Colorado Potato Beetle and Sosnowsky’s Giant Hogweed: Alien Species as (Bio)Political Factors in pre and post-1989 Poland [EN]

Magda Dziabała

Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

Today, with global commerce and migration, the topic of alien species (broadly defined as species or sub-species introduced into areas outside their present or past original natural range) and their invasive counterparts (invasive alien species: alien species whose introduction and/or spreading threatens biodiversity and/or human economy)[1] is as relevant as never before. Science has been occupied with it since The ecology of invasions by animals and plants by Charles Elton, which was published in London in 1958. In English-speaking countries, there has also been intense biological, ecocritical, postcolonial and posthumanist research into alien and invasive species for the last several decades.

The situation is different in Central and Eastern European countries, among them Poland. There, the discussion of alien species is dominated either by purely biological research or by the media. The media perspective is often sensationalizing and politically loaded. Typical headlines may use phrases like: "colonizing" or "attack"[2] and talk about "voracious Balkan butterflies, sneaky American minxes and stinging weeds from the Caucasus" which "are rampant, […] cause damage, […] wreak havoc."[3]. Politics itself has also taken a slow interest in the topic, as a report prepared for the Polish Sejm in 2014 shows[4].

Still, there is an aspect of this topic that is unique to Central and Eastern European countries. Despite its mostly historical dimension, it still has consequences until today. It concerns two – or, more precisely, three species – which have been introduced to Poland and other countries of the region during the communist period and given dramatically different treatment depending on their geographical origin.

The concerned species are: the Colorado potato beetle ( Leptinotarsa decemlineata) and the Sosnowsky's/Giant hogweed (Heracleum sosnowskyi, Heracleum mantegazzianum). Their changing situation and reception in Poland is a telling example of how animals and plants, neutral agents in themselves, can be loaded with ideological baggage and used politically.

The Colorado potato beetle originates from south-west North America, both USA and Mexico[5]. It is a small oval beetle about the size of a ladybug, yellow-orange with black stripes on the wing covers. The beetles spend the winter in the soil and emerge in spring, moving up to 500 m (1640 feet) a day. They feed on nightshades, mostly on potatoes. Depending on the temperature, they can produce from one to four generations a year. The larvae move to other parts of their home plant and then to surrounding plants as they grow and, together with the adult beetles, they can eat potato plants bare[6].

The Colorado beetle was first observed in Europe at the end of the 19th century but could not spread widely because of preventive measures taken e.g. in France and Prussia. The regular invasion in Europe began after World War 1, as the beetle was introduced from the USA to Bordeaux in 1922. During the following decades, it spread throughout France and Western Europe until it reached the Eastern Bloc Countries in the late 1940s to late 1950s[7]. It first appeared in Poland in 1949. The official propaganda soon began to present it as a kind of a biological weapon thrown out of planes by the American enemy over the Eastern Bloc[8]. (This scenario happened not only in Poland, but also East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The former Polish propaganda director Andrzej Werblan has confirmed speculations that the arrival of the beetle was a welcome opportunity for the communist authorities to distract the population from the Korea War, which begun in 1950[9]).

Episode 25 of the Polish Film Chronicle from 1950 depicts the "war on the potato beetle" using a militaristic rhetoric, pathetic music and pictures of wide swaths of Polish population, from participants of youth summer camps to the military, during mandatory actions to collect and exterminate the beetles. Phrases like "the crime of American pilots", "the invasion of the pest from the sea" or "the provocation of warmongers" are used in the film[10]. As absurd as it was, the "war on the potato beetle" could have grave consequences for those who participated in it – or not.

Fig. 2. Stonka (http://demotywatory.pl/1396408/Stonka, Creative Commons)

Fig. 2. Stonka (http://demotywatory.pl/1396408/Stonka, Creative Commons)

The Polish Institute for National Remembrance writes that it was a pretext for further invigilating villages and farmers: "One of the pretexts for further 'increasing the vigilance' and further developing intelligence in rural communities was the potato beetle fighting operation. The measures undertaken at that time led to concrete acts of repression – both fines and prison sentences"[11].

