Every day we wage a battle against the pests which invade our human places but throughout history man has used the disease and chaos spread by biting insects such as fleas, flies and yellow jackets to his advantage. Across the globe and back as far as the mind can stretch, insects have been used as instruments of war.
In mediaeval times enemies would catapult wasps nests and scorpions at their enemies, and the Viet Cong who fought the United States and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam War (1959–1975) created booby-traps from nests of wild bees.
Weekly I read articles like the next insect invasion: Stink bugs?! and mice invading homes, but this is nothing compared to the horrors in which man has engaged insects to do his dirty work. Microbes often can’t survive long periods outside of their hosts, but insects can act as vectors delivering a lethal disease.
During the second world war much research was done by scientists on both sides, experimenting on how insects could be used as weapons. Japanese bombers dropped ceramic containers filled with cholera-infested flies on Southern China, killing over 400,000 people. The Japanese scientist Ishii held that the plague could help win the war against the allies. He set his sights on creating mayhem in America. By 1945 a plague factory called unit 731 was constructed which housed three million rats and 4,500 flea breeding machines producing over 200 million fleas a week.
A plan was hatched, but luckily never spawned. A balloon was to carry the rats infested with plague-ridden fleas across the Pacific. The rats would descent upon America and distribute the pathogens across the states.
Several flea-bomb attacks were successfully launched against China from 1939-45. In 1944, an assault was planned to sprinkle plague-infested fleas around the Saipan airfield, which the Americans held. The ship carrying the assault team was sunk by an American submarine and the mission never completed.
The Nazi’s tried to hit the Brit’s where it hurt most – by attacking their precious potato crops. They reared millions of Colorado potato beetles and planned to air-drop them onto fields but there is no evidence to suggest the beetle invasion ever took place.
During the Cold War, the US military planned a facility which would produce 100 million yellow-fever-infected mosquitoes a month. An “Entomological Warfare Target Analysis” of vulnerable sites in the Soviet Union was drawn up. To test the dispersal technique uninfected mosquitoes were secretly dropped over American cities in Georgia.
Today globalization has brought insect invaders to our shores. Bed bugs, Stink bugs, Fire ants and the Asian longhorned beetle are creeping across the states but thankfully they don’t spread disease. However they are eating our finances. According to the US Department of Agriculture the Asian longhorned beetle has the potential to destroy more than $700 billion worth of forests. In 1989 the Mediterranean fruit fly almost devastated crops in California with a sinister undertone.
In a superb article published in The Boston Globe entomologist Jeffrey A. Lockwood commented on how exposed the US is to insect warfare. In 1989 a group naming themselves The Breeders claimed to have secretly released the Mediterranean fruit fly in Los Angeles and Orange counties, threatening to expand the attack into the San Joaquin Valley, a major center of California agriculture. The Mediterranean fruit fly is a major-agricultural pest, attacking a wide-variety of fruit and vegetables reducing them to mush. An infestation of the fly had been detected a few months before and infected crops were successfully treated by spraying pesticides. It was inconclusive whether The Breeders were responsible for the outbreak but a sizeable economical disaster had been averted.
Although insects have the potential to create chaos and spread disease, we have the tools to combat them. Biting insect infestations can be treated with pesticides.
If you want to read more about entomological warfare, Six-Legged Soldiers by Lockwood is a fascinating account of the creative ways that scientists and military strategists have used insects as warfare tools. There are some excellent references on the role of insects as biological weapons by R.K.D. Peterson presented in 1990 at the University of Nebraska. The Monterey Institute of International Studies offers a detailed timeline of biological incidences targeting agriculture.