Killer Bugs: Weaponizing Insects to Wage Wars

By Kate B.
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Photo Courtesy: Marvel Studios/The Walt Disney Studios/IMDb

You’ve most likely heard of biological warfare — using bacteria, viruses and fungi as weapons — but you may not know about entomological warfare. This particular type of biological warfare harnesses the power of insects, and, no, we aren’t talking about Marvel’s Ant-Man calling his pals for backup. We’re talking stinging scorpions and pits filled with flesh-eating assassin bugs.

Insects have been used in war by military strategists for thousands of years — if not longer. But when compared with modern-day technology, how much damage can an insect do? Our advice: Don’t underestimate these small soldiers. In addition to inflicting pain on the enemy, insects are also used to spread pathogens and destroy crops. By causing pain or a disease outbreak or devastating an army’s supplies, insects have helped shift the tides of war, resulting in a lasting impact on the history of the world.

Jeffrey Lockwood, author of a book about entomological warfare called Six-Legged Soldiers, posits that the earliest example of insect warfare probably involved bees in the form of tossing angry hives at your enemies and running in the other direction. In fact, this practice was so commonplace in medieval Europe that castles were equipped with "bee boles" — little recesses that acted as bee barracks — and armies constructed catapults with the sole purpose of slinging hives at foes.

According to Herodian, an ancient historian, Roman emperor Septimius Severus was on the receiving end of a painful arachnid attack. The second-century ruler was eager to take control of Mesopotamia, but local monarchs set up a lovely trap for his arm. When Roman soldiers moved on the Mesopotamian stronghold of Hatra, so-called "scorpion bombs" rained down on them. Shells made of earthenware were filled with the stinging, venomous arachnids. Needless to say, Septimius and co. were waylaid and ended up retreating.

When looking back on game-changing moments in history, historians have difficulty pinpointing well-documented examples of entomological warfare — in part because the folks of yesteryear didn’t really understand the spread of disease as we do today. For example, historians often suggest bugs are connected to the spread of the Black Death — something that wouldn’t have really registered with those who survived the plague.

In the 14th century, the (bubonic) plague to end all plagues spread from Asia Minor and eventually resulted in the death of roughly a quarter of Europe’s population. While folks commonly believed rats caused the epidemic, it was later determined in the early 1900s that fleas were actually patient zero.

Historian Reid Kirby asserts that even if folks didn’t realize it at the time, fleas were being used as a weapon: Tartars (potentially) purposely spread the epidemic to the Crimean city of Kaffa. Regardless of the intention — if any — behind the spread of Europe’s Black Death, fleas’ involvement in the epidemic reinforces the potential of entomological warfare.

Examples in Modern Warfare

During World War II, it’s widely believed Nazi Germany was deep into testing how the Colorado potato beetle — an invasive species in Germany that hails from North America — could have been used to devastate Allied Forces’ production of crops. Although the beetles were allegedly released outside of Frankfurt for a study, the Germans never actually carried out this type of entomological warfare.

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Photo Courtesy: @GeoffLife/Twitter

Meanwhile, Japanese forces did employ biological warfare. By spraying plague-infected fleas and cholera-carrying flies onto Chinese cities from low-flying airplanes — or by dropping "bug bombs" filled with the pests — the Japanese military was responsible for the death of roughly 440,000 Chinese people. In 1945, it was discovered that Japan had planned to spread the plague to San Diego via the same means. Fortunately, this bug-bombing never came to pass.

Years later, during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong dug underground tunnels and tossed hornet nests over their barricades at the opposing U.S. forces. Troops didn’t rely solely on lobbing nests. Booby traps — such as trip wires that triggered a rain of scorpions or attaching small charges near giant honeybee colonies to infuriate the insects as American troops passed by — were often employed. To fight this seemingly (losing) entomological war, the U.S. looked into developing a pheromone spray — a chemical that would send the bees into disarray from afar. In the end, the U.S. Army didn’t draft any insects, but officials sure did consider it.

The Cold War & Beyond

The Soviet Union looked into techniques for transmitting animal pathogens — often through ticks — and even claimed to have an insect breeding facility that could churn out millions of insects a day. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army took a keen interest in mosquitoes and developed plans for a facility capable of producing "100 million yellow fever-infected mosquitoes per month." (That’s a lot of citronella candles and bug spray…)

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Photo Courtesy: Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance/Getty Images

In the ‘50s, researchers took the notion to the field, testing "weapons" for a project called Operation Big Itch. The weapons in question? Munitions loaded with fleas. Luckily, they were uninfected fleas — because they escaped and bit air crew members assisting with the field test. Looking to rebrand in ‘55, the military dropped 300,000 uninfected mosquitoes over Georgia in order to see how resilient the little soldiers were in the wild.

That test was called Operation Big Buzz, and it was followed by a series of other entomological warfare attempts with names like Operation Magic Sword, Operation Drop Kick and Operation May Day — none of which really got off the ground. After the Cold War ended, the push for entomological warfare tactics faded too. In 1990, the U.S. poured $6.5 million into a caterpillar breeding program designed to fight the "War on Drugs" in Peru’s coca fields.

These days, technology presents a new threat. Insects could be genetically engineered to wage war — be it killer mosquitoes wiping out staple crops or something more along the lines of Black Mirror’s creepy autonomous drone Insect, which replicates the behavior of an insect, harnessing its most deadly traits and then some. All of this to say, the soldiers of entomological warfare may be small, but they could certainly shape the future.