Bee Bombs And Wasp Warheads

The first era of entomological warfare saw insects drafted into battle to directly afflict the enemy. More sophisticated tactics of transmitting diseases and destroying crops would have to wait for breakthroughs in human knowledge. However, we shouldn't disparage the cleverness of ancient peoples. After all, they laid the foundations for modern weaponry—and insects were the first organisms used to wage biological warfare.

The military historian John T. Ambrose contends that insects have long "served as models for man to emulate in . . . the art of warfare."1 The social insects (those living in complex groups: ants, bees, wasps, and termites) were praised by early military strategists, as these creatures were thought to be unwaveringly loyal to their kin, extremely courageous, and exquisitely lethal. Early evidence of insects being held in military esteem is seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics dating to the first dynasty, more than 5,000 years ago. Some scholars contend that King Menes—the "Scorpion King" (so named for his family totem)—chose a hornet (subfamily Vespinae) as a symbol of his rule, reminding both countrymen and enemies of the pain that he could inflict. Others suggest that the ruler-insect connection was hardly an alliance, as the death of this Egyptian ruler is reportedly the first written record of human mortality caused by a wasp or hornet sting. To the military strategist of old, a swarm of bees (family Apidae, most likely the honey bee, Apis mellifera) driving away a pilfering bear evoked the image of a disciplined and ferocious phalanx of soldiers forcing a larger army into retreat. As anyone who has experienced the wrath of bees, wasps, or ants well knows, these creatures induce pain and fear disproportionate to their size. But the Hymenoptera (named for their tissue-like wings: hymen = thin membrane and ptera = wing) were not merely models of ideal armies.2 More to the point, these insects became the earliest zoological conscripts of warring peoples. The challenge, of course, was how to compel these battle-crazed warriors—insects being unable to discern one side from the other in human warfare—to take out their aggression on the other side.

Brett Favre, Roger Clemens, and Michael Jordan made millions of dollars by virtue of their skill at one of the most primitive acts—heaving stuff. We've been variously called the thinking ape, the tool-using ape, and the naked ape, but we might best be named Homo ejectus—the throwing ape. A key to our success was the capacity to kill at a distance by flinging variously modified rocks and sticks. While the vestiges of our past are most evident in today's shot put and javelin throw, the real money is in propelling balls with speed and accuracy. To a primitive warrior with a "good arm," a nest of stinging insects (about the size and heft of a basketball) might have seemed the ideal natural bomb—easy to find, simple to store, convenient to transport, and full of fury.

The earliest hypothesized use of insects as weapons of war was around 100,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic period. By this time, humans were well practiced in making and throwing objects at one another and animals. And so the extrapolation from inanimate to animate projectiles was inevitable. According to Edward Neufeld, a scholar of Mesopotamian history, "It may be assumed with reasonable confidence that man has perceived the value of certain insects as an instrument of warfare long before recorded history. . . . It is almost a logical certainty that insect weaponry belonged to early man's 'natural' objects like those made from wood, bone or stone."3 Humans would not domesticate animals for another 90,000 years, which rapidly led us to discover that dogs, horses, camels, elephants, and dolphins (a recent military conscript) could be used in warfare. But these creatures are prone to desertion in the midst of combat, given that they have an acute sense of self-preservation. Social insects, on the other hand, have evolved a remarkable tendency for aggressive self-destruction in the face of an enemy assault.

The worker bees in a hive are sterile sisters. The workers' only hope of passing on their genes, albeit indirectly, is through their common mother. This unusual biological situation predisposes a bee to attack an intruder that threatens her only source of genetic survival—the fertile queen. A bee's assault amounts to suicidal evisceration as her sting, modified from a defunct egg-laying structure, is torn from her body along with its poison sac. Humans, who are fertile and share less genetic similarity with one another,4 usually avoid self-sacrificial aggression. Instead, we developed an impressive array of weapons that put some distance between ourselves and our enemies.

