When Humans Play God

Aug 4, 2016

By Sam Evans-Brown

Show of hands: Say you had a swarm of wood-boring beetles and you wanted to get rid of them. These beetles were never supposed to be here—they were brought in from Asia, unintentionally. Would a good way to get rid of them be to introduce a parasitic wasp, also from Asia, that would probably beat the beetles down?

Anyone?

We have been hard-wired to recognize this as folly. Exhibit A: The Simpsons.

In this episode, Bart accidentally introduces a pair of invasive Bolivian tree lizards into the town of Springfield. The local bird club is horrified at first, but then delighted, when it turns out the lizards’ preferred food is pigeon meat.


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23 comments on “When Humans Play God

  • @ OP link – The idea that biocontrol is a poorly understood tool being wielded by irresponsible scientists is “kind of an old fashioned view actually,” says Cornell University entomologist Ann Hajek.
    “Those dangerous introductions aren’t being done anymore.”

    So why do we only hear stories of biocontrol gone horribly wrong? Because it’s a better story, one that fits the narrative of the early environmental movement:
    We’re trashing the planet, and we’re not even self-aware enough to realize we’re doing it.

    In the early days, biocontrol was believed to be an environmentally friendly alternative to pesticides. So in 1983, when an entomologist named Francis Howarth assembled in one place all of the horror stories of biocontrol gone wrong it was “a man bites dog story” that people latched onto, says Russell Messing from the Kauai Agricultural Research station in Hawaii.
    He says bashing on biocontrol became a “fad” in ecology.
    “A lot of people jumped on board, and there were a lot of papers published, and even some reputations made, I think,” he says.

    Howarth is retired, but the torch of biocontrol skepticism today is carried by Dan Simberloff, at the University of Tennessee.
    Simberloff says that even in its more strictly regulated form, modern biocontrol still risks driving rare native species into extinction.

    Bio control can be effective, but as biological hazards and invasive species are self replicating, and it is very difficult to “put the genie back in the bottle”, great care is needed.

    That is one of the lessons which MUST be learned before any cavalier approaches to genetically modified organisms are launched into the environment!
    We are still carelessly introducing new invasive species to habitats all over the planet, in the routine transportation of goods. !

    @OP – Say you had a swarm of wood-boring beetles and you wanted to get rid of them. These beetles were never supposed to be here—they were brought in from Asia, unintentionally. Would a good way to get rid of them be to introduce a parasitic wasp, also from Asia, that would probably beat the beetles down?

    Quite frequently the biological controls are needed, to fight other invasive pest species, which were carelessly introduced to new areas in the first place! – Introducing a second potentially invasive species to tackle the earlier careless introduction of the first one!

    It is too frequently the situation of trying to patch up the damage caused by “business and short-term profit as usual”, with an utter disregard for the environmental consequences of sloppy procedures.



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  • invasive Emerald ash borer

    The city of St. Louis, Mo (including the Gateway Arch) is currently in the throes of replacing Ash trees with London Plane trees (although it is susceptible to a fungus). http://www.cityarchriver.org/2016/03/07/processional-allees-take-shape-first-planting-london-plane-trees/

    Organic compounds from the Neem tree is touted as an alternative, as is the study of releasing pheromone laden female beetles to lure males to a trap.



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  • When we moved into our house over twenty years ago, it was my first garden. Only about 7m x 14m I got into gardening and discovered that along with the black ants, there were red ants with nests all over the place. A plant pot would not take long to get colonised once in place. I had not encountered these red ants before and didn’t know what they could do. Very aggressive, they squirt an acid that starts to sting straight away and keeps going for quite a while. I put up with them for quite a few years not wanting to destroy anything living. Once they made themselves unwanted guests at a large family barbecue, they had to go. Most guests went home with some red blotches on their skin and complaining. I used a fungus based powder to slowly, took years, to get rid of most of them and the garden does not look forbidding any more. I think the only thing that suffered were the greenfly because they no longer had the red ants protecting them for the sweet bi-product they produce. My roses didn’t mind.

    We have always had a cat as well. Now that we are cat-less, I can see that the biggest effect on the wildlife was that. Birds are slowly coming back to our tiny garden and I am enjoying watching them immensely.



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  • Olgun #4
    Aug 7, 2016 at 10:27 am

    When we moved into our house over twenty years ago, it was my first garden. Only about 7m x 14m I got into gardening

    My garden is large with large trees, fruit trees, fruit bushes, shrubberies, big hedges, frames, glasshouse, polytunnel, lawns, flower-beds, and veg plots.

