began to pursue high-yielding monoculture in earnest—armies of chinch bugs, locusts, San Jose scales, boll weevils, Colorado potato beetles, and Hessian flies capitalized on the smorgasbord, moving steadily eastward and shredding the foodscape with biblical power. One Illinois farmer reported that there were so many locusts in his fields that “the ground seemed to be moving.” Pick up an agricultural report from the period—you know, just pick one up!—and you’ll find that an apocalyptic strain of agrarian rhetoric echoed across America’s amber waves of grain.

I’ve read nearly every word Riley wrote, at least every available report and letter, and my overwhelming impression is that the guy was one charming cat. He rode his bike all over D.C. for exercise. He had six kids and doted on them. Like many entomologists, he was a brilliant illustrator of insects. When he taught entomology classes at the University of Missouri in the 1870s, he was so thrilled to be talking shop that he would draw insects on the board with both hands at once. He grew his hair into a cascade of curls and his students adored him. I have no hard proof, but there was something about Riley’s zest for life in general—and for insect life in particular—that dissuaded him from the easy answer to the insect problem, the one that the power brokers of the day wanted: chemicals. Read More »

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Swat with Scruple

June 3, 2014 | by

Balthasar_van_der_Ast_-_Flowers_and_Fruit_-_WGA1040

Balthasar van der Ast, Flowers and Fruit, c. 1620

From “Why We Hate Insects,” an essay by Robert Lynd, collected in his 1921 book, The Pleasures of Ignorance.

It has been said that the characteristic sound of summer is the hum of insects, as the characteristic sound of spring is the singing of birds. It is all the more curious that the word “insect” conveys to us an implication of ugliness. We think of spiders, of which many people are more afraid than of Germans. We think of bugs and fleas, which seem so indecent in their lives that they are made a jest by the vulgar and the nice people do their best to avoid mentioning them. We think of blackbeetles scurrying into safety as the kitchen light is suddenly turned on—blackbeetles which (so we are told) in the first place are not beetles, and in the second place are not black …

There are also certain crawling creatures which are so notoriously the children of filth and so threatening in their touch that we naturally shrink from them. Burns may make merry over a louse crawling in a lady’s hair, but few of us can regard its kind with equanimity even on the backs of swine. Men of science deny that the louse is actually engendered by dirt, but it undoubtedly thrives on it. Our anger against the flea also arises from the fact that we associate it with dirt. Donne once wrote a poem to a lady who had been bitten by the same flea as himself, arguing that this was a good reason why she should allow him to make love to her. It is, and was bound to be, a dirty poem. Love, even of the wandering and polygynous kind, does not express itself in such images. Only while under the dominion of the youthful heresy of ugliness could a poet pretend that it did. The flea, according to the authorities, is “remarkable for its powers of leaping, and nearly cosmopolitan.” Even so, it has found no place in the heart or fancy of man. There have been men who were indifferent to fleas, but there have been none who loved them, though if my memory does not betray me there was a famous French prisoner some years ago who beguiled the tedium of his cell by making a pet and a performer of a flea. For the world at large, the flea represents merely hateful irritation. Mr W. B. Yeats has introduced it into poetry in this sense in an epigram addressed “to a poet who would have me praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and of mine”: Read More »

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