Killer Bugs: Weaponizing Insects to Wage Wars

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.

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