Social distancing sends the humans away, and brings out the mice to play

Rise of the Planet of the Pests: As social distancing drives people to their homes, vermin and cockroaches are emerging from the shadows

Arnold Sciberras says mice and rats will respond to the absence of human activity by emerging into public spaces for opportunistic food grabs
Arnold Sciberras says mice and rats will respond to the absence of human activity by emerging into public spaces for opportunistic food grabs

As shops and establishments close down, people have been driven to their homes, leaving the streets for pests like rats and cockroaches to wander about in. Because with once busy streets, now seemingly abandoned, pests are leaving the shadows in pursuit of the food they no longer find in abundance.

Pest control consultant Arnold Scibberas said that as Malta goes into partial lockdown, the situation could spell “good news” for pests like rats.

Having no humans to restrict their movements, pests like the American cockroach and brown rats will venture further into urban areas looking for food and places to reproduce safely.

“Imagine having a closed restaurant kitchen, and maybe some food was left there; there aren’t kitchen staff or pest controllers to stop the rats from getting in there and feasting off left over scraps,” Sciberras told MaltaToday.

Arnold Sciberras with a pet squirrel
Arnold Sciberras with a pet squirrel

The situation is also aiding airborne pests to spread further, as the lack of human presence is helping pigeons to find new nesting grounds.

Sciberras said that while all ecology benefits from reduced human activity, the opportunistic nature of these pests helps them spread even further.

This means they are capable of adapting in order to exploit newly available habitats or resources, and are typically found in unpredictable and variable environments.

Among these opportunistic species is the American cockroach. The increased use of sewage facilities helps in providing the cockroaches with an added source of nutrition.

Despite the increase in population numbers, Arnold Sciberras said that no new pest species have yet been unearthed. “Pests are normally alien species, and are brought over by humans, therefore the chance of new pests being introduced is quite low,” he said.

But urban areas like Sliema and Valletta are among the most susceptible to pests like brown rats, pigeons and cockroaches due to their high population density and proximity to water.

On the other hand, rural areas like Mgarr and Dingli, are prone to an increase in black rats, a species often found raiding animal food supplies on farms.

But can these pests prove to be beneficial to the local ecology?

Sciberras says that due to the alien nature of the pests, they are not part of the traditional food chain, and so they normally prove to be harmful rather than helpful to the environment.

“The only way such pests can prove to be helpful is that they provide an added food source for some carnivorous species like birds of prey and reptiles.  In a different way, other pests which rely on human movement have not fared so well with movement restricting measures,” he says.

Among which is the German cockroach, which relies on the movement of goods to spread.

Bed bugs have also not fared so well, Sciberras says, stating that normally this insect species comes into the country by hitchhiking on people’s bodies coming from foreign countries.

Protecting your home from pests

In any case, in the same way most of us have stepped up efforts on personal hygiene, the same can be done to keep pests at bay.

Rats themselves can carry disease. There’s no evidence that they can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Keep in mind some methods of killing rats cause more suffering than others: Poison and glue traps kill slowly and painfully, while good snap traps kill instantly. There’s also the option of live traps, followed by release in a field.

While there is little scientific evidence to suggest that the coronavirus can transmit from animals to humans, the environment in which pests thrive can have a number of health concerns.

Asked how one can protect their home, Sciberras said that he advises people to buy quality products so as to ensure that pests are truly eliminated from one’s household.

“I am now teaching home owners how to properly apply the products I used to apply himself in an effort to respect social distancing,” the exterminator says of the how the coronavirus pandemic has changed his job, which naturally involves going into people’s homes.