How Intelligent Are Insects, Actually?

ants carrying leaves

You may be under the impression that insects are pea-brained creatures without conscious or emotional capability. For most of history, entomologists would have agreed with you on that. 

However, more recent research in entomology (the study of insects) reveals that there may be more to the creatures than meets the eye. Read on to learn more about these breakthrough discoveries and what they imply about the ethics of pest control and animal testing (though we’ll stick to discussing pest control, our area of expertise)!

How Intelligent Are Insects?

Although theories emerged on the topic as early as the 17th century by both entomologists and philosophers, experiments in entomology in the last two hundred years have revealed more and more that different insect species have varying intelligence levels.

What is intelligence, though, really? Intelligence is not the same as cognition or information processing that creatures develop instinctually; it also is not the same as humans’ self-awareness. Instead, intelligence broadly comprises a few dimensions: consciousness, sociality, and feelings.

Defining consciousness is tricky. According to Colin Klein, a philosopher who has studied the neural link to insect intellect with experts in animal behavior, consciousness is a primitive sense of life as it is being experienced; “It’s suffering. It’s bliss.” All creatures—which, of course, even includes insects—experience consciousness then, as this sense of pain and pleasure or joy.

As for the intelligence dimension of feelings and sociality, insects fit the bill. Termites, bees, and ants live in complex, interdependent social colonies. Ants can recognize patterns, count from zero, and make tools. Bees buzz with excitement when offered a serving of sucrose. Mateless fruit flies drown their sorrows by consuming food containing alcohol. 

These examples of conscious pain and pleasure, social relationships, and emotional feelings bring the ethics of pest control into question. If researchers are right about insects being intelligent creatures that feel pain, is pest control animal cruelty?

Ethical Concerns About Intelligent Pests

Sometimes, animal rights activists have a problem with pest control—especially when research points to a common pest being capable of emotionally intelligent pain responses. However, some pest control specialists might roll their eyes at these concerns since they receive pay from customers to protect humans, not pests.

Our pest control team, however, takes a different approach to pest control, as we are animal lovers who commiserate with these activists about unnecessary animal cruelty.  We appreciate all creatures and believe that even household pests have a purpose in nature; if there’s no valid reason to kill them, we don’t. All living creatures deserve to live unharmed in their native habitats outdoors.

In addition, Alabama wildlife and forestry conservationists do an excellent job of ensuring the insects and animals of Alabama have plenty of places to live apart from invading human homes so we can coexist in harmony and not risk critical extinctions through pest control. Seventy percent of our state is covered in forests.

Kill or be Killed…?

It’s also important to remember that, within reason, you have every right to defend and protect your property from pests. In the wild, insects can be pests to other animals, and it is natural for the larger animals to guard their territory. Just like animals and insects in the wild, humans have the instinct to reserve shelter for themselves, guard their territory, and protect their young. 

In the case of hazardous pests, you have to remember that killing them is sometimes the only way you can avoid being seriously injured, having your home destroyed, ruining the food you grow in the garden, or—in the case of specific pest allergies or venomous, aggressive pests—being killed.

Pesticides Aren’t Always the Solution

Pest control solutions are not one size fits all. Often, pests are not aggressive, venomous, or inherently dangerous at all and are simply nuisances. In these cases, pesticides or traps don’t always have to be the answer to your pest problems. There are many ways to get rid of pests without killing them, so long as you don’t have a severe infestation.

Milkweed, Monarchs, and Aphids—Oh My!

As an example of this take on humane pest control, let’s discuss how many gardeners plant milkweed near their gardens because it attracts Monarch butterflies. The females only lay their eggs on milkweed, but once they’re adults, they pollinate all kinds of plants besides milkweed. Milkweed also attracts aphids, highly destructive creatures that have a purpose in the wild but eat everything in your garden.

Although aphids’ love for milkweed also helps keep them away from the rest of your garden, you need to get rid of them so they don’t eat butterfly eggs and caterpillars off the milkweed leaves. Otherwise, the Monarch butterflies won’t survive beyond their immature stages. If aphids have not completely choked out the milkweed, the solution is still not to spray pesticides or uproot it. That will also kill the butterfly eggs on the leaves, not just the aphids!

Pesticide Free Solutions

As the Alabama Wildlife Federation suggests, many pesticide-free options exist to keep your butterflies but repel your aphids, like planting onions and marigolds nearby. Onions and marigolds do not harm the monarch butterflies, but aphids flee from them. 

There are many other examples of ways to prevent animal cruelty when controlling pests. For many pests, even some insects, there are animal rescues out there that would instead prefer that you call them to come to trap the pest alive and transport them to the wild where they belong (or to another location if they’re an invasive species) without killing them. It just depends on the risk of the situation and your preferences.

Conscious Pest Control Professionals

Our commitment to family and pet-safe, mindful pest control approaches means that pesticides and lethal pest traps aren’t the only solutions we can offer for you to enjoy a pest-free home. On this blog, we share plenty of advice for prevention measures that do not harm pests at all by keeping them from invading your home in the first place.

However, when you have an infestation (especially of a dangerous pest) that you can’t manage for any reason, we will gladly protect you using the most effective methods to suit your needs and preferences.

At Vulcan Termite and Pest Control, we have proudly served families in Alabama since 1965, and we would love to help yours, too! Call us at 205-663-4200 or contact us online today to learn more about our affordable, effective pest control solutions.

Thanks for reading! To learn more about the pests and other creatures found here in Alabama, check out our pest blog.