    -@ OP link – The idea that biocontrol is a poorly understood tool being wielded by irresponsible scientists is “kind of an old fashioned view actually,” says Cornell University entomologist Ann Hajek.

    I have been using “bio-control” in the form of ground-cover plants and balanced ecology plantings for years, – which has prevented any over-vigorous growth dominating.
    This can minimise work by just tweaking things here and there to maintain a balance.
    Cutting hedges at optimum times of year can reduce the number of cuts required, as can choosing the appropriate species!
    A Beech hedge cut in August, only needs one cut a year! It also provides a leafy screen in summer, but allows sunlight or views through it in winter.



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  • We have famous cases of unintended consequences, the cane toad and the Nile carp.

    You have to experiment to simulate the introduction before you try it on reality.

    Most invasive plant species were done by non-scientists who just liked the plant.



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  • I have not studied this issue. It is quite possible that “biocontrol” can be used effectively and safely in some cases. Just a few general remarks:
    I made a comment another thread (Genetic Engineering) about this. I said that although mosquitos – this was an example – seem to serve no purpose other than to annoy us, to annihilate them would have dire consequences. Killing a bunch of hornets that are on one’s property is okay; but the idea of destroying all hornets is fiendish. Anyone who thinks that we can go around annihilating species without ramifications is clueless. And yet it is happening. Every time I watch a nature documentary, it ends with the sad news that this or that species is facing extinction as a result of Man. Whether we are using a natural enemy or pathogen to kill other creatures, or whether it is we ourselves that are doing the killing, I can’t see how this is not a highly risky undertaking.
    As Ibsen said, nature will get her revenge. (The Wild Duck)
    “Nature creates nothing in vain.” —Aristotle
    Here’s a better article than the Slate one.
    http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100721/full/466432a.html



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  • Addendum

    That article that I recommended above is for eliminating the mosquito. That’s exactly what I am against! Sorry. Bad article. (Embarrassing.)



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  • Dan #8
    Aug 7, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    That article that I recommended above is for eliminating the mosquito. That’s exactly what I am against! Sorry. Bad article. (Embarrassing.)

    There is nothing wrong with eliminating the mosquitoes, providing it is done in a responsible and effective manner. . . . But only IF there are other insects in the ecosystem which can maintain the food-chains of the natural predators of the mosquitoes.
    Some silly methods have been to spray insecticides on their breeding grounds.
    This also kills the insect predators which eat them, and kills the fish in the pools which eat the mosquito larvae when they are in their pre-flight juvenile stage. It can also affect birds which eat large numbers of them.
    The mosquitoes, (which breed very quickly), then regenerate in waves, with their new populations exploding into plagues in the absence of predators!

    There are problems with the safety and effectiveness of bio-control, but there can be even bigger problems with attempts at non-biocontrol!

    Of course one of the most effective ecological methods of reducing mosquito populations, is to avoid leaving isolated temporary pools of water, puddles, old mine workings, or containers, in which they can breed in the absence of fish or other aquatic predators.

    Sloppy humans in wet climates, who won’t tidy up, are their own worst enemies.



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  • I live by a river with many pools and at this time of year would be plagued by flies. I encourage spiders to take up residence and don’t clear away their webs especially around windows left partially and permanently open. The kids’ initial fear of spiders (their mum and grandparents are arachnophobes) abated as we named the bigger ones and scooted them to their proper posts, guarding the windows.



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  • Yes, there is something wrong with eliminating mosquitos! They are food for other creatures. We mustn’t be smug about this. They serve a function. How can anyone know that this won’t cause a chain reaction and create problems for other organisms?

    “Mosquito larvae are aquatic insects, and as such, play an important role in the aquatic food chain.” —Debbie Hadley, Insect expert

    And maybe some Aliens (some day) will come down to colonize, and wipe us out. We are highly expendable. A little bio-control, and done responsibly. We are mosquitos to them. (There I go again, off the rails and into the swimming pool.)

    Sorry if I sound like a “tree-hugger” but to me the idea of exterminating an entire species, no matter how much we don’t like it, and no matter how insignificant it may seem to be, is immoral, and scientifically unsound.



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  • Dan #11
    Aug 8, 2016 at 4:33 am

    Yes, there is something wrong with eliminating mosquitos!

    Nope!
    As I said earlier, other insects which do not carry diseases can take their place in the food chains, and the environment can be modified to reduce the isolated pools of standing water where they breed exploding populations. Many of these pools are carelessly created by humans digging and abandoning holes in the first place.
    Mosquitoes do not reach plague proportions where all the pools/ponds contain permanent ecosystems with fish and insect predators which eat them.

