Humans and Insects: The Science Summarized

This will be a regular feature on the blog that summarizes recent scientific papers discussing the role of insects in human society.  Since Chelse and I are ecologists, the papers we review will primarily examine insect effects on people from a biological perspective, but we would love to hear about relevant papers from other disciplines.  Our first entry deals with a recent review of the ways that insects have been used in warfare throughout history.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood (2013).  Insects as weapons of war, terror, and torture.  Annual Review of Entomology.  57: 205-227.

Jeffrey Lockwood, a biologist and philosopher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wyoming has published a review of the many ways that insects have been used in warfare and as instruments of torture throughout history.  The material covered in the review paper is expanded upon in his book Six-Legged Soliders:  Using Insects as Weapons of War.  I have not read the book, but I am planning to read it now.   The paper was really interesting, if at times quite disturbing.

Lockwood gives a chronological overview of the ways that insects were used in warfare from prehistoric to modern times.  The Mayans, ancient Greeks, and Middle Eastern cultures would fling hives at enemies.  The Mayans would even make pottery hives for bees to colonize.  The hives would then be plugged with grass and flung at enemies as “bee grenades”.  Over time, use of insects in warfare has become more technical, with the use of insects in biological warfare.

Use of insects in warfare seems to fall into three categories.  (1) The use of stinging and biting insects to repel attackers.  This usually involved releasing insects into tunnels or flinging hives or clay pots filled with bees at enemies.  In Great Britain, for example, many castles had recesses in the walls to hold bee hives, which were dropped onto attackers.  (2) The passive use of insects, especially disease vectors.  This mainly involved forcing enemies into areas with insects that transmit diseases.  For example, during the U.S. Civil War, Confederate General Johnson managed to trap Union troops along the Chickahominy River outside of Richmond Virginia, an area known for malaria.  Within a few months, more than half of the union forces were too sick to fight or hospitalized.  (3)  Development of insects for biological warfare.  This involves more technical advancement than simply hurling hives at enemies.  During World War II, governments began seriously funding research into the use of insects for biological warfare.  This included using insects to transmit human diseases to opposing troops and the use of insects to compromise enemy food supplies.  Insects could be used to compromise food supplies by developing insects as crop pests and by using insects to transmit livestock diseases.  Use of insects in biological warfare has continued to modern times.

This paper was an interesting read.  I had no idea that insects had been used so extensively in warfare throughout history, but it makes sense.  Lockwood concludes with a warning that modern bioterrorists can cause outbreaks with the use of insect disease vectors or do significant damage to food supplies by reintroducing eradicated insect pests.  Insects have been used in warfare throughout history and this will likely continue.

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