It usually begins in a similar manner each time. From the upstairs bathroom comes my daughter’s voice, “Papa!” From my wife in the living room, “Sweetheart – come in here please!” From the stairwell leading to her ground-floor apartment in the house we all share, my mother’s urgent inquiry “Where’s John?” Each of these calls generally mean one thing: a previously unknown resident of, or unexpected visitor to, the house has made an appearance. From firebrats and spiders to centipedes and even, during one fortnight a few years back, mice, I have caught and released – well, generally, firebrats are absurdly fragile – a wide variety of small creatures that were declared “undesirables” by a majority consensus of the humans inhabiting the residence (and even I agreed that the mice had to go).
Yet each time I have carried yet another creature, generally an arthropod, out into the garden from wherever it was captured in the house, I have found myself wondering just why it was in there in the first place. After all, we live adjacent to a forest in a predominantly rural area. Wouldn’t these creatures find the natural landscape surrounding our home far more suitable to their needs than our weather-sealed, regularly cleaned, and (despite my natural history collections) largely un-natural house? As Richard Jones so informatively explains in his House Guests, House Pests; A Natural History of Animals in the Home, apparently not.
Far from being the hostile, alien environment that we might think we are making our homes to all but the human, and sometimes a designated companion animal or two as well (more about them in a moment), human habitations have long proven to be highly desirable places for a variety of creatures to take up residence. From the fleas that found the repeatedly used “nests” of our early hominid ancestors and the just referenced canines and felines whom we enticed from the septic fringes of our villages into the “sacred spaces” (as Jones borrows from anthropology a term to denote the structurally delineated human living quarters) of our homes, to the bees, wasps, birds, and myriad other creatures for whom our buildings provide remarkably suitable shelter and either places in which to procure, or direct sources of, food, the list of guests and pests is a very long and highly varied one indeed.
Jones, a widely acclaimed and published entomologist, fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and of the Linnean Society of London, and past president of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, approaches his subject in House Guests, House Pests from a refreshingly pragmatic perspective. As to one or another creature being classifiable as a “pest,” he repeatedly asserts, “It’s only a pest if it reaches pest proportions.” Past that, most anything encountered in a dwelling, outbuilding, or similar human construction, has a valid reason for being there – whether the humans residing in or responsible for the building want them there or not.
In some cases, we very much do want other creatures in our homes or outbuildings. Dogs and cats, for example, were both “brought in” for some very practical reasons indeed. Honey bees have long been kept close for the food and wax they provide. Rock doves, now the bane of property managers in cities throughout the world, were once “courted” to move from their cliff-side nests into specifically designed sections of buildings, and when they did were considered symbols of status to the human residents there. Even the appallingly named Edible Dormouse (Glis glis) that now elicits uneasiness in some homeowners in the Chilterns were once kept by the Romans in terra-cotta cages for the purpose that bestowed upon them their unfortunate common name.
However, regardless of how they fit into the balance of the ecosystems we create in our homes, most of the creatures about which Jones writes are not desirable guests. And indeed, whereas most do us no more harm than giving us a shudder when unexpectedly met, some have and continue to pose very real threats to our health. The body louse, now thankfully rarely encountered – at least in developed societies – has throughout the ages been the source of a number of very serious diseases. So it has also been with the black rat (although the details regarding how this came to be are quite surprising, particularly how it could have been much worse had another creature found its way to Europe in equal numbers) and still is, as the Zika virus has most recently reminded us, with mosquitos. Yet for most of the rest, how we think about them is largely determined by what we know about them, where they came from, and why they find living so close to us beneficial. It is in the explanations of such things that Jones truly excels.
Being not only a highly skilled entomologist but, so it seems from not only this but his many previous writings as well, also an insatiably curious person, Jones meticulously follows the natural histories of each family, genus, or species he includes in House Guests, House Pests back to their origins in order to explain to his readers that not only were they not put on this earth solely to be pestiferous to us, but also to show that they have a role to play in the larger ecosystem as well. And indeed, as he explains in the beginning of the chapter titled “Hangers On,” some of the creatures who formerly found living near us so advantageous have now, due to recent changes in the way we live, now find their respective niches in our homes rapidly disappearing.
As a very fitting conclusion to House Guests, House Pests, Jones has included an extraordinary seventy-page illustrated appendix outlining the range of creatures he discussed in the book as well as an assortment of others that fit well within the scope of the work. Thus not only is House Guests, House Pests a remarkable, highly informative, and very entertaining book to read, it is also a handy reference guide that should be kept ready-at-hand in any household for when a resident of one’s home whose presence may not have been previously known makes an unexpected appearance in the bath-tub, from beneath the carpet, under the eaves, or across the ceiling.
Author: Richard Jones
Imprint: Bloomsbury Natural History
Pages: 288 pp., illustrated appendix, black and white images throughout
Published: 21 April 2015
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.