Pests have been a problem for as long as people have been farming and raising livestock, but pest control innovations have come a long way since then. Here are 5 outdated pest control methods we hope never to see again.
Humans started farming around 10,000 years ago when our hunter-gatherer ancestors started growing crops like peas, lentils and barley and herding wild animals like goats and wild oxen. Ever since then, humans have been devising innovative ways to repel insects and animals that threaten their crops and livestock, because the very definition of a pest is something that can cause damage to property, crops or human wellbeing, or cause illness. (You can read more about what makes something a pest in our blog post: “The definition of a pest”).
10,000 years of fighting pests behind us mean there have been some pretty innovative ways of doing things in the history of pest control. Whilst largely based on mysticism and superstition at first, trial, error and eventually scientific inquiry resulted in the development of quite a few useful pest control methods, some of which are still in practice today.
The Chinese discovered phenology - the connection between climate and periodic biological phenomena - as far back as 300BC, which led to their use of a science-led approach to timing the planting of crops to avoid pest attacks. They also used natural enemies to control pests, for example, ants on citrus to reduce pest infestations.
However, history has also given us some pest control innovations that - in hindsight- we are probably better off not perpetuating.
5 outdated pest control methods that we hope never to see resurface:
The earliest recorded instance of any form of pest control dates all the way back to 2500 BC. Ancient Sumerians used sulfur, or “brimstone,” compounds to kill the insects and mites that would feed on their crops.
Sulfur is burned or vaporized to control fungus, mites, or insects. However, when sulfur is burned, it turns into a gas called sulfur dioxide. The gas can mix with moisture on plants to form an acid that can damage plant leaves.
Breathing sulfur dioxide gas can be harmful to human health, and may cause coughing, a sore throat, shortness of breath, and sinus problems. The eyes may become irritated, red, or painful and eye damage may be irreversible. Handling or touching sulfur without gloves may cause skin irritation, and people with asthma or other respiratory problems may be more sensitive to the effects of inhaling sulfur dioxide gas.
The ancient Greek civilization used fire to chase plagues of locusts to the sea (as noted by Homer in 950 BC) and farmers have used fire throughout the ages as a technique to destroy insect breeding grounds - by burning the topsoil in order to kill the insects that lie there.
Unfortunately, this method has some drawbacks, not least of which is the fact that fire also gets rid of all the insects that are beneficial to the plants (and everything else). There is no guarantee that setting fire to a field will actually solve the pest problems since there may be larvae below the surface of the soil.
3. The Victorian Flea trap
In the 1700s fleas were a common problem for all classes and would happily live in beds, inside wigs, and on pets. Everyone was prey to them. Bathing helped (but wasn’t done nearly often enough) and there was the tried and tested method of painstakingly searching for and picking them off one by one…
Alternately, for a short period in the eighteenth century, the flea trap became something of a fashion accessory. Designed by a German doctor in the early 1700s, the flea-trap consisted of a hollow perforated cylindrical tube, sometimes ornately carved and made of silver or ivory. Inside was a small tuft of fur or a piece of cloth which would be smeared with a few drops of blood to attract the fleas, along with fat and/or honey or resin, designed to make the fleas stick to it as they crawled inside.
The flea trap was worn on a ribbon as a necklace, hanging down inside one’s clothing, or could also be placed in a bed to get rid of the fleas there.
In Europe, arsenic was used to kill rats as far back as the black plague years of the 14th century, and it remained a widely used rodenticide until the late 20th century. Since the mid-20th century, however, anticoagulant compounds have been the primary ingredient in rodenticide products.
During the 1600s, scientists started to observe and trap pest insects. They discovered that arsenic, nicotine and certain herbs repelled insects, and these substances became the main ingredients in the insecticides of the era.
Arsenic pesticides didn't arrive in the United States until the 1860s when “Paris Green”- a mixture of arsenic and copper sulfate was used to fight the Colorado potato beetle. Lead arsenate wasn't introduced until the 1890s when it was used against the gypsy moth.
Arsenic and other harmful chemicals were applied to crops and sprayed to kill pests early and often. These chemicals were widely used before they were fully understood - and were very harmful. It was only in the 1970s that regulations were developed to limit their use and protect workers from their harmful effects.
There is substantial evidence that the effects of exposure to organic arsenical pesticides range from gastrointestinal distress to death, affecting several major organ systems, and the risk of developing skin, bladder and lung cancer.
DDT or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane was first synthesized by an Austrian chemist in 1873, but its insecticidal properties were only discovered later, by Paul Muller. DDT was used in the second half of World War II to limit the spread of malaria and typhus among troops and civilians, earning Muller the 1948 Nobel prize in Medicine for his discovery.
By 1945, DDT was available for sale to the US public for use as an agricultural and household pesticide. There were concerns about its use from the beginning and in 1962 the publication of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring - which talked about the environmental impact of widespread DDT use and claimed that DDT and other pesticides caused cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife - resulted in a public outcry that eventually led to the banning of DDT for agricultural use in the US in 1972. This ban was formalized under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants which has been in effect since 2004.
DDT still has limited use in disease vector control because of its effectiveness in killing mosquitos (and thus reducing malarial infections) but its use is controversial due to environmental and health concerns.
Pest management (and the innovations that go along with it) is constantly changing. We can't predict the future, but we can invest in ongoing research and the most up-to-date equipment and preparations. Trust the experts with your pest control requirements, and book a free pest risk survey today.
Have further questions about pest control? Send us your questions via the form below, or perhaps a suggested blog topic that you would like us to cover! Don't forget to subscribe to the deBugged blog for regular and interesting pest insights.