Are Insects Pests? On Loving the Unloved

Red and black boxelder bug on a piece of grass for post on insects pestsI do a lot of internet searches in the process of writing my articles and books, putting together class materials, and so forth. Sometimes the subject of insects comes up, and that often includes researching individual species. What gets me is how often some of the first search results won’t be informational sites, but those dedicated to labeling insects “pests” and eradicating them. I get that some species are potentially more problematic when found in or around someone’s home; cockroaches and bedbugs come to immediate mind. But again and again, regardless of what sorts of insects I was searching for, many times the results included exterminator sites.

The fact that so many of the highest search results are dedicated to killing insects suggests there’s a lot of demand for such services and products. It makes me sad, honestly, because we’re right in the middle of an insect apocalypse. There’s already a lot of apathy about conserving invertebrates in general, and “bugs” in particular; many folks simply don’t get why it’s so important to protect the creepy-crawlies of the world. And when it’s common for any insect found in a house to be routinely smashed and discarded without a second thought, regardless of species, “save the bugs!” may seem like an ineffective rallying call indeed.

But let’s look at a few of those search results first, shall we?

Sample Searches

My favorite search engine is Ecosia; I have it set up as my default search engine in my browser. They use the profits from ads to plant trees, and as of this writing they’ve planted over 150 million trees. I use Google as a backup, if Ecosia’s results aren’t getting me what I want.

The other day I wanted to know about wasp species in Washington. So I searched Ecosia for “Washington wasp species”, and the ninth result on the first page was a pest control site:

Google was even worse. It took scrolling down only to the third result on the first page to end up with a pest control site:

Okay, so wasps don’t exactly have a great P.R. team., and media furor over the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) didn’t help the results become any friendlier, either. I figured I’d try a few more very general searches just to see how long it took to hit a pest control site or other site that talked about eradicating the insects I was searching for:

True Bugs: Ecosia 8th on page 1, Google 1st on page 2

Bees: Ecosia 3rd on page 1, Google 3rd on page 1

Grasshoppers: Ecosia 2nd on page 2, Google 5th on page 1 (this was without filtering out things like the Grasshoppers Minor League Baseball team)

Crickets: Ecosia 3rd on page 1, Google 3rd on page 1

Weevils: Ecosia 1st on page 1, Google 2nd on page 1 (never mind that the vast majority of weevils are harmless to us and our food.)

Beetles: Ecosia 1st on page 2, 4th on page 1

Oregon Beetle Species: Ecosia 1st on page 2, Google 4th on page 1

Unsurprisingly when I searched for “fireflies” and “butterflies”, I went back several pages on both search engines and didn’t find anyone advocating for the mass slaughter of these beloved insects. You’d think bees would get the same treatment what with all the “save the bees” campaigns over the past few years, but the 3rd result from both search engines was from a site called “Pest World for Kids”, run by the National Pest Management Association. Really?

Why Are Insects Pests to So Many People?

Okay, so admittedly this was definitely NOT a scientific study. And I recognize there are a number of factors determining search results, SEO, etc. like how large and popular a given site is, age of the site, backlinks, etc. Still, given how high up in the ranking sites treating insects as pests were, and how many of the recommended related searches had to do with things like whether the insects being searched for would bite, or how to get rid of them, that suggests a lot of people are searching for how to go to war with insects rather than learning about them as unique beings.

On the bright side, most of the results were site that genuinely wanted to educate people about various insects on their own merits. So it’s not as though everything is terrible (unless you’re a weevil, for whom almost all the top search results were pest-related.) Whether those sites got as many genuine clicks as the pest-related ones, I couldn’t tell you. But it was nice to see them anyway.

A rust and black large fly on a blade of green grass for post on insects pestsMaybe I’m in the minority when I wish that people would spend less time trying to eradicate insects, and more time learning about them. It’s just that most folks seem to ignore them unless they become a perceived nuisance. I’ve had to deal with problem insects before–narcissus bulb flies (Merodon equestris) in the garden, pantry moths (Plodia interpunctella) in the flour, etc. And yes, sometimes that involves smushing them on sight, especially in the case of a non-native species.

But I also try to make an effort to learn about even these species. It’s not just to learn how to get rid of them, but to find out more about their adaptations and habits, where they came from, what makes them different from other insects–what makes the species what it is. It’s curiosity that drives me, and I find myself appreciating their ability to find a niche, even if it’s one that’s at odds with my own interests.

It also makes me really think about whether I really need to persecute a particular species, and how that affects my attitudes toward not just insects, but other living beings. When I stop and consider my actions toward another species, it breaks the conditioning that so many of us have to just see nature as something to serve us–only good if it does what we want, and bad if it goes against our wants and needs. And I find myself being able to make a more informed decision that, at times, may be summed up as “leave well enough alone.”

Hence the nest of black-tailed bumblebees (Bombus melanopygus) that has spent multiple years buzzing about the entryway of my garage. Hence the common house spiders (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) that are allowed space in the corners and window-wells of my home to help control flies that may buzz their way in on warm days. Hence the cabbage looper caterpillars (Trichoplusia ni) who get a reprieve in the garden, even though they go after cruciferous vegetables, because they never take everything, and they’re important food for other species. Some would easily justify my killing these and many others, simply for being mildly inconvenient, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But I prefer to coexist whenever possible, and to look beyond the “pest” label as well.

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