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The early roots of modern pest management

The early roots of modern pest management

The story of pest management as we know it today began around 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and denser human settlements.

Intensifying urban populations, compact cropping, domesticated animals, the storage of food stuffs, cloth and furs all provided concentrated food sources for organisms which previous foraged in the wild on sparse food sources, alongside human developments pests could thrive. Our disruption of entire ecosystems and their inhabitants exacerbated the issues humans had with pests. As civilisation developed it brought imbalance to the ecosystem, forcing humans out of necessity to adapt, make decisions and implement actions to restore a semblance of balance.

By the time of the earliest recorded human history pests had become a major problem, with pest management occupying a considerable part of early societies attention.

Our start was humble and wrapped in superstition. The Greeks and Romans assigned gods to prevent or eliminate pests, Pliny the Elder describes menstruating women being used around grain fields to dissuade caterpillars in the 1st century BC. We can also read that the ancient Syrians attempted to exorcise scorpions from the capital city of Antioch by burying a bronze figure under a small pillar in the city centre.

But it was not all superstition and sacrifice, the roots on many of our current pest management techniques can be found buried amongst early pest control practices.

One of the oldest records concerning pesticide use was from the Sumerians, who were using elemental sulphur to control insects and mites by 2,500 BC.

This practice of using brimstone sulphur was continued and enhanced by the Romans who added oil and used it as an insect repellent. The Romans also introduced a fumigant created by boiling olive oil lees, bitumen and sulphur to protect wines from caterpillars. It was not only chemical application that the Romans developed, in the work of the Roman architect Marcus Pollio we see early rodent proofing. Marcus Pollio designed a granary made of granite slabs and wood resting on a circular stone rat guard, to prevent rats climbing into the grain storage chamber. We can also see from the records of Pliny that grain was often stored in a siri, an airtight camber in which carbon dioxide built up from respiring seeds, creating an inhospitable environment for grain eating insects.

The twenty-book collection of agricultural lore compiled in 10th century Constantinople, the Geoponika, contained details on various natural pesticides used in the ancient world; bay, asafoetida, elder, cumin, hellebore, oak, squill, cedar, absinthe, garlic and pomegranate were all deemed effective insect control agents. It is important to note that all of these plants and their extracts were later found by modern chemists to contain insecticidal agents. The Geoponika also reported the first fly strip, a mixture of bay and black hellebore in milk or sweet wine, attractive and fatal to flies. Pest Control features in many of the great works of Greek writers from Homer to Herodotus.

However, innovation in pest control was not however confined to the Mediterranean, pest management by the early Chinese showed a high degree of sophistication with the first reported use of biological pest control appearing around the third century CE.

In the book ‘Records of the Plants and Trees of the Southern Regions’ written around 300 CE, the Jin dynasty scholar and botanist Ji Han notes how a large carnivorous ant, Oecophylla Smaragdina (the citrus ant) was introduced to eat the black ants, beetles and caterpillars they preyed on the fruit of the mandarin orange tree. These ants were so successful that bamboo bridges between the trees were constructed to ensure that the citrus ants could move quickly throughout an orchard.

It was the Chinese who were first to utilise the power of chrysanthemums to control insect pests in around 100 AD. It is the African Chrysanthemum which is the root of the pyrethroid family of insecticides, the most widely used group in modern pest control. The Chinese also widely used arsenic to protect plants from insect damage, still a common pest control measure in poorer parts of the world.

Developments in pest management within the ancient world were global, however despite these early advances European development in pest management practices hit an abrupt halt around the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Dark Ages. This downtrend continued until Europe emerged into the renaissance and enlighten me.