During the Paleolithic period, humans lived in caves and rock shelters— prime targets for a hurled nest of bees or hornets and related wasps (family Vespidae). With a concentrated enemy further defended by barriers of thorny shrubs or logs, a frontal assault was not a wise move. Although an inanimate object thrown over the stockade was unlikely to find its mark, a hive of bees was another matter altogether. The problem with heaving a bee hive in the midst of hand-to-hand combat was that the insects would fail to comprehend their military mission, stinging friend and foe alike. But when the enemy was holed up, they would bear the brunt of the attack. An angry swarm might even break the siege and drive a frantic enemy into the open. But there remained a serious problem: collecting a nest of stinging insects to heave at an entrenched opponent was fraught with risks.

To avoid becoming a victim of one's own weapon, early humans presumably gathered the insects at night when they are slowed by cooler temperatures and unable to see their abductor's approach. By the early Neolithic some 10,000 years ago, humans probably had discovered that smoke could be used to pacify bees. Transporting a nest of upset hymenopterans would have been a dicey proposition, so the people surely plugged the nest openings with mud or grass. Even more sensibly, the nests may have been carried within sacks or baskets, which also would have made the projectile easier to heave into a cave or over a windrow of brambles.5 While all of this anthropological speculation seems entirely reasonable in light of what we know about the technology of ancient humans, the physical evidence is limited. Once writing was invented about 5,000 years ago, people began to leave records indicating that entomological warfare was part of military strategy. And the Bible is a treasure trove of data.

The god of Exodus in the Old Testament was a vengeful deity who would sooner smite his enemies than negotiate a settlement, an approach that works fine if you're omnipotent. But Yahweh was also a just god, and he gave his opponents fair warning of their imminent demise and a chance to surrender. Furthermore, and central to the history of entomological warfare, this god was a savvy strategist. Presumably an all-powerful deity could make the enemy disappear, but this would not evoke the darkest memories of human history. What God needed was nature's arsenal—blights that aroused a deep sense of mystery and fear. Winning a war by "shock and awe" would render a conquered foe psychologically beaten and culturally disheartened. If the natural world was loosed on the enemy, they would not soon forget.

Although secular and religious scholars differ on the ultimate causative agent—natural versus supernatural—for the plagues that struck Egypt,6 the sequence of disasters was so compelling from the perspective of the Israelites that it became embedded in western culture's most abiding historical text: the Book of Exodus. Some scholarly suppositions and reasoned speculations are needed to make sense of the experiences of ancient people based on their stories, but those who recounted the plagues were certainly speaking of events within their scope of experience. Whether the scale and timing of the plagues are historically accurate is arguable, but ancient people were familiar with these kinds of disasters and could at least imagine what would happen if they were to unfold across the land. So if we take the Old Testament to be an account of human experience interpreted through a particular theological lens (a common approach among biblical scholars), Yahweh was perceived as an entomo-logically astute deity. The Creator's tenacious Egyptian opponent might have guessed that the god of Moses would call upon the forces of nature, but could the Pharaoh have imagined that six of the ten battles would be waged with insects as the warriors?

"Thus saith the Lord, in this thou shalt know that I am the Lord: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink of the water of the river" (Exodus 7:17). And so it was that God kicked off the plagues of Egypt with what some scientists surmise to have been a microbial bloom. The water of the Nile turned blood-red with dinoflagellates, snuffing out nearly all other aquatic life.7

The plague of frogs that followed might have been the result of these amphibians beating a hasty exit from their toxic habitat. Having Yahweh threaten that "if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs" (Exodus 8:2) might seem a bit comical. After all, being smitten with frogs doesn't stack up with being struck by thunderbolts. But an onslaught of living creatures—even something as generally innocuous as frogs (or, as Hitchcock understood, birds)—can be horrifying.

Without fish and frogs to consume insects, the ecosystem began to unravel. The third plague was probably an irruption of biting midges (family Ceratopogonidae) from the rich, moist soil along the riverbanks: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, say to Aaron, stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the land that it may become gnat-swarms throughout all the land of Egypt"

(Exodus 8:i6).8 Apparently pleased with capacity of the gnats to mercilessly harass the Egyptians and their animals, God sent a second wave of six-legged mercenaries.

In the fourth plague, Yahweh warned, "Else, 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" (Exodus 8:21). The best hypothesis offered by entomologists is that these flies (order Diptera, meaning "two-winged") arose from the rotting vegetation laced with decomposing fish that had accumulated along the riverbanks. There are various swarming flies, but the most likely candidate is the stable fly (Stomoxys calcitrant), with horse and deer flies (family Tabanidae) being plausible contenders. Stable flies deliver wickedly painful bites, and their populations increase rapidly when the larvae have an abundance of filth to eat.

