A More Compassionate History Of Pest Control

by | Feb 21, 2021 | Pest

Pest control websites often credit ancient Sumerians with the first recorded use of pest control. They used sulfur compounds to control insects & mites. However, the most detailed sources say they rubbed sulfur dust on the body to control insects & chigger mites.

Next I searched around curious to learn more, but didn’t find an original source to confirm this. I felt the original statement was almost implying it was first used as agricultural use of a pesticide.

Photograph showing Japanese sericulture, mulberry leaves being collected to be chopped and fed to silkworms for the silk trade.

Interestingly, chigger larvae are blood feeders that leave itchy welts and fall under the category of parasite. Therefore this ancient sulfur application seems to be closer to early medicine than historical pest control.

Challenging A Narrative

Lots of websites have articles on the history of pest control. They mostly support the narrative that we began manufactured insecticides & repellents for “pest control” as soon as we were technologically advanced enough. Perhaps true, but another narrative suggests that up until globalization, there wasn’t even a concept of pest.

Pest Control of Biblical Proportions

Many of us internalized the morals of the ten plagues described in the Old Testament in our youth. This article from PCT online on pest control history had an interesting point about the ten plagues.

  • The author noted the third plague of lice also translated as gnats may have been Culicoides midges.
  • These midges can be carriers of African horse sickness or bluetongue.
  • Coincidentally the fifth plague was livestock pestilence. Which very well could have been diseases resulting from the midges of the first plague.

Anne Raver’s novel theory on the biblical plagues published in the NYT in 1996 proposed a bloom of toxic red algae turned the Nile river red like blood. The water became anoxic and caused frogs to evacuate onto dry land and eventually die. Flies then thrived and spread disease to humans and livestock.

Indeed, natural variations in climate can cause ecological disruption. In this instance a prolonged period of drought created a chain of effect.

Locusts swarm in a period of rain following a longer dry spell. Mosquitos, the scourge of mankind and posterchild of pests, amass their attacking hordes after large flood events.

Early civilizations probably would have understood this to be part of the natural order. Actually, first civilizations described eclipses, thunder, drought, famine, and pestilence with religion. Oftentimes they even devoted gods to them. Praying to these gods was our way of wishing to change our unfortunate situations. But praying to a god is also recognizing their omnipotent power and our comparative weaknesses.

Weaving In A Different Thread

While the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians were experimenting with natural repellents for pest control & other ways to keep lice at bay, there was something happening to the East.

Chinese peasants were keeping larvae of wild silk moths in trays and feeding them chopped mulberry leaves. They were selecting the large cocoons and spinning them into silk thread. The amount of care given to these newly domesticated insects was immense. About 120 pounds of mulberry leaves go into one pound of silk.

Over the next thousand years demand for Chinese silk gave rise and fall to entire economies. The symbiotic relationship between humans & silkworms caused the formation of the Silk Routes. The steady eastward flow of Roman empire silver to purchase silk from China may have even contributed to it’s collapse.

Domestic Ants

Indeed, insects were extremely useful. Ancient farmers in Southern China had pet ants too. Domesticated ants were even fed domestic silk worm larvae sometimes.

Asian weaver ant’s (oceophylla smaragdina) nest, photo by Premnath Kudva. Amazingly, these little guys collaborate to pull and glue leaves together to form their nests.

Surprisingly Chinese farmers placed ant nests in their orange orchards to provide pest control for aphids, caterpillars, and other soft bodied insects. Moreover they lashed bamboo poles from tree to tree to encourage expansion of these beneficial ant colonies. In turn the ants systematically hunted & snacked down sap-sucking aphids, mealybugs and caterpillars. The ants helped naturally control pests and protect the orange harvest from plant feeding bugs.

Farmers of Forty Centuries

In 1909 an agricultural physics professor and chief of the Division of Soil Management at the USDA Franklin Hiram King travelled from Madison Wisconsin to East Asia to study agriculture.

