American Pests

The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT

The world of insects is one we only dimly understand. Yet from using arsenic, cobalt, and quicksilver to kill household infiltrators to employing the sophisticated tools of the Orkin Man, Americans have fought to eradicate the “bugs” they have learned to hate.

Inspired by the still-revolutionary theories of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, James E. McWilliams argues for a more harmonious and rational approach to our relationship with insects, one that does not harm our environment and, consequently, ourselves along the way. Beginning with the early techniques of colonial farmers and ending with the modern use of chemical insecticides, McWilliams deftly shows how America’s war on insects mirrors its continual struggle with nature, economic development, technology, and federal regulation. He reveals a very American paradox: the men and women who settled and developed this country sought to control the environment and achieve certain economic goals; yet their methods of agricultural expansion undermined their efforts and linked them even closer to the inexorable realities of the insect world.


“[A] colorful chronicle of pest management in the United States… As well written as it is thorough.” (Publishers Weekly 12/2009)

“[McWilliams] knows how to address unusual historical topics in rich detail… Poignant… Thorough… Recommended.” (Library Journal 10/1/09)

“[An] articulate, well-organized… excellent primer.” (Irene Wanner – Seattle Times)

“[McWilliams'] book should resonate in these times of GM temptations and global food shortages.” (Times Literary Supplement)

“Highly recommended.” (Choice)

“A solid contribution to U.S. environmental history, one that is refreshingly ambitious in its chronological scope.” (Sarah T. Phillips – American Historical Review)

“An engaging and important book.” (David Kinkela – Technology and Culture)