Bugs and bacteria may make people squirm, but remove these species from the home at our peril, argues Rob Dunn. This ecologist and creepy-crawly enthusiast seeks to persuade the uninitiated that the vast majority of the 200,000 species he has uncovered in human dwellings are beneficent.
A minor quibble – the tagline to this book is a bit misleading. Of the microbes, millipedes, camel crickets and honeybees mentioned, only the microbes and the crickets get any attention, but it doesn’t matter – they’re still fascinating. As regards the former (which make up the majority of species in the home), Dunn demonstrates that the inhabitants of houses with less bacterial diversity are more likely to have weakened immune systems and to suffer from chronic inflammatory diseases such as asthma. At the same time, he argues that removing bacterial biodiversity in the name of cleanliness actually makes it easier for the really dangerous pathogens to spread.
Larger creatures also come in for approval. Dunn talks us through his research on the camel cricket, an alarmingly prevalent species in North American homes (if you’re not a fan of crickets), which has been found to contain a new type of bacteria able to break down lignin, the key component of the paper industry’s toxic and hard-to-break-down waste. What other miracles could be hiding in the under-researched and often reviled species such as these?
In this full and entertaining account, spanning a huge amount of scientific research, Dunn has interwoven his unconditional passion for the creatures than live in our homes with enough concrete examples of their utility to convince the rest of us to care. For those who really revel in the disgusting, there are a few skin-crawling details with which to freak out friends (particularly those who own a cat), but overall the message is clear – the chemical methods we use to clear our homes of germs and pests do more harm then good. Cockroaches come back stronger; immune systems get weaker. Better to open the door, open the windows and let nature back in.
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