Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Bugs of War


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Egyptian sculpture of General Horemheb: Photo by Captmondo

Throughout history, insects have frequently played a direct role in human events, especially during times of war.  The Egyptian general Horembeb of the XII Egyptian Dynasty was almost bested in his battles with the Hittites because of a plague that was so severe that the battle ceased and his troops fled into the mountains and desert where the plague did not follow.  It was not until the physician to the Pharaoh noted the degree of pestilence and filth in the camps and sleeping quarters of the troops that it was realized that conditions surrounding battle are conducive to epidemic outbreaks.

Vector-Based Illness Caused by Parasites

The Carthaginian general Hannibal, who crossed the Alps with elephants and routed the Romans during the 2nd Punic War, was halted in Syracuse in 212 B.C. by bubonic plague and malaria among his troops (both diseases vectored by insects).  Of course, 184 years earlier, before the First Punic War, the Carthaginian army had also been stricken by pestilence in its first attempt to take Syracuse.  Throughout the Wars of Rome, the subsequent Barbarian Wars, and even up through the Crusades, advancing armies often suffered devastating casualties due to insect-transmitted diseases.  Although it was claimed to be an act of God during the Spanish Inquisition, bubonic plague (a bacterial disease transmitted to humans by a flea) had ravaged China and India for thousands of years before killing as much as half of the population of Western Europe during the Middle Ages.  Bubonic plague is now believed to be responsible for completely wiping out the first colony on Greenland a hundred and fifty years before Columbus discovered America.

Napoleon Bonaparte – Portrait by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon was prevented from conquering Russia, not because of the harsh Russian winter, but because of louse-born typhus that swept through the ranks of his soldiers just as winter set in.  Napoleon was, of course, not naïve to the impact insects could have on field infantry, having lost 22,000 troops to yellow fever in Haiti.  It has long been suggested that it was his losses in manpower in the New World to yellow fever that led Napoleon to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for only $15 million, just slightly more than the United States was willing to pay for the city of New Orleans alone, effectively doubling the area of the United States.

During the Mexican-American war, Major General Winfield Scott laid siege to the Mexican city of Veracruz, at the time considered the most heavily fortified city in the Western Hemisphere.  Scott defeated Santa Ana’s forces twice before storming the “Halls of Montezuma”, ending the Mexican-American war.  Unfortunately, insect-vectored disease claimed a toll seven times greater than that of Mexican weapons (11,155 in total dead due to disease).  Body lice, known colloquially as “seam squirrels” were common pests for troops during the American Civil War and again during World War I, where they vectored trench fever, a bacterial disease transmitted by scratching the feces of the louse into an open wound.

Scorpions have been used as weapons of war – photo by Pedro Sánchez

Arthropods as Weapons

In addition to their role as vectors, arthropods have also been used directly as the weapons during battle.  Soldiers of Hatra in Mesopotamia regularly catapulted vessels of live scorpions at invading Roman legions during the Second Parthian War.  From Neolithic times through the Middle Ages, wasp/hornet nests and beehives were often hurled at advancing armies or dropped onto the heads of enemies from castle walls.  It was also common to catapult dead plague victims at advancing armies, which sounds a little too much like a Monty Python skit but during that period human-to-human contact was believed to be the sole method of transmission.  Bloodsucking cone-nosed bugs, also known as “kissing” bugs, were still a favored method of punishment and torture in some parts of eastern Europe and central Asia as late as the early 19th century.

Assassin Bug – Image by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

However, the use of arthropods during battle is not limited to antiquity.  As recently as the late 20th century, the U.S. Department of Defense and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) were still funding and overseeing experiments in “Controlled Biological Systems” to exploit insects’ natural instincts for offensive and defensive applications, e.g., bees released to target enemies, grasshoppers released to consume an enemy’s food supply, wasps trained to detect explosives, assassin bug-based tracking systems, etc.  Not surprisingly, when it came time to develop new micro surveillance vehicles, the military again looked to insects for new ideas in wing design and optics and even enlisting them directly in combination with cybernetic implants.  With new innovations in nanotechnology and robotics, there are no limits to the potential applications that may be possible in the very near future.  After all, it is already the age of the “cyborg” beetle!!!


Bray, R.S.  1996.  Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History.  Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York. 258 p.

Cartwright, F.F.  1972.  Disease and history.  Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.  248 p.

Dobson, M.  2007.  Disease. The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers.  Quercus, London.  255 p.

Mayor, A.  2003.  Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs.  Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.  Overlook Press, New York. 319 p.

Stewart, A.  2011.  Wicked Bugs. The Louse that Conquered Napolean’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects.  Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC.  272 p.

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