    They are food for other creatures. We mustn’t be smug about this. They serve a function.

    That is why biologists who understand ecology must be involved in the planning and the environmental management of the ecosystems.

    How can anyone know that this won’t cause a chain reaction and create problems for other organisms?

    The people who know what possible chain reactions can be caused, are the biologists who have been studying the chain reactions for decades, in studies of mosquito control all over the world.

    Unfortunately politicians and businesses, often just want quick results from the likes of spraying, which aggravate the problems long-term, while chemical companies actively promote their insecticide products, often to the neglect of looking at the big-picture of the regional ecology.



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  • Dan #11
    Aug 8, 2016 at 4:33 am

    Sorry if I sound like a “tree-hugger” but to me the idea of exterminating an entire species, no matter how much we don’t like it, and no matter how insignificant it may seem to be, is immoral, and scientifically unsound.

    Pest species have become extinct in the past by use of environmental management.

    The North American Locust is a case in point!

    http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/55/1/80.full

    Extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust
    The Rocky Mountain grasshopper, or locust, was a migratory insect that in peak population years spread over the Great Plains from Canada to Texas and periodically devastated the crops of homesteaders and farmers. The mystery began late in the 19th century: Instead of another invasion during the next drought cycle, the locust completely disappeared over the course of a few years, without any apparent cause.

    The Rocky Mountain locust was once the most abundant insect on the Great Plains. In years of peak populations, Lockwood calculates, its numbers rivaled bison populations in both biomass and consumption of forage. Before the plains were settled, periodic swarms of migrating locusts were part of the natural rhythm of the grasslands, particularly during years of drought. That situation had changed by the mid-1870s, however, when farmers and ranchers occupied much of the Great Plains. A drought of several years’ duration triggered a massive outbreak of locusts that swept over an immense area, destroying much of the agricultural production and bringing famine to many settlers.

    The author recounts several vivid eyewitness accounts of the locust invasion and its aftermath: The swarms of countless flying insects looked like dark storm clouds, and they glittered like snowflakes as they descended out of the sky. They arrived in waves from the more northern regions of the plains during July and August, devouring crops in their path and laying eggs in the soil. The farmers tried desperately to save their crops and to drive the locusts off, but with little success because of the huge numbers of insects. Many families had to abandon their homesteads, and thousands more were threatened by famine, with virtually no food left for themselves or their livestock.

    On the basis of a synthesis of the detailed information gathered by the Entomological Commission, settlement records, and other evidence, Lockwood has arrived at a new explanation of the locust’s disappearance, which he calls “my habitat destruction theory.” He maintains that cattle grazing and homesteaders’ cultivation of a restricted region of the plains—the permanent breeding grounds of the insect—during a population recession of the locust in the 1880s may have irreversibly disrupted locust reproduction. Others had shown that grasshopper eggs fail to hatch if the soil they are deposited in is disturbed by plowing or by other means

    The Locusts were exterminated, simply by ploughing and irrigating their breeding grounds, so that the young hoppers or eggs, were eaten by a stable permanent population of predators (such as birds), stopping the population explosions in their tracks.

    The present success of the the modern wheat belt and US farming, is probably due to the absence of this insect.



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  • Okay, but that isn’t all locusts; it’s just one area in the US. (I would personally miss mosquitos if they weren’t buzzing around anymore.) Do we mean all mosquitos, every last one of them? Why go to all that trouble? And aren’t crocodiles pests? They eat people. Let’s kill them too. And lions. You can’t walk safely in the jungle. (Sorry, Alan; I know you like animals; I just don’t like the idea of killing whole species. Especially with climate change and destruction of wildlife already happening on a large scale. Many insects, like bees, are already dying off, as you know. And I read that amphibians like the salamander and frog are becoming scarce, as a result of cars and highways.)



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  • Dan #14
    Aug 8, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    Okay, but that isn’t all locusts; it’s just one area in the US.

    The Africans still have their locus swarms, but all the American species is extinct.
    Of course there are still plenty of other US grasshopper species which do not swarm in plagues.

    (I would personally miss mosquitos if they weren’t buzzing around anymore.)

    Really?? Do you like getting bitten?
    Are you sure you are talking about mosquitoes? They do not buzz!

    There are plenty of other insects which do not bite people, or midge species which do not carry malaria, and there are plenty of much more attractive or useful insects such as the bees you mention or ones which predate pest species, – keeping their numbers low.

