Review of Kuhlberg, Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty: Canada’s Aerial War Against Forest Pests, 1913-1930

Scroll this

Mark Kuhlberg, Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty: Canada’s Aerial War Against Forest Pests, 1913–1930. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022. 284 pgs. ISBN 9781487526474.

Reviewed by David Vail.

Economic poisons came to define North American agriculture quickly in the twentieth century. Complex environmental, technological, and agricultural or “envirotechnic” relationships inspired a host of scientific approaches and policy-based decisions that reinforced a more efficient agriculture that protected fields and forests for production goals. Historians of environment, technology, and science have only recently explored these relationships to see landscapes as hybrid environments—places that as historian Sara Prichard argues blend and blur “artifacts, practices, people, institutions, and ecologies.”1

In Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty, Mark Kuhlberg extends the envirotechnic scope to survey the use of pesticides (mainly insecticides) in the forests of early-twentieth-century Canada. Although many scholars follow similar themes in different regions of the United States much later (primarily after World War Two), Kuhlberg significantly expands this analysis as he tells the Canadian story. Indeed, in northern North America, the use of pesticides and agricultural aviation starts much earlier and carries broader cultural and agroecological consequences, which scientists and producers had to reconcile in these early decades. Kuhlberg is also concerned with how ideas about wilderness paradoxically encouraged an embrace of agricultural chemicals and their aerial deployments. While producers such as pulp and paper makers saw forests as “harvestable commodities that they sought to protect until such time as they could cut them down and process them into various commercial products,” early environmental preservationists and recreationalists saw trees collectively “as an aesthetic commodity that only retained its value if it remained standing and in a healthy state” (4). Most citizens, according to Kuhlberg, viewed nature “through a unique prism that allowed for a most curious from of ‘selective seeing’ (5).”

colour image of a yellow caterpillar (hemlock looper) crawling up a green leaf.
Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa (Hemlock Looper) larva. Jerald E. Dewey, USDA Forest Service, United States, Image Number: 1241560, Forestry Images.

Kuhlberg also argues that pilot success in the air and scientist success in the lab meant that poisonous killings would become a mainstay in Canada’s forest management regardless of intent or consequence. Both industrialists as well as environmental preservationists and recreationists manipulated “nature out of self-interest,” but their arguments for embracing poisons as a technology of protection often came from conflicting ambitions: “The cottagers and nature lovers often endeavour[ed] to enshroud their ambitions in terms that profess[ed] a profound affection for the non-human environment in an attempt to strengthen their case by depicting it as a moral issue instead of a financial one (7–8).” To harvester and preserver alike, saving wilderness meant embracing the risks of poison to prevent the greater risks of infestation. For Kuhlberg, Canada’s aerial war “against forest pests thus demonstrates how shared impulses often drive both the harvesters and preservers of the trees and highlights the acute dangers inherent in allowing emotional appeals, rather than logic, to shape environmental policy” (8).  

Kuhlberg further argues that the nonhuman agency of insecticides, pests, and the forest environment itself played an active role in these early chemical campaigns: “From the insect’s perspective, there were no provincial boundaries. Bugs could fit and crawl from Alberta into Saskatchewan without even noticing the time change (17).” Indeed, how agricultural airplanes operated, how forest entomologists found success or failure, and how policymakers decided the rules came from the complicated relationships between chemicals, bugs, and the landscape so the boundaries were blurry and outcomes not always clear.

A color postcard of the Wigwam Inn, on Indian Arm. It is a large brown building on the banks of a river. A pier leads down the the water. The hillside behind the Inn is heavily forested.
The Wigwam Inn in Indian Arm was the site of one of the earliest experiments in aerial spraying in British Columbia after Hemlock looper threatened the Inn’s aesthetic appeal by destroying the forested mountains on the inlet. Wigwam Inn, 1920, City of Vancouver Archives, Item: AM1052 P-844.

The book’s early chapters trace the origins of the agricultural aviation industry in the early twentieth century. Forest producers and forest protectors saw insecticides as a key new tool to keep forests safe both for harvest and for wilderness preservation and recreation. This view of conservation, which emphasized efficient management of resources and trust in experts such as the Entomological Society of Canada, followed similar socio-cultural contours to their American counterparts. Unlike what happened south of the border, the ongoing insect risks to Canada’s economically critical forests primed an industrial and governmental embrace of poisonous technologies that could protect the country’s commercial woodlands. As Kuhlberg suggests, “insect infestations in the woods could cover tens or hundreds of square miles. And even if workers could have been brought into these remote areas to treat an insect epidemic manually, trees grow exponentially higher than most food crops. It was thus immensely difficult and costly to climb up a forest tree to clip the infested branches so that they could be destroyed, and it was virtually impossible to reach them with ground sprayers” (22). Canada’s reliance on its forestry industry as well as its cultural view of wilderness raised the stakes of woodland protection by fighting insects from the air.

Black and white image of a helicopter on the ground with a pilot sitting in open cockpit. A group of people stand under the tail.
“Early whirleybird was used to spray for hemlock looper at Invermere in 1948,” DIRT Magazine, April 1982.

Subsequent chapters examine the battle against the Spruce Budworm in Nova Scotia, aerial dusting campaigns in Ontario and Quebec, and insecticide control projects in various locations in British Columbia such as Stanley Park. These case studies untangle the interwoven scientific, technological, and environmental tensions around agricultural aviation that tried to protect industry aims as well as preservation goals while also trying to reconcile the ecological threats that came with deploying these toxins from the air. But the risks of insect attacks to the industrial and cultural wellbeing of the forests—how they conformed to wilderness ideals—continued to win out over the possible side-effects. As Kuhlberg notes with the Stanley Park example, “if its trees were not at their verdant best, they would lose all their value (139).” The Canadian model of aerial pesticide applications only accelerated in the 1920s and 1930s as forests and woodlands increasingly needed protection for their industrial and recreational value.

Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty reveals the complex relationships between science, production, forestry, and wilderness preservation in early-twentieth-century Canada. Where much of the history has focused on the decades after World War Two and centred on the American story, Kuhlberg offers a compelling account of the complicated early history of pesticides, agricultural aviation, and conservation further north. In certain ways, the less known Canadian story tracks with the well-known American story, but Kuhlberg’s exploration of these early years underscores that attitudes, practices, and politics were far from predictable and the outcomes far from certain. The book could expand its scope to include World War Two and the early postwar years to situate the Canadian story in a more transnational context.  Nevertheless, Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty sparks new queries for environmental historians as well as historians of science and technology about the early 1900s and the toxic risks and poisonous technologies used for conservation as well as preservation. To be sure, Kuhlberg reveals that the potent cultural view of protecting the land by poisoning it has a much longer, troubling, and internationally complicated legacy, which also helps explain agricultural chemicals’ ongoing global embrace despite stringent application laws and the growing risks of climate change.  

Feature Image: Hemlock Looper (Lambdina fiscellaria), Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. D. Gordon E. Robertson, 4 September 2010, Wikimedia Commons.


1 Sara Pritchard, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 19.

The following two tabs change content below.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.