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Is it possible to control bugs by making them sterile?

Dear Cecil:

Is it possible, as a method of pest control, to produce a virus which doesn't kill the critter, but only sterilizes it? That way the little pests could all infect each other and we'd be rid of them in no time. How about it, Cecil?

Have to Know, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Sounds like the greatest idea since the Black Death, H. Starting situation: we’ve got bugs! Ending situation: we’ve got bugs with germs! I am not seeing that this is an improvement. Luckily, a less malign solution to the bug question has been developed: the first practical cockroach contraceptives. I’m serious. We owe it all to Zoecon Industries of Dallas, which worked on this for 10 years. After numerous false starts (originally they hoped to teach the roaches the rhythm method, but none of the little morons could count to 28), the folks at Zoecon achieved a breakthrough — two miraculous compounds called hydroprene and methoprene, which are innocuously classified as “insect growth regulators.”

Nobody knows quite how these chemicals work, but basically you spray them on the roaches when they’re little — in the “nymph” stage, to be precise — and they fail to reach sexual maturity, much like graduates of the University of Notre Dame. Among other things, the wings of the adult roaches don’t develop properly, so the males can’t fan their pheromones (sex attractants) at prospective mates. Furthermore, the males are stricken with sexual ineptitude in the presence of females, and instead, according to one researcher, prefer to “stand around in a circle and wave [their antennae] at one another.” I am reminded of a certain legendary practice once associated with boys-only summer camps, but let’s not get distracted here. Female roaches sprayed with hydroprene and methoprene will still mate, presuming there are any males around who remember how to do so, but they produce no offspring. A single test spraying conducted at a Florida apartment complex killed off 95 percent of the roaches in eight months. Hydroprene and methoprene can be found in sprays sold by S.C. Johnson & Co., maker of Raid, and American Home Products, maker of Black Flag.

Sterilization is far from the only new antibug technique available these days. Some years ago a compound called hydramethylnon was developed that interferes with roach metabolism. According to one news report, “the roach slowly runs out of gas, falls asleep, and never wakes.” You’ll find the stuff in American Cyanamid’s Combat. I also have a report here of diuretic hormones that force bugs to excrete water. “The idea is to get the insect to dehydrate and kill itself,” one scientist gleefully told the press. Now you know what happened to all those kids who liked to pull the wings off flies.

Cecil Adams

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