• Dr. Timothy Smith

When You Really Need to Do Your Homework


There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don't know why she swallowed that fly, Perhaps she'll die. There was an old lady who swallowed a spider. That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her. She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. But I don't know why she swallowed that fly Perhaps she'll die. There was an old lady who swallowed a bird. How absurd, to swallow a bird! She swallowed the bird to catch the spider That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her. She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. But I don't know why she swallowed that fly


—Author Unknown

In the “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” Song, the old lady goes on swallowing ever larger and larger animals including a cat, a dog, a goat, and a cow to catch the previous animal she had swallowed. Throughout the song, we are reminded that the most recent remedy may in fact kill her. At the end of the song she swallows a horse and rather abruptly she dies.

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse She's dead, of course.

The song, in a humorous way, tackles the issue of biological control, the introduction of predator species to control a pest or a disease-carrying animal or plant. Familiar types of biological control can be found in agriculture and form a important part of integrated pest management. You may have noticed at nurseries and garden shops boxes full of lady bugs. Apart from being so pleasant to look at, the lady bug is a voracious predator of aphids. I don’t know about you, but I feel a huge feeling of satisfaction from releasing a box of beautiful little red and black dotted beetles on the swarms of aphids devouring my favorite rose bushes.

Biological control dates back thousands of years; Chinese literature from around 300 AD mentioned the sale and use of yellow ants for the protection of citrus crops. Since then numerous examples of biocontrol fill agricultural literature from the introduction of predators like the lady bug to parasitoids that lay their eggs in another species. For example, parasitic wasps like the chalcid wasp lay their eggs in an insect pest insect known as the whitefly. After the eggs hatch inside the host, the developing baby wasps grow inside the host weakening and eventually killing it. I know this sounds like something out of the movie Aliens, but gardeners and green house managers employ parasitic wasps regularly for pest control.

Biological control offers farmers and groundskeepers alternatives to chemical pesticides, and when applied properly they can be very effective. On the other hand, biological pest control has not always had its desired effect. In Hawaii in the late 1800s, sugarcane farmers were struggling with rats eating their crops. Farmers in Hawaii had heard that sugarcane farmers in Jamaica had used mongooses to control the rats in their sugarcane fields, and the Hawaiians released over 100 mongooses in their fields in 1883. Regrettably, no one really thought this through. There was one massive miscalculation; rats are nocturnal; they feed and move about at night. In contrast, the mongoose hunts and moves about during the day. Needless to say, the mongoose posed no threat to the rats who continued to safely eat sweat sugarcane at night while the mongooses spread across the island eating up native bird species and other indigenous animals. The moral of the story is that people truly have to think hard and long before they take action that cannot be recalled.

The rise of the Zika virus in Brazil, its detection in parts of Florida and its connection to increased birth defects has had many people concerned. Two types of mosquito transmit Zika—Aedes Aegypti and Aedes Albopictus. The prospect of Zika is frightening and no vaccination has been developed yet. However, scientists recently used advanced genetic engineering to produce genetically modified male mosquitos that when they mate with wild females they produce no young. Trials indicate this method will significantly lower the mosquito population. But what could be the other implications of no mosquitos? We must think of the mosquito in the larger ecological picture. Mosquitos don’t just bite us; they serve as a food source for other animals such fish and as population controls by spreading diseases to other animals. If not thought through, the consequences could be severe.

Once free in Hawaii, the mongoose could not be called back and has had a lasting effect on their ecosystem. Fortunately, we now have the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to rigorously test the effects of new pest control measures on human health and the environment before they can be released. At the same time, it is my strongest belief that everyone should get to know our emerging technologies and ponder the implications. Speak up if you think something is wrong or that maybe the agencies did not do all their homework.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.

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