The Minister for Public Security issued a decree in 1951 which states, among others:

"Several incidents have been noted which prove that the beetle fighting operation has been sabotaged, namely:

  • Incomplete beetle fighting equipment has been delivered to the Koszalin district.
  • Priests have been encouraging people to abstain from searching for the beetles on Sundays.
  • In the Bydgoszcz region, a farmer was arrested who had allowed the beetles to completely destroy his field without reporting it (...)
  • In the whole Rzeszow district only one beetle hotspot has been found, namely 20 kms from the Soviet border. The beetles must have been introduced there purposefully to infest Soviet fields. In the Olsztyn district, the beetle was also found 12 kms from the Soviet border, undoubtedly also after a purposeful introduction."[12]
Fig. 3. This beetle seems like an alien (http://www.wykop.pl, Creative Commons)

Fig. 3. This beetle seems like an alien (http://www.wykop.pl, Creative Commons)

The word „stonka", Polish for potato beetle, has entered the Polish language as a neologism for big and noisy groups of people, e.g. tourists[13]. It is probably the first and only alien species which has played such a prominent role in Polish identity, culture and history. Even today, it is widely known and negatively connoted despite the awareness of the great role that the official propaganda played in demonizing it. On the other hand, the fact that it is still recognizable has allowed the beetle to remain culturally relevant, as many internet memes, jokes (e.g. changing the name of the popular discounter chain Biedronka (ladybug) to Stonka [fig. 1 and 2]), art installations [fig. 3] and memorabilia for sale show.

Fig. 4. Operation of the volunteer fire brigade Sosnowiec (source: http://dziennikelblaski.pl/283120,Tak-strazacy-usuwali-barszcz-Sosnowskiego-pod-Elblagiem-Zdjecia.html)

Fig. 4. Operation of the volunteer fire brigade Sosnowiec (source: http://dziennikelblaski.pl/283120,Tak-strazacy-usuwali-barszcz-Sosnowskiego-pod-Elblagiem-Zdjecia.html)

As a certain counterexample to the potato beetle, I would like to examine Sosnowsky's hogweed and the related giant hogweed, also known throughout the former Easter Bloc. Sosnowsky's Hogweed arrived in Poland some 10 years later than the potato beetle; it was first observed in 1958[14]. It originates from the Caucasus, was introduced purposefully and forced by the authorities as fodder crop. It was also used as a decorative plant and bee fodder. Giant hogweed reached Poland in 1973[15], but it is the prevailing hogweed species e.g. in Germany and the Czech Republic[16]. Both plants are very tall, reaching heights from 1,5 to 3,5 metres[17]. They tend to grow in clusters, forming groups of several to several hundred individuals.

Both species are phototoxic. They contain chemical substances which react with UV light, causing severe skin reactions similar to 2nd or even 3rd degree burns[18]. To experience such reactions, one does not have to touch the plants – it is enough to be in their proximity on a warm sunny day, especially in the case of a cluster of many individuals. There have been frequent cases of hospitalization after contact with hogweed. In 2015, a 67-year old woman in Silesia died of her severe burns[19]. Still, the species are not as widely known as the potato beetle despite the fact that, unlike the beetle, they pose a direct risk to human health.

Giant hogweeds (de.wikipedia.org, Creative Commons)

Giant hogweeds (de.wikipedia.org, Creative Commons)

To this day, both hogweed species remain a problem in Central and Eastern European countries. In Russia, Sosnowsky's hogweed was only removed from the list of cultivation success cases and its cultivation was forbidden in 2012[20]. It is nicknamed "Stalin's revenge" after a rumor that Josef Stalin himself ordered the planting of hogweed and that he is now taking his revenge on those who did not obey[21]. There have been several biological publications on hogweed, e.g. in Germany by Kowarik or in the Czech Republic by Pysek (et al) – more so than on the beetle, which is more of a cultural than a biological phenomenon today. In Poland, cultivating and selling the species is forbidden[22]. They are "controlled, but with moderate success" and mechanical elimination before flowering as well as chemical elimination with Roundup are recommended for fighting them[23]. The elimination of hogweed should only be carried out with proper security equipment [fig. 4]. However, even when aware of their toxic properties, many people disregard security measures.

Fig. 5. The popular Polish literary and video game character Witcher (source: http://paczaizm.pl)

Fig. 5. The popular Polish literary and video game character Witcher (source: http://paczaizm.pl)

After the recent death case, there was a surge in media reports on hogweed, there are also numerous websites dedicated to informing and warning of hogweed. If one does an image search for "barszcz Sosnowskiego", the Polish name for Sosnowsky's hogweed, the first results page consists mostly of pictures of the plant and its elimination. I found only two memes among them, one of which shows the popular Polish literary and video game character Witcher [fig. 5]. After googling "stonka ziemniaczana", memes, cartoons, "nostalgic" memorabilia etc. make up a good part of the first page. The work of communist propaganda, whether negative or positive, is still visible in democratic Poland, even if in a warped form. The demonized potato beetle has gained a cult factor which allows it to remain culturally relevant long after its biological relevancy – and danger potential – has faded. The hogweed species, first portrayed in a positive light and then glossed over by the communist authorities, are discussed intensely, but mostly in a biological context. Because of their insufficient cultural relevancy, they remain relatively unknown and still pose a great danger.