    And aren’t crocodiles pests? They eat people. Let’s kill them too. And lions. You can’t walk safely in the jungle. (Sorry, Alan; I know you like animals; I just don’t like the idea of killing whole species.

    I do not suggest killing species at random or high order predators. – Just invasive species and species which are pests because they are not in balance in their ecosystems.

    Of course, humans are frequently responsible for causing such imbalances by land mismanagement or introducing invasive organisms to new habitats!



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  • Okay. I see your point. Still not sure.
    Mosquitos don’t buzz? They do buzz. The wings make a buzzing noise.
    Quick story. When I was about three, we were living in Italy, in a pensione. My parents left the window open. The next morning I was completely covered with bites. Almost no part of my body hadn’t been bitten. No one knew what it was at first. I looked like a monster. I have a vague recollection of feeling almost paralyzed yet comfortable in a strange way. My mother carried me, the monster baby, to the hospital, and it turned out to be mosquitos.
    Why I was attacked so mercilessly and my brother and sister were ignored remains a mystery to this day. But, yes, in spite of that incident, and the discomfort that we are all familiar with, I would miss the mosquito if there were no more of them.



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  • Dan #17

    They do buzz. The wings make a buzzing noise.

    They buzz to attract mates and may make a low noise with wing-beats, but my point is that female mosquitoes, gnats and midges sneak up quietly on those they bite, to avoid being swatted!

    Why I was attacked so mercilessly and my brother and sister were ignored remains a mystery to this day.

    It is well known that when walking in infested countryside, one of the best ways to avoid being bitten, is to walk beside someone the insects really like and prefer!
    Apparently in Scotland their gnat equivalent of the tropical mosquito, evolved to like buffalo sweat as an attractant, so some cunning inventors have a machine attracts them with buffalo sweat, CO2, and heat, and then sucks them into a bag like a vacuum cleaner.
    These devices are sold to cafes with patios , golf courses, and beer gardens to remove the hazard of customers being bitten. There are various brands used in different parts of the world.

    http://www.mosquitoworld.net/mosquito-control/trap-reviews/

    Mosquito traps take advantage of mosquitoes’ sensory abilities by tricking them with features that mimic the smells and visual stimuli associated with people. Various brands produce CO2, octenol, heat, or light – or a combination of those – to lure mosquitoes in, then trap them in containers where they die.

    To be most effective, the traps need to be placed correctly, which means in shaded areas located between the source of the mosquitoes and where people gather in the yard. The best idea is to try it in different places until you find the right one. You’ll also need to experiment with a variety of attractants to see which ones appeal most to your local mosquitoes.

    But no matter how impressive the test results, there’s one thing you need to know about mosquito traps. Whatever the brand or how effective, a mosquito trap cannot solve all your mosquito problems. The best mosquito control program follows an integrated approach which means reducing mosquito breeding sites as well as using an effective trapping device.

    phil rimmer @#10, might like to look into this!



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  • Phil.

    My dad was eight when he was told to start smoking to ward off malaria by the British in cyprus. That was nearly eighty years ago. I thought it was just one of his stories!



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  • @ OP link – The idea that biocontrol is a poorly understood tool being wielded by irresponsible scientists is “kind of an old fashioned view actually,” says Cornell University entomologist Ann Hajek.
    “Those dangerous introductions aren’t being done anymore.”

    Dangerous introductions are being done all the time – it’s just that most of them are accidental rather than by mistaken design!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37165712
    Most nations lack ability to deal with invasive species
    The spread of non-native species threatens livelihoods and biodiversity, but the issue is worsened by global trade, travel and climate change.

    Writing in Nature Communications journal, and international team forecast how the spread of species could change over the 21st Century.

    They show that one-sixth of the world’s land surface is vulnerable to invasion.

    Regan Early from the University of Exeter, Jeffrey Dukes from Purdue University in the US and other co-authors suggest that developed countries, which have been most affected by invasive species – and have the strongest management efforts – will continue to face an onslaught of new arrivals.

    However, they predict that non-native plants, animals and microbes will increasingly threaten developing countries with some of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots, due to increased air travel and the expansion of agriculture.

    “You can think of invasive species as biological pollution – a self-replicating change,” said Prof Dukes.

    “It doesn’t take much effort or intention to bring in an invasive species that then wreaks havoc on a landscape.”

    Biological invasions in the developing world so far have included influxes of Diamondback moths, which can devastate broccoli, cabbage and other crops; Panama disease, which wiped out banana plantations in central and south America; and prickly pear, which devastated grassland in Africa, leading to cattle being malnourished.



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