Incredible Creatures: The dark side of man’s relationship with insects

The Colorado potato beetle. (Supplied photo)

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For Remembrance Day last year, we discussed how insects such as ants and bees can perform amazing acts of self-sacrifice for the sake of their colony. But insects have been enlisted in past wars, not voluntarily to help their colonies, but to be used by human militaries to try to harm their enemies. It’s not a nice way for humans to interact with wildlife, but war is not nice. In this month’s Incredible Creatures we will explore how insects have been used as weapons of war.

Bees and Fleas as Weapons of War

The earliest incident of entomological warfare was probably the use of bees by early humans, according to Jeffrey Lockwood, author of Six-Legged Soldiers (a book about entomological warfare). The bees or their nests were thrown into caves to force the enemy out and into the open. And yes, unfortunately, there is enough material on entomological warfare to write a book, so I will just be presenting some selected events.

Honey has also been used as a tool of war. Some species of rhododendron plants produce a group of neurotoxins (called grayanotoxins). Honey made from the pollen and nectar of these plants also contains the grayanotoxins and is commonly referred to as mad honey. When this honey is consumed it can cause light-headedness, feelings of euphoria and hallucinations. Consuming too much mad honey can cause severe sickness, including vomiting, diarrhea, loss of consciousness, seizures and although rare, can be fatal. During the Third Mithridatic War (73 to 63 BC), Pompey the Great and his Roman army were chasing King Mithridates of Pontus and his Persian army along the Black Sea. Mithridates ordered rhododendron honey to be left along roads for pursuing Roman invaders. Warriors eating this honey as part of their pillaged loot experienced intense sickness and hallucinations. The incapacitated Romans were then easy targets for Mithridates’ army. The Persian army returned and killed over 1,000 Roman troops with few losses of their own.

In the 14th century, 75 million people succumbed to a flea-borne pandemic known as bubonic plague. It is believed that the Black Death, as it was called, may have arrived in Europe in 1347 after Genghis Khan and the Mongols catapulted flea-ridden corpses into the Crimean port city of Kaffa. The Mongol army was withering from the disease, and catapulted the infected corpses over the city walls, infecting the inhabitants. Fleeing inhabitants may have carried the disease back to Italy, causing its spread across Europe. There were also a number of Crimean ports under Mongol control, so Kaffa may not have been the only source of plague-infested ships heading to Europe. Additionally, there were overland caravan routes from the East that would have been carrying the disease into Europe as well. In 1710, Russia attacked Sweden by catapulting plague-infected corpses over the city walls of Reval.

World War II – Potato Beetles, Flea and Flies as Weapons

In World War II, several countries, including France, Britain and Germany pursued the mass production and dispersion of Colorado potato beetles to destroy enemy food supplies. As early as 1939 biological warfare experts in France suggested that the beetle be used against German crops. A British scientist, J.B.S. Haldane, suggested that Britain and Germany were both vulnerable to entomological attack via the Colorado potato beetle. In 1942 the United States shipped 15,000 Colorado potato beetles to Britain for study as a weapon.

There are no records that indicate Colorado potato beetles were ever employed as a weapon by Germany, or any other nation during the war. But the Germans had developed plans to drop the beetles on English crops. Germany carried out testing of its Colorado potato beetle weaponization program south of Frankfurt, where they released 54,000 of the beetles.

In 1944, an infestation of Colorado potato beetles was reported in Germany. The source of the infestation is unknown. Speculation has offered three alternative theories as to the origin of the infestation. One option is Allied action, an entomological attack. Another is that it was the result of the German testing. And still, another more likely explanation is that it was merely a natural occurrence.

Japan used entomological warfare on a large scale during World War II in China. Unit 731, Japan’s infamous biological warfare unit used plague-infected fleas and flies covered with cholera to infect the population in China. The Japanese military dispersed the insects by spraying them from low-flying airplanes and dropping bombs filled with a mixture of insects and disease. Localized and deadly epidemics resulted and nearly 500,000 Chinese died of disease.

In July 1944 during the Battle of Saipan, Japan intended on releasing plague-infested fleas onto U.S. combatants. The Japanese submarine carrying the fleas was intercepted and sunk, however, by the U.S. Submarine “Swordfish”. Japan had finalized plans to spread plague fleas over Southern California, scheduled for September 22, 1945. The plan was halted with the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945.

The Cold War – Mosquito Military Might

During the Cold War, the US military planned a facility to produce 100 million yellow-fever-infected mosquitoes a month. They also produced an “Entomological Warfare Target Analysis” of vulnerable sites in the Soviet Union and among its allies. They additionally tested the dispersal and biting capacity of uninfected mosquitoes by secretly dropping the insects over American cities.

In May 1955 around 330,000 uninfected mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) were dropped in bombs from aircraft over parts of the state of Georgia to determine if the air-dropped mosquitoes could survive to take meals from humans. The mosquito tests were known as Operation Big Buzz. Mosquitoes were collected as far away as 2,000 feet (610 m) from the release site. They were also active in seeking blood meals from humans and guinea pigs.

This month’s Incredible Creatures may sound like fiction, but unfortunately, it is not. One of the scary things about biological warfare, or any introduced species (purposely or not), is that if they establish in the area of introduction it is usually impossible to turn back the clock and rid them from the area. The damage is more permanent. Hopefully, we can learn from history and not repeat the mistakes of the past. The Biological Weapons Convention of 1975 “prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological agents as well as related equipment and delivery systems that are intended for hostile use.” One hundred and eighty-two countries have ratified this treaty as of this year. So maybe we are making progress. On this Remembrance Day, make sure to take the time to remember our soldiers who have made sacrifices so we can thrive.

Incredible Creatures is a monthly contribution to provide information on some of the common yet often not well-known creatures that we share space within Manitoba and abroad.