Academic journal article Environment and History

An Ocean of Locusts-The Perception and Control of Insect Pests in Prussian Brandenburg (1700-1850)

Academic journal article Environment and History

An Ocean of Locusts-The Perception and Control of Insect Pests in Prussian Brandenburg (1700-1850)

Article excerpt


Since the beginning of agrarian societies, coping with animal pests has been an important part of the interaction between humans and their environment. Analysing historical pest-related discourses reveals contemporary knowledge of special aspects of the natural world, the way of dealing with natural hazards, as well as societal changes in the valuation of nature. The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were characterised by substantial transformations in the confronting of animal pests. Important foundations leading to the later development of modern pest control were set in this time. The study examines the perception and distribution as well as the damage caused by and control of different insect pests in agriculture and forestry. It concentrates on Prussian Brandenburg in the northeast of today's Germany between 1700 and 1850. Handwritten administrative documents as well as printed silvicultural, agricultural and entomological literature serve as underlying sources. The analysis focuses on pine caterpillars in forestry and migratory locusts in agriculture. It also gives an overview of the perception of animal pests in general.


Animal pests, pest control, locusts, caterpillars, forestry, agriculture


How would the enormous distress have affected them, if but an hour ago
they had seen their own fields of wheat standing thick as reeds ... yet
an hour later they glimpse nothing but mere stubbles ... If they had
seen fields of oat and barley wiped clean like fallow grounds. (1)

These words, written in 1753 by the Counsellor of Justice (Geheimer Justizrat) von Oskiercka, a regional landlord in Lichtenberg, are an example of the horror felt by farmers who helplessly watched the destruction of their subsistence by millions of locusts. He illustrates that people with no experience with such plagues could not understand the possible level of damage, and the despair of an affected farmer. According to many similar reports, the damage caused by insect calamities often reached a disastrous extent. Are these stories reflections of the real situation, or simply the reactions of overwhelmed local landholders? And how did people actually deal with pest infestations prior to the industrial production and wide use of modern pesticides?

Since the early days of agriculture and animal husbandry, societies have been competing with other organisms for existentially important resources produced on fields and pastures. They have suffered yield losses and profit decreases in agriculture and forestry due to insect infestations, and lost livestock to predators. Evidence of attempts to control these animals is already found in ancient literature. (2) Early modern sources often mentioned, for example, locusts, various caterpillars, mole crickets, granary weevils, sparrows, crows, common hamsters, voles and wolves as pests in agriculture and/or forestry. Analysing pest related discourses reflects the contemporary knowledge of zoological and 'ecological' aspects of the environment as well as societal and political changes in the valuation and appreciation of nature.

Research on the history of pest control in the German-speaking area has frequently concentrated on the invention and further expansion of modern pesticides beginning in the mid- or late nineteenth century, (3) or has given a broad review from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and up to the present. (4) The early modern period and the first half of the nineteenth century have often been disregarded. Recent research in the field, however, illustrates the critical significance of the years between 1700 and 1850 for understanding modern agricultural practices. Gradual changes in the perception and control of animals occurred during this period, as documented especially in works by Herrmann, Windelen, Meyer, Nowosadtko and Rohr. (5) In 1709/12, Abraham Friedrich Krafft published a pest control book in southern Germany. …

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