King published his findings in the famous textbook Farmers of Forty Centuries, or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan.

His passion was learning about soil health. In fact, some of his research was unpopular, and even forced him out of his position at the USDA.

King set out to discover how Asian farmers had been using the same fields for generations without depleting essential nutrients. What he found during his nine month tour was a system that had been functioning for 4,000 years. In this case, it was also contrary to the momentum of American agriculture in this time period.

Permaculture as Pest Management

That biodynamic, regenerative, organic system is basically what we refer to now as permaculture. Farmers systematically retained and composted, including human compost or “night soil”. In addition they brought canal dredgings back up to the fields. In turn the rich fluvial sediments help fertilize the crops. Also farmers studied what crops were best grown where. They farmed and optimized every square inch of available land.

Ready availability of low-cost human work made these laborious methods possible. King’s research came at a time when industrialization was exploding. Farm machinery and chemical soil engineering were making agriculture easier and more profitable in North America. Industrial equipment favored monocropping, or the planting of one species of crop in large uninterrupted fields.

History of Pest Control

Industrial monocropping created conditions conducive to swarms of pests. Predictably, insects associated with human crops found all the food and habitat they needed in large monocrops. Around this time we invented chemicals to control these “pest” insect swarms. I think that’s where the history of pest control as we know it began.

Rodent Pests

Scientists studied house mice molar shapes in this interesting study. Particularly, they found mice pretty much domesticated themselves about 15,000 years ago. Authors studied partially nomadic communities. Basically they noticed the longer people stayed in one spot, the quicker mice evolved to live alongside us.

In a way it’s like self-domestication of the common house cat by their choosing mankind as primary food provider. Conversely in other ways rats and mice are like parasites. They developed a dependent relationship where only one party benefits from their association.

The Actual History of Pest Control

The term pest likely comes from Medieval French “peste” which means which means plague, disease or pestilence. It stems from the latin roots “pestis” meaning curse, bane or deadly disease. “Pestilentia” was a term to describe a deadly or contagious disease. The concept may have been a result of pre-modern man’s inability to distinguish between microscopic and visible pests and pathogens.

Rats & Mice

Invasive norway rats & house mice spread bubonic plague, hantavirus, salmonella, leptospirosis, murine typhus, cryptosporidium, hemorrhagic viral fever and other pathogens.

The sense of the root word pest remains intact to this day. To this day we regard Norway rats as dangerous, contagious and pathogenic creatures. Indeed, rats are invisible, unknown, feared and something to be rid of.

Crop Pest Control

Let’s look at the plant disease late blight Phytopthera infestans which caused the great Irish potato famine. Recent evidence suggests this oomycete may have originated in South America. Traders and travellers probably brought Phytopthera infestans to Ireland on contaminated tools or boots.

There was also an issue with monocropping. With abundant hosts in close proximity, this created conducive conditions to the spread of late blight disease. However it seems likely that human globalization may have been the primary factor in causing this pestilence of epic proportions.

Age Of Invasive Pest Control

Interestingly, the term pest seems to have originated right around the time of the bubonic plague. Perhaps before roof rats were introduced to Western Europe there was no major concept of commensal pest there.

Commensal pests are briefly in our article about how to get rid of sugar ants“. In summary, commensal species like house mice, roof rats and Norway rats are ones that live next to humans.

Both the Great potato famine and Black plague were a result from a non-native species introduced by humans. We gave these opportunistic species a free ride to new habitat. Suddenly they were unconstrained by natural biologicals controls.

Nevertheless we consider Norway rat and potato blight pests and diseases. And these are just two of probably thousands of non-native “pest” species introduced to foreign habitats worldwide.

Naturalized Species

Not all non native species become pests to control. Many species become naturalized & are helpful to humans rather than being a pest. In the age of invasive species damage control, naturalized species are virtually not a concern. Don’t hesitate to call if you want to learn more about invasive species or pest control in Portland.

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