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Bugging OUT: Pest controllers profit from ‘insectophobia’

Bugging OUT: Pest controllers profit from ‘insectophobia’

You heard it all in freshman biology: insects and spiders are an important part of our ecosystem. They’ve been on this planet a lot longer than you and I, and they outnumber us by the millions. You’ll find them underwater and in the air, in sewers, cities and your very own home.

Resistance is futile, most cultures know; they’ve embraced insects as natural wonders, family pets and tasty snacks. But in the U.S., this isn’t the case. Many people are terrified of mostly-harmless creatures less than 1/100 of our size.

Maybe it’s our lifestyle. With the help of modern science and technology, Americans have almost completely removed creepy-crawlies from their daily lives. As a result, many of us, especially suburbanites, have no firsthand experience with insects. Our high standard of living has made us healthier and happier, but it’s also given us unrealistic standards of hygiene and an aversion to anything “outdoorsy.”

Insects.org writes that, “as human society has become progressively more urbanized, insects have become progressively more estranged.” Some of these anxieties are “based on knowledge or experience (bees, wasps, spiders, mosquitoes), [or] an unreasonable but culturally understandable repulsion (cockroaches or flies).” Just as often, though, it’s an irrational fear of anything with more than four legs.

In the interest of total disclosure, let me tell you about my history with creepy-crawlies. In fifth grade, my class pet was a praying mantis; in kindergarten, it was a black scorpion and the 12 bouncing babies she carried on her back.

My basement bedroom has the expected guests, like ants and houseflies, and the unexpected – camel crickets, wolf spiders and other unlikely combos. I’d usually rather appreciate these creatures from a distance, but I can’t help but respect and, in some cases, love them (Google pink katydids, so cute!). Without insects and spiders, the world wouldn’t be nearly as freaky and fascinating.

If you’ve developed full-blown insectophobia, pest controllers like Orkin and Terminix are more than happy to help, for the right price. The action varies with the insect, but most companies will recommend heavy pesticide sprays – easier for them, more expensive for you. They’re unlikely to recommend cheap but effective home remedies – better ventilation, window screens, spreading out cinnamon and alcohol.

Many pest controllers offer detailed descriptions of household insects on their websites. These tend to be inaccurate and unscientific, though, and are usually short on sources. Orkin’s entry on silverfish, for example, claims that “some experts” have called the insects “the most destructive pest of stored food.”

While it’s true that silverfish are a nuisance, damaging clothing and book bindings, infestations are rare. The company has plenty of disturbing pictures but little in the way of evidence, as if the animal’s bizarre looks are enough to warrant a death sentence.

Along with dirty, annoying and dangerous insects like roaches and termites, pest controllers have added harmless, even helpful, critters to their hit lists.  Arkadia Pest Solutions describes the camel cricket, a common household invader, as “disgusting.” They openly admit that these shy insects aren’t dangerous; rather, they are a “threat to our sanity… Imagine one of these things crawling on you while you and your family are enjoying a peaceful night at home.”

The company also warns homeowners of house centipedes, which are said to harass and bite humans. In truth, these carnivores keep roaches, silverfish and spiders in check while leaving humans (and their property) alone. These gruesome descriptions and sketchy claims aren’t meant to protect people; they tap into customers’ insectophobia, as well their wallets.

The poisons used by pest controllers, however, are much more dangerous than bad information. Strength and cheapness are the top priority, and safety is a distant second. Even EPA-approved household pesticides have been linked to cancer, brain damage and birth defects, and pose an especially large risk to children.

A 1987 survey by the University of Southern California found that children who were regularly exposed to pesticides were four times as likely to develop leukemia. Likewise, many pesticides linger for four to 10 days after application. The EPA has become much stricter about approving pesticides, though many popular brands have gone years without proper testing.

Insectophobia is common and, in many cases, understandable. But when we’re willing to risk our savings, even our lives, to keep bugs at bay, we’ve gone too far. So, listen to your biology teacher.  Spend more time outdoors and learn to love, or at least tolerate, insects.

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