Saturday, June 21, 2008

Eeeuuwwww:(Life and) Death on the Floor

WARNING: This post is not for the overly squeamish and it does not have a happy ending. Read on at your own risk.

Trying to maintain a tidy house while respecting the needs of a burgeoning sustainable landscape all around that house is no easy task. Every aspect of trying to live gently and responsibly within the ecosystem has, in my recent experience, started out simply and rapidly become more complex.

This all began as I started to wonder why it was that most of the bug problems we currently have inside our house are assuming the form of cockroach corpse location and removal exercises.

By that I mean the most prevalent insect invasion we are currently dealing with is the daily, and sometimes more than daily, need to remove dead-on-their-back cockroaches off the floor. These are generally found in close proximity to all our exterior entryways. Cockroach removal rule #1 - Always have enough folds of paper between you and the roach body that you do not (physically) feel ANYthing when you pick them up.

After I got past my initial revulsion over the ongoing need to conduct Search and Remove operations each morning my curiosity began to kick in. Why? Why are these cockroaches dead - why are they all on their backs - and why are they in HERE? With US!!

Investigating the answers to these questions led me to the discovery that dead on their back roaches are the direct result of the mechanics of the poisons we've used to try to control our local mosquito populations.

With mosquito control as with any other pest problem, we have a basic guideline we try to observe. We strive to use the least toxic methodology available in an attempt to protect only against real health risks. We include the health of plants in that to limited extent, trying to avoid allowing large trees to be weakened by pests to the point of death, for instance. Even then, we try to simply control certain insect population explosions by the least invasive or toxic methods we know.For instance, tentworms in pecan trees or on mountain laurels? We open up the protective webbing to allow birds a good shot at them and/or remove the webbed branches and place them in a closed plastic bag until the larvae die. Spraying for control of flying invaders is trickier. If you have your vegetable plants neatly lined out in separated beds, for instance, spraying for pest control would seem to be a no-brainer. If you don't eat it - you can spray it. If you plan on putting something in your own mouth, then leave it alone.

Building a sustainable landscape however, calls for having your vegetables all mixed in with your ornamentals. There are no narrow use areas in this approach. Everything gets thrown together in an approximation of the way it happens naturally, without the centuries old human practice of intervening by sorting plants out into categories and monocultures. The advent of Asian tiger mosquitoes in our area starting several years ago in combination with the now regular reports of West Nile virus in Texas in insect, avian, animal and human vectors summer to summer, has us looking at our mosquito bitten arms and legs and wondering. Spray or don't spray? How high a risk is acceptable? Where to find the responsible balance?

With the alarming decline of honey bees still in the news, where and how do we draw a line between something that might hold down a mosquito population if that same methodology might adversely affect local bees?Even if you are not worried about the bees (and if you are NOT, then please immediately report to me the address of that cave you are living in and we'll take care of that pronto) then there are the birds and the amphibians to consider. Almost anything strong enough to take down a resilient insect pest will not be helpful to their predators or to the other nervous systems that will come into more accidental contact with the toxins we spread.

As I watch purple martins and cliff swallows darting around eating insects (and in my imagination those insects are ALWAYS mosquitoes), I wonder. Is it possible to poison the mosquitoes without poisoning the birds? Further, even if the spray we use somehow does not affect the birds, what happens if we really do take most of the mosquitoes out of the air? Will the birds simply find other bugs to eat or are we jeopardizing their ability to survive?

Another concern is that pretty much everything that is really effective against one nervous system will also affect our own at some dose. The same poison we spray is built into clothes sold to travelers to help protect against mosquitoes. I've heard it proposed to simply wear those clothes around here when working outdoors, rather than spraying. It seems reasonable to be swaddled in toxin laden clothes in a region where malaria is predominant. But here in suburbia, for West Nile? How do we know when we are taking a step too far?

As much as they revolt me, I am not physically threatened by the cockroaches. The Asian Tiger mosquitoes potentially carrying West Nile are another issue.