Endnotes

[1] Definitions according to the alien species database of the Institute of Conservation of the Polish Academy of Sciences (http://www.iop.krakow.pl/gatunkiobce/default.asp?nazwa=mete&je=pl, retrieved 16.10.2016), abridged and modified.

[2] gazeta.pl, 07.05.2015, 13:00, retrieved 22.09.15.

[3] newsweek.pl. 03.10.2015, retrieved 22.09.2015.

[4] Mirosław Gwiazdowicz, „Inwazyjne Gatunki Obce". Biuro Analiz Sejmowych: Infos 11(171), 05.06.2014. http://orka.sejm.gov.pl/WydBAS.nsf/0/76F0DA9DD555D052C1257CEB0049BB07/$file/Infos_171.pdf, retrieved 20.02. 2015.

[5] http://www.europe-aliens.org/speciesFactsheet.do?speciesId=51120#[5] retrieved 23.03.2016; http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23929124, retrieved 23.03.2016.

[6] http://www.iop.krakow.pl/ias/gatunki/622, retrieved 15.10.2016.

[7] http://www.iop.krakow.pl/ias/gatunki/622, retrieved 15.03.2016.

[8] http://ipn.gov.pl/obep-warszawa/publikacje-internetowe-obep/boj-ze-stonka, retrieved 01.10.2015.

[9] http://wyborcza.pl/duzyformat/1,135751,15203133,Wielka_stonka_gender.html, retrieved 23.03.2016.

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ky6jeUuVNgo, retrieved 15.10.2016.

[11] „Jednym z pretekstów do dalszego „wzmożenia czujności" i rozbudowy agentury w środowiskach wiejskich stała się akcja zwalczania stonki ziemniaczanej (...) podjęte wówczas działania operacyjne skutkowały konkretnymi aktami represji – tak w postaci kar pieniężnych jak i kar więzienia."

http://ipn.gov.pl/obep-warszawa/publikacje-internetowe-obep/boj-ze-stonka, retrieved 01.10.2015,

translation: Magda Dziabała.

[12] „Stwierdzonych zostało szereg wypadków świadczących o sabotowaniu akcji zwalczania stonki, a mianowicie:

Do województwa koszalińskiego dostarczono do zwalczania stonki niekompletny sprzęt.

Notowane są fakty nawoływań księży do wstrzymywania się od poszukiwań stonki w niedzielę.

W woj. Bydgoskim aresztowano chłopa, który dopuścił się do zupełnego zniszczenia swego pola przez stonkę, nikomu nie meldując. Fakt ukrywania ognisk stonki stwierdzono też w powiecie Drawsko.

W całym woj. rzeszowskim stwierdzono w ogóle tylko jedno ognisko i to w odległości 20 km od granicy radzieckiej. Stonka mogła być tam tylko celowo zawleczona dla zarażenia pól radzieckich. W woj. olsztyńskim znaleziono również stonkę w odległości 12 km od granicy radzieckiej, niewątpliwie również celowo zawleczoną."

http://ipn.gov.pl/obep-warszawa/publikacje-internetowe-obep/boj-ze-stonka, retrieved 01.10.2015,

translation: Magda Dziabała.

[13] http://sjp.pwn.pl/sjp/stonka;2524324.html, retrieved 16.10.2016.

[14] http://www.iop.krakow.pl/ias/gatunki/103, retrieved 15.03.2016.

[15] http://www.iop.krakow.pl/ias/gatunki/102, retrieved 23.03.2016.

[16] Ingo Kowarik, Biologische Invasionen. Neophyten und Neozoeen in Mitteleuropa (Ulmer: Stuttgart 2010), 2nd revised edition.

[17] http://barszcz-sosnowskiego.pl/retrieved 23.03.2016.

[18] http://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/skad-barszcz-sosnowskiego-w-polsce-co-robic-z-barszczem-sosnowskiego,556504.html, retrieved 23.03.2016.

[19] http://www.gazetawroclawska.pl/artykul/3920531,barszcz-sosnowskiego-smiertelnie-grozny-nie-zyje-dolnoslazaczka-poparzona-roslina-film-zdjecia,id,t.html?cookie=1, dostęp 11.10.2015.

[20] Pavel Lokshin, Matthias Schepp, "Stalins Rache." In: Der Spiegel, 40/2015, p.121.

[21] Pavel Lokshin, Matthias Schepp, "Stalins Rache." In: Der Spiegel, 40/2015, p.121.

[22] http://barszcz-sosnowskiego.pl/ retrieved 23.03.2016.

[23] http://www.iop.krakow.pl/ias/gatunki/102, http://www.iop.krakow.pl/ias/gatunki/103, retrieved 23.03.2016.