October 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Who is the bigger pest: humans or insects?! A light-hearted discussion hosted by the Wellcome Trust unpicked the issues...


A picnic is a most idyllic excursion for a summer’s afternoon. Dining outdoors, serenaded by the medley of chirping crickets and bees’ humming drones, while butterflies hypnotize us with their aerial ballets. Despite this romantic reflection, our serenity ends abruptly, as smart swarms attack us from every angle. We humans find ourselves adopting a defence strategy to fend off the irritating invasion of ants, persistent wasps and biting midges. In such circumstances, it appears that there is some truth in the writer Timandra Harkness’s sentiment that insects do seem to have a mission to annoy us.

On Thursday 16 May an event held at the Wellcome Collection saw insects pitted against humans, as leading scientists and thinkers debated: ‘who is more of a pest?’ Dr Toby Murcott chaired the discussion as Timandra Harkness and Dr. James Logan tried to persuade the audience that insects really are our enemy, while Professor Peter Ayton and Dr. George McGavin argued that the human race is destroying the planet.

The ‘pro human’ duo, Harkness and Logan, deployed comic antics to disgrace the insect population. Harkness, especially, was equipped with witty anecdotes of insects’ lack of rational abstract thought, morals and cultural creativity. Logan presented alarming evidence to support their claim that insects are essentially evil. He spoke of a common nemesis, one of the most dangerous animals on Earth, the mosquito. Shockingly, this small blood-eating pest is responsible for killing more humans than ever massacred throughout all human warfare!

The ‘pro insect’ team, Ayton and McGavin, used powerful metaphors as their weapons of rebuttal. They informed the audience that humans are a growth on an agar plate, spreading to the very edges, a great bacterial colony consuming everything in sight. They declared that humans are the pest, for we compete with an unprecedented number of species and undermine the ecology of the Earth: proof that humans are a plague, at risk of causing greater damage than any plague of insect.

Insects, on the other hand, are awesome. Just think of the sheer number of insect dependent goods we thrive on: fruit, vegetables, honey, silk and chocolate. They ended with a profound thought; if humans cease to exist the earth would fare just fine. However, the removal of insects from the face of the Earth would be catastrophic, resulting in huge repercussions.

Although there are certain insects that will forever be the bane of our existence, we cannot deny that our ecosystem and our livelihoods are dependent on insects. This led to the audience voting pro-insect, regardless of the awful diseases insects transmit and the starvation that occurs due to crop devastation. Our lives will always be a tragic love affair with our insect co-workers, constantly fleeting between moments of deep adoration with outbursts of revulsion.

IMAGE CREDIT: Sanchom, via Flickr.