Urban pests

Why would anyone want to study cockroaches or rats?

Scientists are generally unified by having had a strong dose of the education system. Indeed some never leave it. Whilst many biologists enter education with dreams of tracking wolves, swimming with dolphins or rushing through fields with butterfly nets, the reality is there are vast arrays of organisms and habitats that warrant studying beyond those subject to flattering media attention.

The study of organisms in urban environments is not often the first choice of an impressionable biologist particularly as, in recent years, biology courses have become more skewed toward the conservation of habitats and species than understanding the physiology and ecology of organisms.
scientists studying urban pests

When you think of an entomologist, for example, you conjure up an image of someone bent over a microscope with a box of butterflies (an insect taxonomist, in reality) rather than a biologist that particularly likes creatures with six legs. Add to that, our study areas are the human-made habitats of concrete, tarmac, iron and refuse, rather than exotic jungles or tropical islands; it’s no wonder that those of us who look at the science of pests around human habitations can be a peculiar bunch of people.

Why are pests called pests?

rodent urban pests

Pests are plants or animals that we consider to be detrimental to us or our activities. We humans modify our environment on a scale like no other animal, clearing vast areas of forest for cultivating food, draining marshes, changing the course of major rivers and building dwellings and structures that rise high into the sky and sink deep into the earth. We try to modify the environment to supply the products we want and to protect ourselves from its adverse features to live more comfortable lives.

In making these modifications and creating an environment suitable for large populations of humans to live in close proximity to each other we unwittingly replicate the habitats of some of the tens of thousands of organisms that we encounter.

We create situations where populations of these organisms can exist in much larger numbers than would ever be found in their natural habitat and in close proximity to humans. We provide them with more places for shelter, better food supply, for some pests we are the source of food, and fewer predators.

In effect, city building exerts a selection pressure on wildlife: those that cannot live around human conurbations will die out in those areas whilst others will flourish but may have a negative impact on us humans.

Pest management, therefore, is the study of those flourishing species and the application of that knowledge to limit any negative impacts they might have on us.

What are urban pests?

wasps urban pests

Urban pests are those animals that flourish in the human environment and impact on us in a detrimental way, such as spreading disease, fouling buildings, contaminating and consuming food in businesses and the home, or feeding on our blood and causing irritating bites.

The wide variety of animals classified as urban pests reflects the range of habitats that humans have encroached to build their homes and use for social and industrial activities. The main pests to us humans and the problems they cause are:

  • Ants: stings, food pest, damage outdoor areas, plant pest
  • Bed bugs: blood feeding parasite
  • Birds (mainly pigeons, starlings and sparrows): foul buildings; damage buildings; vectors of disease
  • Bees: hazard from stings and some species damage masonry
  • Beetles and weevils: damage food, natural products and wooden structures; contaminate food
  • Cockroaches: food pests and disease vectors
  • Fleas: blood feeding parasites and disease vectors
  • Flies: food pests, disease vectors and many species bite
  • Lice: blood feeding parasites and disease vectors
  • Mites: human, animal and plant parasites, food pests and a major cause of asthma
  • Mosquitoes: blood feeding and disease vectors
  • Moths: food and natural product pests
  • Rodents: food pests, disease vectors and damage to buildings
  • Termites: damage wooden structures and objects
  • Ticks: blood feeding parasites and disease vectors
  • Wasps: hazard from stings and some species damage wooden structures

urban pests

The International Conference on Urban Pests (ICUP)

In 1950 60% of the world’s population lived in rural areas and lived off the land; by 2030, it is estimated, 60% will be living in or around major cities. Urban growth is not only increasing but concentrating the human understanding of the environment we have created.

The knowledge of our impact on the ecology of the pest species whose environments we have replicated has also grown, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. This is where ICUP comes in.

The International Conference on Urban Pests is a chance for academics, commercial scientists and operators to come together to share knowledge once every three years. There are no academic journals for urban pest control so a conference where the whole agenda is dedicated to our subject is a rarity indeed.

As anyone who has worked in the industry for any length of time will tell you, there is far more to urban pest management than checking bait boxes and spraying insecticides and pest control specialists are more than just exterminator or sprayer.

There are people with a lot of knowledge and passion for working in this branch of applied biology that want to understand more about how humans interact with these species and how we can limit their impact on our lives humanely and in environmentally friendly ways.

The ICUP programme shows the breadth of subjects covered by urban pest biologists and how our work benefits business, the quality of life and health: the effects of climate change on urban pests; new ways to monitor the spread of new and old pests; safer more effective ways to control pests; to unexpected consequences of urban pests, such as the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and introduction of novel pathogens into hospitals.

The 9th International Conference on Urban Pests (ICUP 2017) will be held at the University of Aston, Birmingham from 9-12 July.

Rentokil will be presenting on:

  • Rodent control: back to basics to understand the future (Tues 10.00)
  • Alternatives to anticoagulants: chloralose (Tues 11.20)
  • Role of LED lights in the design of ultraviolet light traps for house fly monitoring and control (Weds 11.00)


Matt Green

I'm a laboratory-based entomologist who works at Rentokil's Global Technical Centre. I joined Rentokil in 2008 to set up and run research projects on the control of urban insect pests. Before Rentokil, I specialised in diagnosing timber defects in historic buildings, including wood-boring insect infestations and fungal decay. As a result: I own far too many books on urban insects and timber pests. When I'm not working you can usually find me playing board games and card games or fencing.


  1. Fizzah Iqbal Reply to Fizzah

    That was a really well versed post. And you are right, pest control specialists are way more than just sprayers and exterminators.

  2. Thanks for sharing the useful blog. Very interesting. .

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