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22 1 T h e A g e n c y o f I n s e c t s T his chapter, though not without a handful of human actors, stars four insects: a tachinid fly and the Japanese beetle it eats, silkworms, and mosquitoes. Their actions, or the actions on them by humans, demonstrate how cultural values become ecological reality in engineered landscapes. Insect behavior also exposes how Japan’s nineteenth-century entrance into the international arena had immediate environmental consequences , as Japanese beetles (and other six-legged brethren) transcended the ecological boundaries of their island home to become serious agricultural pests in the United States and elsewhere. Beetles established empire far earlier than their human counterparts. Beetle populations blossomed in the United States after they escaped their biogeographical context. U.S. entomologists learned after traveling to Japan that re-creating elements of the beetle’s native habitat, namely artificially reintroducing it to natural predators and disease, could serve as a biotechnology of insect control. But knowledge of beetle predators needed to be discovered, and it was done, as we shall see, by tapping into the ancient Japanese hobby of gathering and raising insects. As for silkworms, we shall discover how cultural values specific to Japanese aesthetics and Confucian cohabitation practices drove their evolution. Eventually, the silk industry transformed Japan’s caterpillars and landscapes, a process in which silk- The Agency of Insects 23 worm cultivators need to be seen as biological engineers whose activities helped morph organisms and craft a national landscape in the eighteenth century. Finally, we shall turn to the metaphysics of Buddhist cosmologies and arbovirus (arthropod-borne virus) dissemination to trace how religion and entomology intersected at different moments in Japanese history to raise havoc with human health and cause pain. Our case study is Japanese B encephalitis. Problems with insects principally occur within hybrid spaces, where human practices and knowledge creation merged with engineered ecological conditions. Had they not merged where they did, the episodes discussed in this chapter would not have occurred. Not only is history scribed onto documents, but it is also inscribed onto the bodies of humans and insects, as well as sliced, shoveled, and excavated into landscapes around the world. One breathing canvas on which we paint our histories is insects and their habitat. As Gregg Mitman argues, the “actions of nonhuman actors such as rats, lice, or fleas are connected to, not independent of, histories of knowledge production through which such objects gain new meaning and power in the world.”1 The lesson is that historical research is central to understanding evolution and insect-borne pestilence. Given that Earth is a gargantuan, engineered space, as suggested in the introduction, today’s ecology is history, because that value-laden engineering took place over historical time. J a pa n e s e I n v a d e r s The Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica) invaded the United States in the summer of 1916 when the hungry chafers established a beachhead at a nursery in Riverton, New Jersey. When compared to the “helmeted beetles” (Allomyrina dichotoma) that children in Japan collect and raise in small, plastic terrariums and whose shells resemble the ornate armor of medieval samurai warriors, the Japanese beetle is ordinary in everything except for its reflective golden color and voracious appetite for the same crops that humans tend to cultivate and eat. Evolution has made it an economic competitor , not an insect that contributes to human economies such as silkworms or bees. The United States deployed insecticides in earnest to kill Japanese beetles in mass numbers, chemicals that became popular in Japan in the 1950s and that will be discussed in the next chapter. 24 The Agency of Insects According to entomologists, in the first year of its invasion the beetle inhabited a modest area of about one acre; by 1941, the year Japanese Zeros strafed Pearl Harbor, beetles had made far more impressive gains than Japan’s skilled pilots and inhabited some 20,000 square miles of soil in the American homeland. East Asian farmers rarely considered the Japanese beetle a serious pest; but once the beetle arrived in New Jersey—its grubs tucked clandestinely in the bundled roots and soil of a shipment of azaleas—the lack of native predators and diseases meant that it quickly went to work on crops across the country, destroying everything from soybean and clover to apple and peach trees. In the early 1920s, other “Oriental” invader species followed...


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