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New Worlds: A Plague of Vermin

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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.

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11 thoughts on “New Worlds: A Plague of Vermin”

  1. Don’t forget about food-borne vermin, either. The most obvious historical example is trichinosis, caused by the trichina worm (which enters the bloodstream of food animals — and even unshod people! — from infested soil and waterways, most famously pigs and thus the Leviticus/Islamic prohibition on pork products probably due, or related, to the prevalence of infested soils in the Levant).

  2. Lice, alas, are still with us. And (contrary to their public image) what lice really love is clean, straight hair–easier to get around in, and easier to to dodge probing maternal fingers. But the notion persists that lice infest dirty people. I’m here to tell you that’s not true. Also, lice spread really easily among small children, because they put their heads together… I know this because we went through about a year where my daughter brought home lice several times–one time she even generously shared the wealth with me and her sister before we discovered what was happening. And even when the girl went to summer camp as a middle schooler, there was an outbreak of lice in her cabin; her case was so severe that her cabin counselor called to ask permission to dye her hair–an alternative to the slightly scary OTC treatments that were, in any case, not working. Nice n’ Easy did the trick.

    I’ve lived in a barn, where complete eradication of all the outside creatures who wanted to come in was never possible; I do not love having mice (or rats) in my house, but they can be dealt with. For plain ol’ collywobbles, lice have rats beat by a country mile. Urk.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Oh, interesting — I wonder if there’s been a resurgence of lice somehow? When I was growing up, I never heard of a single kid who got them, and certainly no outbreaks at school or camp or such. But it isn’t like the situation with measles, where it’s resurging because of vaccine avoidance, so I don’t know what (if anything) would cause it to rise again in frequency.

      1. The development of resistance to the most commonly used pesticide, I seem to recall there was a huge resurgance of nits in the UK in the 1990s due to exactly this. It is one reason why lice combs are still considered a reasonable way to get rid of an infection, these days we can ease the use with conditioner so the wet hair is easier to comb through, so the process is not as painful as it would have been, particularly in hard water areas.

  3. There is also a resurgence of Bed Bugs. (Which don’t only hide in beds!) Some years ago I read a recommendation that if you had been traveling it was a good idea if it was summer to leave your suitcase in the car in the sun for a day so that the heat would kill off any hitch hikers that may have been picked up from a hotel.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Ooof, yeah. I’ve had friends run into problems with bed bugs, and they can be incredibly hard to eradicate from your residence.

  4. I was a child in one of the less-developed parts of sub-Saharan Africa 1947-1956, and have had contact with many of the vermin you mention (plus a few such diseases); things have not changed much there, either, in many places. But let’s skip over that 🙂

    Head lice are still common (as Madeleine says), my children and wife had them, but adult men are almost immune. As far as plants go, don’t forget the humble aphids – not merely do they weaken plants, they also spread viruses, and are a far more serious issue than most people realise. There are also things like carpet moths and woodworm, which were serious when everyone depended on wool and wood was untreated. Plus fungi (including moulds) in places with high humidity (like most of the UK). As you say, most people in the USA and Europe, today, can ignore them – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a problem to us.

    1. Marie Brennan

      I had no idea aphids could spread disease!

      Woodworms were part of why brass bed frames became popular in the Victorian period — they were more hygenic.

      1. In most areas of the UK if you want to grow raspberries you are told to replace the canes every few years as they will get a virus, spread by aphids, that reduces the yield and quality of the crop. You should also replant in a different area to minimise the speed at which your new canes are infected. Aphids can also spread fungi like potato blight, one reason a lot of soft fruit and seed (and there’s a misnomer) potatoes are grown in Scotland is that it is windy enough to lierally blow the aphids off and over crops.

  5. I recently cleaned the house of a friend of a friend, who is going through some major troubles, one of which was a terrible mouse infestation. They were nesting in her closets and drawers! The stink was incredible. So even in an affluent city in modern Canada, the poor can be absolutely devastated by vermin. And yes, the very real existence of bed bugs makes me think twice about any secondhand furniture with fabric or upholstery.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Yep, it often has more to do with your wealth now than any other factor — at least inside the house.

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