Spiders, Zika And The Love of Nature

Most conservationists I know take it for granted that the love of nature is ingrained in the human psyche. John Muir speaks for them, when he writes ‘there is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties’. They might perhaps accept Edward Wilson’s notion of ‘biophilia’, the idea of an instinctive bond between humans and other forms of life. Whatever humans do, we conservationists feel sure that they love nature really, underneath.

Two news items that caught my eye recently made me think about this comfortable certainty. The first was a video clip of a weatherman on West Virginia’s WOWK 13 News, scared by a spider on his monitor screen. The presenter, Bryan Hughes, flinched, swore, and then began to crack some rather tense jokes. Bryan obviously really did not like spiders. In this he is not at all unusual.

The spider-on-camera-lens visual joke has become a staple of the internet. It works because lots of people are phobic about spiders, as they are with snakes. It is not hard to imagine a good evolutionary basis for this fear, since many species of both are venomous. Horror movie directors know the fear of spiders very well: watching the first James Bond film, Dr. No last week, where a fine specimen of a (apparently not very venomous) pink-toed tarantula apparently crawls up Sean Connery’s body, reminded me how effectively scary spiders can be.

But it was not the spider, or the weatherman’s immediate response, that unnerved me, but what Hughes said once the incident was over. In his slightly nervous patter, as he tried to move back to the job in hand, he said: ‘oh man, saints alive, we gotta get out there and kill those things’. Like James Bond, with his instant and fiercely wielded slipper, Bryan Hughes clearly has no truck with arachnids. I wondered how many people would share his feelings? Quite a lot, I concluded, especially in countries where spider bites can be highly painful or deadly. For many people, scared or simply cautious, spiders are better off dead: so much for the love of nature!

The other item that caught my eye was less amusing: a newspaper headline about the spread of the Zika virus. The Daily Mail provided the scare capitals: ‘Zika virus could reach Europe within WEEKS’. It was, in journalistic terms, a big story, although the definition of Europe was a broad one.   The World Health Organisation had announced that Madeira and parts of the Black Sea coast of Russia and Georgia were at high risk since they were within the range for Zika’s  host Aedes aegypti. A further 18 European countries within the range of another host, Aedes albopictus.

Control of Zika virus is clearly a public health and humanitarian challenge of the first importance. Thus far there have been several hundred Zika cases in people travelling to Europe, but no local transmission. The WHO focused on the likelihood of Zika virus spread. It recommended a range of strategies, involving early detection, ensuring skills and capacity to test for the virus, and enabling people at risk (especially pregnant women) to protect themselves. Their first actions however, were ‘strengthening vector-control activities to prevent the introduction and spread of mosquitoes, and reduce their density’, and ‘encouraging communities to reduce mosquito breeding sites’.

Aedes aegypti (and Aedes albopictus) are already identified as public enemies in terms of public health for their role in virus transmission: in the USA they carry dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever, as well as Zika.  Aedes aegypti breeds happily in small pools of water, doing very well in storm drains and sceptic tanks, puddles on roofs, gutters or air-conditioner trays and in rubbish (tires, plastic containers etc.).  The WHO proposes control by killing larvae (with organophosphate or biological larvicides or the application of oils to water surfaces), or killing adult mosquitos (spraying residual insecticides on external walls of houses and vegetation from backpacks, trucks or aircraft, or spraying indoors). There are also novel approaches, such as that of Oxitec, who are experimenting with the control of dengue fever using genetic modification and a gene drive to create male mosquitoes whose offspring do not survive to adulthood, pushing the Aedes aegypti population towards extinction.

What interests me is the implications of Zika for the conservationists’ idea that a love of nature is innate. Who could love Aedes aegypti, or the Zika virus itself? Surely nobody: we might believe we love nature, but we are likely to make an exception for disease viruses and the mosquitoes that carry them.

The language of ‘ecosystem services’ emphasizes the many positive relations between nature and society: the IPBES conceptual framework talks of ‘benefits’ and ‘nature’s gifts’. But the reality is that nature also delivers disservices, or at least does things that cause negative impacts. Zika virus and Aedes aegypti fall into that category. But then so do spiders, at least for people who hate them.

The hatred of nature should come as no surprise. Conservation has a long history of focusing attention on popular examples of biodiversity (the rare, the beautiful, the culturally significant). In contrast, mainstream society has traditionally seen nature in terms of ‘pests’. Early conservation in the UK battled against popular lists of ‘pests’, and such arguments persist today (e.g. over hen harriers on grouse moors, geese on farmland, cormorants on rivers or foxes on bird reserves). Lots of other species volunteer themselves for a list of undesirable nature (e.g. the ticks that carry Lyme disease, nits, rats and scary species out-of-place such as the Asian giant hornet). The question ‘is the smallpox virus not biodiversity?’ has been the staple of pub arguments among conservation students for generations.

 Fear of nature, and the much larger category of dislike, seems as centrally part of the human condition as love. Of course, there are people who love to fear: George Monbiot regards fear as an essential dimension of nature, and the frisson of fear lies at the heart of his idea, of rewilding. Scary insects can provide the basis for ‘horror tourism’, a perhaps under-appreciated dimension of wildlife tourism.

But outside these strong-minded lovers of the apparently unlovely denizens of the wild, will fear of nature undermine conservation efforts?  Conservationists love to draw attention to the wonders of nature, our ‘wonderful wetlands’, for example. In October 2015, the Daily Mail reported ‘Spiders the size of RATS on the march’ in Britain (although it noted that the fen raft spider, a Biodiversity Action Plan priority species, was harmless to humans). Will scary spiders put people off the UK’s remaining wetlands (or, perversely perhaps, attract thrill seeking public). How attractive will natural areas seem if they come to harbour disease-vectors? The UK has been free of malaria since about 1900 (except fora local epidemic after the return of soldiers during World War I on the Isle of Sheppey), but with climate change it may very well return. How wonderful will wetlands seem then?

Most people would probably agree that some elements in of nature should be controlled (e.g. smallpox and Zika-carrying mosquitos) and others should not. Society as a whole, even in a country like the UK, is very selective in its love of nature. The important question is where to draw the line, and how this is decided.

How tolerant will future visitors to nature reserves be of ticks, mosquitoes (or spiders)?   Will future conservation managers be required to sanitize nature, maybe applying pesticides in secret before visitors arrive, to remove unwanted biodiversity? How much gardening of nature will we do to ensure that what remains can be safely loved?

Earlier in the year, Eva Wiseman, writing about Zika, said ‘we need to come together and calmly, coldly, perform mosquitocide’: we should take urgent action to ‘hush the hum, that low-down whine heard in the darkness of a summer bedroom, giver of insomnia, giver of itches, giver of arguments that ruin what could, frankly, have been a nice weekend…’. We probably all recognise the sentiment, and it does not reveal us as nature-lovers. The ecological implications of such a strategy of deliberate extinction are unknown: it is hard to do properly what Wiseman asks, and ‘imagine a world without mosquitoes’.

It is foolish for conservationists to persuade themselves that everyone does or can love spiders, or mosquitoes, let alone epidemic viruses. The key challenge, surely, is to try to shape debates about nature’s services and disservices in ways that enable society to make reasonable and intelligent decisions. We must learn to live alongside nature, even where we do not love it as much we wish we did.


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