The History of Pest Control

The application of pest control ranges from do-it-yourself arrangements to

scientific and very precise deployment of chemicals and predatory insects by

highly skilled practitioners. Despite the fact that pest control is a world-wide

industry it is nevertheless dominated by family or 1-person businesses. Those that need

to control pests range from householders to

large extent agri-conglomerates who need to maximise their provide. In between

these two are restaurants, bars, food production facilities, farmers – in fact,

anybody that ordinarily deals with food. Pest control can make us more

comfortable – but can also save lives.

The information pest is subjective as one man’s pest may be another man’s

helper. for example, pest A may be a threat to crop A, and pest B a threat to

crop B. However, if pest B is a natural predator to pest A, then the farmer who

wishes to protect crop A may cultivate and release pest B amongst his crops.

There is a theory that without man’s intervention in the food chain by

agriculture, hunting and long distance travel there would be no pests. The

theory continues that man’s intervention (for example, in cultivating and

releasing pest B, or in carrying creatures long distances) has upset the balance

of the food chain, producing instability in insect and other animal numbers and

distorting their evolution. This instability has led to over-population of a


species with the consequence that they have become pests. Having said this, if we assume that the very first fly swat was the first

example of pest control – and we know that large animals swat flies – it could be

argued that pest control dates back way before humans came on the scene.

The first recorded example of pest control takes us back to 2500BC when the Sumerians

used sulphur to control insects. Then around 1200BC the Chinese, in their great

age of discovery towards the end of the Shang Dynasty, were using chemicals to

control insects. The Chinese continued to develop ever more complex

chemicals and methods of controlling insects for crops and for people’s comfort.

No doubt the spread of pest control know-how was helped by the progressive state of

Chinese writing ability. Although progress in pest control methods undoubtedly

continued, the next meaningful fragment of evidence does not come until around

750BC when Homer described the Greek use of wood ash spread on land as a form of

pest control.

Around 500BC the Chinese were using mercury and arsenic compounds as a method

to control body lice, a shared problem throughout history. In 440BC the Ancient

Egyptian’s used fishing nets to cover their beds or their homes at night as a

protection from mosquitoes

From 300BC

there is evidence of the use of use of predatory insects to control pests,

although this method was almost certainly developed before this date. The Romans

developed pest control methods and these ideas were spread throughout the

empire. In

200BC, Roman censor Cato promoted the use of oils as a method of pest control

and in 70AD Pliny the Elder wrote that galbanum resin (from the fennel plant)

should be additional to sulphur in order to discourage mosquitoes. In 13BC the first recorded rat-proof grain store was built by the Romans.

The first known example where predatory insects were transported from one area to another comes from Arabia around 1000AD where date growers moved cultures of ants from nearby mountains to their oasis plantations in order

to prey on phytophagous ants which attacked date palm.

Despite the enlightenment provided by the ancient Chinese, Arabs and Romans,

many of their teachings did not pass down though time. Certainly in Europe

during the dark ages, methods of pest control were just as likely to be based on

superstition and local spiritual rituals as any proven method. Pests were often

seen as workers of evil – especially those that ruined food, crops or livestock.

Although there were undoubtedly studies of pests during the dark ages, we do not

have any recorded evidence of this.

It is not until the European renaissance when more evidence of pest control

emerges. In 1758 the great Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus

catalogued and named many pests. His writings were (and keep) the root and

source of future study into pests (in addition as plants and animals generally). At

the same time, the agricultural dramatical change began in Europe and heralded a more extensive application of pest control. With the work of Linnaeus and other

scholars and the commercial needs to ensure crops and livestock were protected,

pest control became more systemized and spread throughout the world. As global

trade increased, new pesticides were discovered.

At this point pest control was carried out by farmers and some householders

as an everyday activity. By the early nineteenth century however, this changed

as studies and writings started to appear that treated pest control as a

separate discipline. Increasing use of intensive and large extent farming brought

matching increases in the intensity and extent of pest scares such as the

disastrous potato famine in Ireland in 1840. Pest control management was scaled

up to meet these demands, to the point that dedicated pest controllers began to

appear throughout the 20th century.

In 1921 the first crop-spraying aeroplane was employed and in 1962 flying insect control was revolutionized when Insect-o-cutor started selling fly killer

machines using ultra violet lamps.

Pest control is nevertheless carried out by farmers and householders to this day.

There are also pest control specialists (sometimes called pesties); many

are one-person businesses and others work for large companies. In most countries

the pest control industry has been dogged by a few bad practitioners who have

tarnished the reputation for the highly specialized and responsible majority.

One thing is for certain, from way before the Sumerians of 2500BC to us in modern times, there have always been – and probably always will be – pests (including some human ones!). Thank goodness, consequently, that we have pest controllers.

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