by Michael Dhar
From somewhere high in the sky, we could hear the gentle buzzing.
“What new insect hell is this?” we wondered. Some even said it aloud. Pa, he spat upon the earth, dried and dessiccated from the infestation. Because the bugs also sucked all of the moisture out of the ground somehow? I don’t know, they were pretty bad. They might have done that. Let’s just say they did that, too.
But Pa, like most spitting men, knew what was up. “That’s no infestation, that,” he said, pointing to the sky with an arc of spit, the way he always pointed. “That there is our salvation.”
We squinted to where his spit had indicated: A weird, angular seabird seemed to be spilling two black trails of particulate, one from either wing. And it had no beak to speak of; on its nose, instead, a set of propellor blades buzzily chopped the air.
This was no bird — this was some sort of propeller-based superhero, a Propeller Man if you will. “Propeller Man!” I said, in my simple way, pointing at the sky with a finger instead of an arc of spit, for I was not yet a man.
“No,” Pa said, expertly spitting at the object. “That’s a drone. And those? Those are bugs it’s spitting out. Bugs to save us all.”
That’s pretty clearly the way things probably go down on farms all over the Cotton Belt from time to time, as the USDA has adopted a somewhat bizarre method of combatting “pink bollworms.” These are the larva of a thin, grey moth, and they live to eat cotton. The critters have been mostly eliminated from the United States, but to tamp down the occasional flare-up, the USDA sicks drones on the bugs — drones armed with other bugs.
Yes, if the specter of pilotless craft eyeing you down the caverns of every big-city alleyway and from high above any large-scale protests isn’t unsettling enough, now the drones shoot insects. Admittedly, the idea of a drone firing weaponized insects to fight off the bugs eating our crops is kind of cool, in an X-Files, future-dystopia sorta way.
But it gets even weirder/cooler/unsettling-er: The “good-guy” insects we’re firing at these larvae? Just adult versions of those same insects. No, they’re not devouring their own young. (It’s not quite that weird/cool/unsettling.) It actually involves a bit more strategy. See, these moths have been altered, irradiated into sterility. (As you can see in this delightfully school-instructional-video-esque clip from the USDA posted by Mother Jones.)
Blissfully unaware of their impotence, the nuked moths shot from the drone overwhelm the moth dating websites in the targeted cotton field. All that hot moth-on-sterile-moth action, of course, produces no offspring. So the moths die out.
It’s a tricky little gambit tacked on top of the already-weird method of drone-mounted insect cannon: Instead of attacking the moths, we give them what they (think) they want: mates. We give them so many fruitless mates that their mating is ineffective. It’s like a DoS attack. But in another way, it’s “all-natural.” No pesticides involved. Drone-assisted organic agriculture has arrived.
So, growing up, what kind of future did you imagine? Hoverboards and the Cubs winning the World Series? Or pilotless flying robots spewing altered insects to outgame nature’s prime directive? Truth and fiction, as they say.