HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
October 9, 2006, Herald Journal

The bugs are going to win


One of the more unpleasant signs of the end of summer is the beginning of yet another invasion of multicolored Asian lady beetles.

Scientists call them Harmonia axyridis, but homeowners, weary of dealing with the orange plague call them other things.

The beetles have the annoying habit of invading homes in the fall in search of a warm place to spend the winter.

According to the Minnesota DNR, Asian lady beetle populations are increasing, because this species currently has no known natural enemies to control its numbers.

The creatures are native to eastern Asia, and they did not fly over here on their own. They had help from the US Department of Agriculture, which released them in the US in 1916 and 1964 to combat pecan aphids.

More beetles were released in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In our ignorance, we have continued to blunder along, introducing plants and animals to new areas in the interest of controlling other species, without fully understanding the impact of these actions.

This process is called “biological control.”

The problem is that the “control” part is often missing.

These introductions have often upset the balance of nature, and resulted in a worse problem than the one people were trying to fix in the first place.

In the case of the multicolored Asian beetle, the new species is replacing other species of lady beetles that are native to Minnesota.

In terms of impact on humans, sealing openings and applying an exterior insecticide barrier can limit access, but the only method of controlling the beetles once they have entered a building is to sweep or vacuum them up and remove them.

One may need to do this daily to keep up with the seemingly endless tide of beetles.

Homeowners will get a second round of fun in the spring, when the return of warm weather wakes up the dormant insects, and they emerge from their hiding places and roam around our homes looking for a way to get outdoors.

Bugs might have a relatively short life cycle, but they adapt quickly, and, let’s face it, there are a lot more of them than there are of us (the term “bug” includes the insects, arachnids, and any other creepy-crawly types that like to bother people).

We might temporarily have some limited success, but they can reproduce and change much more quickly than we can.

In Minnesota, we have been fighting the battle with mosquitoes for a long time.

There may be less of them around than there were a century ago, but anyone who has spent time outdoors during the summer months knows that they are alive and well.

Flies are another bothersome intruder.

I spent a lot of time in city council meetings and township board meetings last summer, watching local elected officials doing battle with flies. The business of government was punctuated with the slap of flyswatters.

Yet, for every successful kill, many more flies appeared to take up the fight.

We have not always been very successful when it comes to chemical warfare, either, and when we use chemicals to try to eliminate bugs, we probably harm ourselves as much as we do the bugs.

This is true on both a governmental and personal level.

One example of how people use chemicals without considering consequences came about during an outbreak of forest tent caterpillars in northern Minnesota.

These pests go through cycles, with widespread outbreaks occurring every 10-to-20 years, and lasting a few years each time.

During an outbreak, they are responsible for defoliation of thousands of acres.

At their peak, they will cover roadways and buildings in their search for food.

One cannot leave the house without walking or driving on living carpets of caterpillars, and outdoor activity is severely limited. Even though they only last a few weeks, these outbreaks can drive people to take extreme action.

A few years ago, someone discovered that dish washing liquid kept the caterpillars out of trees.

The word spread, and soon trees were covered with the slippery stuff. The foamy residue ran off into local streams, causing potentially long-term damage.

There is some speculation that much of the detergent that was used was the antibacterial formula, which is even worse, and remains in the environment for a longer period.

Once again, the cure was worse than the original problem. In most cases, the trees recover from the defoliation, often growing a second crop of leaves later in the same season, but the pollution that resulted from the panic lasted much longer.

Bugs have a place in the balance of nature, but as long as they continue to get too close, the battle will continue.

There are far too many of them for us to kill one at a time. I have tried.

On average, I have killed at least one spider each day the for the past month, except for the morning I dispatched a box elder bug for variety. I found it loitering on my shower wall, and decided it had to go.. I don’t actively hunt bugs. I generally have a live-and-let-live attitude. But if they invade my living area, they are going to die.

I have a very low tolerance for spiders.

So, we can’t kill them all individually, and when we try to use chemicals to control them, we are more likely to hurt other plants and animals, including ourselves, than we are to have a long-term effect on the bug population.

There is no doubt about it. The bugs are going to outlive us all.