by Whit Gibbons

May 3, 2015

During a recent ecology field trip with a college class, the smell of insect repellent masked the otherwise pervasive natural odors of swamp mud and vegetation. The occasional slap of a student hitting their own arm or face gave further evidence of the ongoing battle being waged against blood-sucking mosquitoes and deerflies.

The scene reminded me of an ethical dilemma faced by ecologists and environmentalists. How does one justify getting rid of biting pests that are simply trying to get a meal while at the same time taking a strong environmental stand about preserving other forms of wildlife?

How can ecologists make appeals to protect man-eating crocodiles, tigers and sharks while holding a callous attitude toward a variety of insects?

Full-scale attacks on certain lower life-forms are considered acceptable by most people, including ecologists. A friend of mine who works with horses has a special dislike for horseflies.

Most of us take immediate action with intent to kill as soon as a horsefly lands on us, but she strikes before the flies do. She has investigated ways to deal with them around a barn where they are decidedly unwanted.

One technique she uses is to suspend an inflated black garbage bag or balloon from a 6-foot-high tripod. Above that she places a large funnel of clear plastic with the large end down. The small end leads into a plastic 3-liter bottle.

Horseflies and deerflies are attracted to the dark object, which presumably resembles a horse or cow, and fly up the funnel and into the bottle. Flies try to escape by flying upward, so all soon die in the jug.

The technique can rid a stable of hundreds of flies in a few days. Although she is an ecologist and environmentalist, she finds this an acceptable solution to the problem of flies that bite her livestock.

What is the distinction between animals we feel should be protected and those that we kill on sight? One difference is that we seem to be in little danger of losing any of the noxious insects. Their replacement capacities seem limitless. No matter how many mosquitoes you swat in a salt marsh, more will arrive to take their place on your arms and face.

Another distinction is that biting insects and ticks attack us and our pets, even in our own homes, without provocation. They find us and invade our privacy. It would be a strange person indeed who would willingly agree to be a meal for another animal.

Most people consider these insects pests with few redeeming qualities to compensate for their bad habits. This is of course a totally self-oriented attitude on our part, but this is the way of the world, as run by humans.

Another human attitude that we may be less conscious of is that we tend to protect creatures more closely related to us or that have some feature we appreciate. Mammals and birds are warm-blooded animals that, like humans, care for their young. A furry or feathered animal, especially if the species is waning in numbers, has our empathy. Likewise, humans appreciate color, and so insects with bright colors or striking patterns are more likely to be acceptable life-forms to us. Few people kill butterflies on purpose.

An additional strike against many flies and mosquitoes is that they do more than get a free meal from us. They can leave a lasting memory in the form of parasites that enter the bloodstream.

Even today, malaria is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Lyme disease from ticks and bubonic plague from fleas have not endeared those animals to us.

Nonetheless, I think a key factor for many of us is that we know we are not endangering one of these species by swatting it, even before it bites us. That knowledge certainly colors my attitude. I really would not want to be the person responsible for the extinction of any species, even horseflies.

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