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Small visitors

USGS Bee Inventory

June is National Pest Control Month, but July and August are National Pest Out-of-Control Months, when we live in a state of siege. The bugs love our hospitality so much that nothing will keep them away. We try to hide behind screens and keep an arsenal of chemical sprays, ant traps, electronic zappers, citron candles and other entirely useless weapons. But we hope to say goodbye to them soon, assuming that they have the good manners to leave after Labor Day.

When I was a boy the most formidable insect killer in the house was a fly swatter. Then DDT was invented and we sprayed it indiscriminately on anything that moved. DDT was banned in 1972 after we had been spraying it on ourselves and my aged grandmother for thirty years. My grandmother lived to be a hundred but might have lived longer if we had stuck to using the old fly swatter.

There are more than 700,000 known species of insects and most of them come to our house for their summer vacations. They are not impressed by our sprays and foggers, baits and powders. And there are a lot more of them than there are of us.

Insects are survivors. They adapt like viruses to anything we can throw at them and even the most potent chemicals are getting less effective. Just as we humans have made victims of ourselves by overdosing on antibiotics, we have toughened up the insect population with decades of toxic doses, which were almost, but not quite, 100% effective. As any scientist will tell you, it's the "not quite" that matters. We may even be breeding a race of super bugs, like those in the old sci-fi movies.

My perspective on this invasion was somewhat modified by a French film called “Microcosmos.” It dates back to 1996, but that scarcely matters when you consider that the star performers have been around for two hundred million years. This remarkable production is a microscopically magnified portrait of insects in a meadow on a summer’s day, with a sophisticated musical score.

The insects are astonishing, not just the familiar ants and bees but creatures from another world. Their activities are amazing too. I watched a beetle re-enacting the Myth of Sisyphus, trying to push a ball of dirt up a hill. But it always rolled down again until the beetle, smarter than his human model, found ways to prop it with stones and sticks and push all the way to the top. Intelligence? I think so. Design? Who knows?

I can’t say that this documentary reconciled me to my many itching mosquito bites or to the intimate company of ants, mites, crickets and assorted beetles around the house. But it did remind me of the astonishingly beautiful alien world that exists under our feet, over our heads, and sometimes in our beds.

They are not so unlike us. They are following the rule that applies to every life form from the lowest to the highest — self-preservation — and they’re doing very well. If this is a competition for survival, and it is, I suspect that even with the aid of every weapon in the hardware store, we may eventually find ourselves on the losing side.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.