According to the CDC: "Symptomology:

Most individuals infected with West Nile virus will not have any symptoms or signs of illness. People who do develop illness may experience mild symptoms such as fever, headache, and body aches; occasionally a skin rash and swollen lymph glands may be noticed. These symptoms typically appear 3 to 15 days after the bite of an infected mosquito. Less than 1% of persons infected with the virus may develop more severe disease with symptoms such as high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, paralysis, and, rarely, death. People > 50 years of age have the highest risk of developing severe illness. Although most people are at low risk for disease, those who spend a lot of time outdoors have a greater risk of being bitten by an infected mosquito." Italics mine. Seeing as my husband and I are (ahem, caff!) well over 50 and we spend as much time outside as we can? We spray.

Back to our Non-performance Art installation of dead cockroaches. As it turns out, the spray we use (sparingly and only in certain areas) to control the Asian mosquitoes, voracious feeders who will swarm and bite all day long as opposed to our native mosquitoes which are dawn/dusk only biters? That very spray also manages to paralyze unto death certain numbers of our local cockroach population.

The active ingredient in the mosquito spray, as in any bug killer apart from brute crushing force, is a neurotoxin. Neurotoxin in plain speak is nerve poison. Put that into aerosol form and you guessed it - you are essentially using nerve gas. When we spray to kill the mosquitoes we are exposing them - and everything else - to a nerve gas that progressively inhibits their ability to control their movements. The early stages of this affects locomotion. I will spare you the gruesome mechanics, I'm trying to shake the impact of reading about that myself. Let's just say the middle stages of that process leaves them legs up. The end stage of that process affects breathing. As in stops it.

Every time I consider this, as much as I despise cockroaches - and I do, a LOT! - I still have to stop and take a deep, long, breath. I suppose I should be grateful bugs don't scream.Or carry photos of themselves smilingly showing off their new Wii.

Yeah, yeah, anthropomorphizing the situation is not helpful. Bugs are not people and never will be.

Yet, this still does not answer the question of why the cockroaches continue to crawl just inside our doorways to die. What can that mean? It feels like some Rachel Carsonesque tragically poetic accusatory "YOU did this" gesture for these bugs to be crawling inside to die where I can see them and then must remove their carcasses.

It also raises the even creepier questions of where the roaches who are not paralyzed are headed - inside or out? Or how many of them are in here hiding - where!?!??

If I (try to) control the environment I inevitably harm it and by harming it I always harm myself. If I try to control my exposure with the personal use of bug spray or spray treated clothing, I inevitably still harm myself to varying extent as I add to my own ongoing lifetime of chemical exposure.

Unless I hide inside, If I do nothing I run a certain risk of contracting a potentially fatal insect-borne viral infection. Once I am dead and gone there is nothing to assure this house won't be sold, torn down, after which the lot will be promptly covered by a McMansion and the fringes returned to a more typical suburban lot line to lot line expanse of St. Augustine grass. That grass will be cared for by a full time lawn and pest service spraying and feeding in defiance of any/all other life forms.

As far as I can see, there is no harm-less option. Reality rules. We all die by turns.

A constant reminder that doing no harm is impossible for living creatures. We all inevitably harm other living beings by our very need to exist. Trying to balance that harm, trying to mitigate for the least possible damage versus the essential salvage of food crops or preservation of personal health is the best we can hope for. Would this choice to sacrifice the cockroaches be more difficult if I was finding legions of dead honeybees or piles of butterflies scattered around our entryways?

Well, bees are pollinators and are threatened in numbers. That would shift things. But some non-threatened butterfly species? Much tougher call. I do know that when it is my turn to cast aside this earthly coil, I could crawl outside and die in any position imaginable and the only bugs who would notice would be the ones clambering in for an unexpected meal. We don't only die, we all eat by turns as well.

The value of a life in the balance? It all depends upon who is holding the scales and/or ringing the dinner bell.


  1. Hiya,

    This post might be worth recycling.
    I am overwhelmed by conflicting feelings reading it.

  2. Thanks for commenting - as you can see, this post did not seem to attract a lot of attention previously. Not sure about how to recycle it really but I am glad you found it provocative. I sure struggle with these types of decisions and I am glad I'm not alone in that.


About Me

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Rollingwood, Central Texas
Family historian by default. Oldest surviving matriarch on my branch of the Family Tree. Story teller, photo taker, gardener, cook, blabbermouth.