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Putting an End to Pests

John Hainze

The Endangered Species Act is one of the premier environmental laws in the United States. It offers protection for endangered and threatened organisms both large and small—from orchids to insects to bears. That the Act does not differentiate between charismatic animals and those of a lesser pedigree is one of its finest attributes in my estimation. Despite that fine sentiment—valuing smaller plants and invertebrates—I do have a quarrel with the framers of the Act. Their definition of endangered species made a special point of withholding protections from insects that might be considered a pest, a pest represented here as presenting “an overwhelming and overriding risk” to humankind. 

Entomologists are accustomed to some people questioning the value of the organisms they study. And, I suppose that they may not have complained too loudly at the formulation of the Act’s definition, since they all, myself included, engage in some degree of insecticide. But it is a bit much that insects are singled out among the other protected taxa. Mammals, such as rats and mice, have long threatened our food supply and even serve as important reservoirs for human disease. And, what about feral pigeons (Columba livia domestica)? They make quite a mess and also serve as reservoirs for human disease. Fish such as carp and goldfish are very destructive when introduced to ponds and lakes, destroying plant-life and native fish alike. People are paying trappers to remove reptilian green iguanas (Iguana iguana) from their yards in south Florida. I’d say that the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa), whose venom causes necrosis of human tissue, might be considered a risk to humankind. Snails and slugs eat all variety of garden plants, so wouldn’t they be considered a pest too? How about poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)? That’s an overriding risk to those allergic to its oily resin. I think you see what I’m getting at. Insects are getting a raw deal in the Act.

The definition of pest in the Endangered Species Act seems quite subjective. What constitutes an overwhelming and overriding risk? Is it a health risk? Risk to our food supply? Or, does it include financial risk? In many cases, what makes an organism a pest is in the eye of the beholder. The Ortho Home Defense Insect Killer label gives us an idea of what at least some people might consider pests. It is quite a long list and many organisms on it aren’t even insects. It includes bees, which are hard to picture as a pest given their importance to pollination. Centipedes are also on the list, but house centipedes (Scutigera coleoptrata) don’t harm humans and feed on things like spiders and cockroaches. Pillbugs or rollie pollies (Armadillidium vulgare) are on the list too. These small, armored organisms curl into a ball when threatened or conserving moisture (they require moist conditions to live) and generally die when they make the mistake of coming indoors into our low humidity environment. It’s hard to conceive of pillbugs as a pest since they don’t cause any trouble (except for removing their rolled-up carcasses occasionally). In many cases, the offense is simply an insect’s presence. Many of us don’t want to share our space with other creatures. Research says that socialization or perhaps evolution causes many people to face these creatures with fear and disgust.

If harm to humans is the standard for deeming an insect a pest, it raises the question of what degree of harm is sufficient. Removing protections for a pest species under the Endangered Species Act or using insecticide to kill an insect you consider a pest in effect makes the label “pest” a death sentence. I suspect the degree of harm we are willing to accept without taking action against another organism depends on their importance to us. If an insect has no value to us, then we may act toward it with impunity. Science can inform this decision—by identifying the role an organism plays in the ecosystem, for example—but the question lies more in the realm of ethics derived from philosophical or religious convictions. Some philosophers say that these organisms have value in and of themselves—value that we should respect. World religions suggest generally that we approach the living world with humility and compassion. 

It’s time to remove the word pest, as applied to non-human species, from our vocabulary. It is a subjective, ill-defined, and pejorative term. It does a disservice to the complicated relationships between humans and the rest of life on the planet. Redefining our relationship with insects is more important than ever. They may seem at times to be in endless supply. Those suffering from locust (Schistocerca gregaria) swarms in East Africa might feel that way today. But we are now learning from multiple studies that insects are declining at an alarming rate around the globe. We can no longer be so cavalier about how we treat them. We are losing pollinators and recyclers that are fundamental to global ecosystems. A broader appreciation of insects in our world must be predicated on a shift in values, in which we encounter these smaller organisms with an attitude of humility, compassion, and respect. This realignment can begin at home, when we look with greater forbearance and interest at the ants, flies, and other tiny creatures we find there. If we can appreciate the insects, spiders, weeds, and the like in and around our home, then I believe our concern for all of nature will grow apace.

John Hainze is an entomologist and ethicist. He is an affiliate at the Seattle University Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University, and president of BioOpus LLC.

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