Warning: this essay will contain all manner of creepy-crawly critters.
Most of us live remarkably vermin-free lives. Sure, my household did extended battle with the rats that somehow kept getting into the crawlspace beneath our house, but they weren’t in my bedroom, running across my face while I slept. Unless you’re poor — and therefore more likely to be living in poorly-maintained housing, with no money to spare for exterminators, or even out on the street — you probably don’t have to worry very much at all about what sorts of unwanted fauna are going to invade your living and personal space. But my yardstick for “very much at all” is a historical one: compared to even the kings and queens of the past, we have it great.
Let’s start with the body. I remember reading some books as a kid — ones set in the real world, but before my own generation — where the characters had to undergo lice checks at school. I didn’t even know what that meant. What were lice? Why did these kids have a problem with them? Only later did I learn that it used to be common for people’s heads or bodies (separate types of louse) to be infested with vermin — learning about the third type, the pubic louse, came even later — and that it was through measures like those school-based checks that we made lice so rare, I could be ignorant of their existence. But go back to, say, the eighteenth century, and etiquette manuals for the elite had advice for how to go about courteously picking a louse off your conversational partner.
I did know about fleas, because we had a cat, though fortunately that remained at the level of “apply preventative flea treatment to cat” rather than “become infested with fleas myself.” Much less did I ever have to deal with the sorts of bodily vermin that cross the line into being diseases in their own right — e.g. the various parasitical worms that can infect targets like the skin, the eyes, or the digestive tract. We have good treatments for many of those things now, which not only remove the problem from the individual but decrease the risk of spreading that infection to other people.
Moving outward from the body to the house: I mentioned the rats already, and we have intermittently had mice in our kitchen. Because of the latter, we regularly store many of our foodstuffs, like our rice and flour, in tins or plastic containers a rodent can’t chew through. Meanwhile, the perishables like meat and vegetables are generally in the fridge. But what about the days before such options, or places where you don’t have them now? People hang food from the rafters not just to save space, but to (hopefully) keep it out of reach of interested vermin, and they keep cats to kill the vermin who try for it anyway. They put things in covered dishes or drape them with a cloth to ward off flies — but that doesn’t necessarily protect them from spiders, or beetles, or ants . . .
(The ones I can’t deal with are cockroaches. Most bugs, fine; I’ll swat them or take them outside, depending on how compassionate I’m feeling. But roaches trigger an atavistic response in me, a bone-deep revulsion that leaves behind all logic and reason. And it’s not because of lack of familiarity: I grew up in Texas, where we had roaches aplenty. Our reactions can be as much about culture and psychology as actual biology.)
Sometimes you just have to accept the presence of vermin. Grain weevils, as their name suggests, like to get into stored grain, and while these days we tend to destroy stocks that have become infested, people living in a subsistence society can’t always afford that loss, nor can those traveling on limited supplies (like sailors aboard a ship). Cut away the maggoty part of the meat; tell yourself the weevils are just added protein in your porridge or your biscuit. In fact, certain insects are perfectly ordinary food in some parts of the world, and are recommended as a way to keep our growing global population sufficiently fed — though I think those are usually raised as food, not just plucked off the counter and turned into dinner.
Outside the house . . . oof. The world is full of small creatures that can make our lives more miserable. Some of them plague our crops — locusts (a particular category of grasshoppers) are infamous for this — while others go after our livestock, or after us. Mosquitoes, gnats, ticks, chiggers, flies, some of them out for our blood, others for our skin, others attracted to the secretions of our eyes, and not just one or two at a time, but sometimes whole clouds. Quite a few of them spread disease, and those that don’t may still cause unpleasant effects like itching. In tropical areas, where such critters are especially common, the open wounds left by bites are an invitation to infection.
But as with me and the rats in my house, most of us nowadays escape the brunt of it. Because we have changed the world in ways that massively reduce the presence of vermin in our lives.
Some of it boils down to what I mentioned at the start, decreasing the attraction and opportunities. If my crawlspace is sufficiently sealed off, if there aren’t tempting scents of food left out for any critter to enjoy, then I’ll have fewer problems with unwanted houseguests. If I sleep under a mosquito net, then I’m harder to munch on; if there’s a fan blowing at moderate speed, mosquitoes will be bowled away from their targets. (That stereotypical image of an emperor being fanned by a slave? I suspect that isn’t just to cool him off; it’s also to keep away the insects that at a minimum would annoy him, and in a worst-case scenario might kill him.)
Chemicals have done a lot here, for good and for ill. Some are traditional — I believe citronella has long been used for this purpose, though I haven’t been able to dig up its precise history — while others are new, scientific creations. We spray them on ourselves; we spray them around our houses; we spray them on our crops and on natural environments. Sometimes we find out that was a really bad idea (hello, DDT!).
We can also go at it from a habitat standpoint. Draining bodies of standing water, for example, decreases the available habitat for mosquitoes to breed. Unfortunately, some of the eradication of vermin in our immediate environment is a symptom of our more general eradication of our immediate environment. Our most annoying neighbors aren’t likely to go extinct any time soon, but obliterating the rest of the ecosystem around them makes it harder for them to exist in that area.
Some of the control efforts are frankly fascinating. The screw-worm fly, whose larvae are devastating to livestock, is the focus of a concerted, international, and decades-long effort in the Americas which has seen a “no-fly zone” gradually pushed south from the United States to, at present, the Isthmus of Panama: for a relatively small investment in monitoring that zone for outbreaks and obliterating the flies when they’re found, we’ve saved billions of dollars in lost revenue north of the line. But that kind of effort requires modern science, transportation, and communication; it simply wouldn’t have been possible two hundred years ago.
I for one am glad to live in a time and a place where the worst I have to worry about is non-malarial mosquito bites and the occasional rat in the crawlspace.