Books: insects in war and peace

Wasps and hornets, ants and termites, aren’t just irritants. Two new studies, Six-Legged Soldiers and The Superorganism, provide fascinating insight into the influence of these tiny organisms, writes Robin McKie.

Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War
Jeffrey A Lockwood
Oxford University Press, 2008

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies
Bert Hölldobler and EO Wilson
WW Norton & Company, 2009

“If thou wilt not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies upon thee, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thy houses. And the houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground whereon they are.”

Thus, in the biblical tale, God made it clear to the Egyptians what they could expect if they didn’t carry out his orders: infestation with extreme prejudice. This is not just a vengeful God, in other words, but an expert in entomology and the deadly use of ants, fleas, flies, wasps and bees — a point easily appreciated with a flick through the Old Testament. “The Lord thy God will send the hornet among them until they be destroyed,” for example.

Such tales are important, states Jeffrey Lockwood in Six-Legged Soldiers, for they indicate that using insects in battle is an ancient business. Indeed, he argues, it may have been with us since our ancestors first learnt how to throw sticks and stones, an ability we rapidly expanded to the hurling of wasp and hornet nests. These would have been particularly useful when dealing with foes who were “holed up”. Thus, insect nests or infested bodies were flung over ramparts of besieged castles or into caves of cowering enemies.

Consider the Mongol khan Janibeg. This ruler had insect-riddled corpses propelled into the Genoese city of Kaffa to hasten its capture in 1343, one of many grim stories gathered here to show how man has wreaked entomological horror on his fellow man throughout history.

Nazi Germany came close to dropping millions of Colorado potato beetles on British fields. Later the United States army considered attacking Soviet cities with mosquitoes infected with yellow fever, while entomologists recently warned there is now a serious risk of terrorists trying to smuggle mosquitoes — infected with diseases such as Rift Valley fever — out of Africa in order to wreak havoc in western cities.

It is a convincing thesis, spoilt occasionally by Lockwood’s exaggeration of his case. For example, the French army that invaded Russia in 1812 was indeed ravaged by lice-borne typhus, but that was a problem that affected both sides and was not unleashed deliberately. It was an accident — not an act — of war. This is a minor flaw, however, for Lockwood has produced an engaging work that vividly demonstrates how the earth’s tiniest inhabitants have affected the way we have waged war through the centuries.

The fact we have chosen to exploit insects in this way says more about Homo sapiens that it does about species of Vespa (true hornets) or Vespidae (wasps) — and that, in a way, is unfortunate, for such creatures are fascinating in their own right. As Bert Hölldobler and EO Wilson tell us in The Superorganism: “Ants, bees and termites are the most socially advanced non-human organisms of which we have knowledge.”

And the authors should know. Edward O Wilson is one of the world’s most distinguished biologists and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, the first in 1979 for his book On Human Nature, and the second in 1991, for The Ants, which he co-wrote with Hölldobler. The Superorganism comes with strong credentials, in short.

For Hölldobler and Wilson, ants and termites have particular interest because they tell us so much about the evolution of complex societies. These began 150 million years ago with the appearance of solitary insects that developed increasingly sophisticated, interacting populations until they reached their modern status. Thus leafcutter ants can be considered Earth’s “ultimate superorganism” with complex communications, an elaborate caste system and air-conditioned nest architecture for good measure.

Similarly, African driver ants can spread as a single, deadly entity made up of millions of creatures – “a river of aggressive huntresses, capturing and killing most of the insects in its path”. It is powerful stuff, and although the authors’ approach remains resolutely academic, they have still managed to produce a book that is gripping and informative. One thing is certain: nests of wasps will never seem the same again.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009