God targeted the Egyptian's livestock with the fifth plague, warning, "For if thou refuse to let them go, and wilt hold them still, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain. And the Lord shall sever between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt: and there shall nothing die of all that is the children's of Israel" (Exodus 9:2-3). Roger Breeze of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has formulated a viable hypothesis for this godly assault: The cattle, sheep, and camels could have been suffering from bluetongue, while the mules, horses, and asses suffered from African horse sickness.9 Both viral diseases occur in northern Africa. And, most critically, both are transmitted during the blood feeding by insects—such as gnats. These biting flies are well-known vectors of livestock diseases.10 Moreover, gnats are not particularly adept fliers, traveling only a few miles from their larval habitat, and this limited dispersal might explain why the Israelites' livestock were spared. Egyptian agriculture bordered the Nile, where rich soils were worked with draft animals and cattle and sheep fed on lush pastures. At the time of the plague, the Israelites were building a storage city in the desert east of the delta in Pithom. Hence, their animals would have been considerably farther from the marshy lands where the gnats abounded.

The sixth plague is a bit of a puzzle: "And the Lord said unto Moses and unto Aaron, take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt" (Exodus 9:8—9). Repeated biting by midges can cause large, itchy spots, but these are not typically "blains" or open sores. There are, however, two diseases that cause open sores in both humans and livestock: glanders and anthrax. Symptoms of the former disease depend on the route of infection, but when a wound—such as that caused by a biting fly—is the point of origin, a pus-filled, oozing ulceration forms. When anthrax enters a wound, it causes localized lumps, which fill with bloody fluid until they rupture and become necrotic ulcers. For these diseases to irrupt over a large area would presumably require that the microbes were spread efficiently, not merely by accidental, physical contact among livestock and humans. Remember the stable flies? These bloodthirsty insects are capable of spreading the bacteria responsible for glanders and anthrax, although this is not the most common means of transmission.

The seventh plague of Egypt was a horrendous hailstorm, which foreshadowed a change in the weather that would bring the most infamous pestilence. And so it was that "Moses and Aaron came in unto Pharaoh, and said unto him, thus saith the Lord God of the Hebrews, how long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me. Else, if thou refuse to let my people go, behold, tomorrow will I bring the locusts into thy coast. And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field" (Exodus 10:3—5). According to the account, an east wind carried what we now know to be the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) from its breeding grounds along the Red Sea coast and the Arabian Peninsula. When the Pharaoh capitulated, the wind shifted to the west, sweeping the eighth plague into the Red Sea. But alas, the Egyptian ruler's heart hardened again and God sent the ninth plague—darkness—which fell over the land. With enormous areas of cropland stripped bare by the locusts, howling winds carried the loose soil into the air, and the skies were blackened for days on end.

The tenth and final plague was the most terrible: the death of the first born in all of the Egyptian families. There are two competing explanations relying on the interaction of sociology and biology, with insects playing a supporting role.11 Some scholars contend that the killer was a flea-borne disease, bubonic plague. Rats are the disease reservoir, but fleas (order Siphonaptera, meaning "wingless siphons," which is terribly apropos) transmit the pathogen. Every spring, the Jewish people fastidiously removed all grain from their homes, cognizant of the relationships among grain, rats, and disease. The Egyptians had no such tradition, so an outbreak of plague would have afflicted them far more severely. Those who advance this hypothesis take the selective death of the first born as a metaphor to express the depth of suffering. But other scholars believe that this demographic clue is vital to explaining the event.

Rather than a bacterium, the lethal agent could have been a relative of the black mold that grows following water damage in modern homes. Fungal toxins cause burning sensations, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and even acute hemorrhaging of the lungs, particularly in infants. The Egyptians stored their grain, a wonderful substrate for mold, in pits that previous plagues had presumably moistened (thanks to hail), fertilized (courtesy of locust droppings), and covered with sand (via dust storms), creating a perfect environment for the fungus to flourish. But why would the toxic grain kill only the first born? The mold would have been abundant at the top of the grain stores, and the most important person in an Egyptian family—the first born—was served first. Moreover, in times of famine (the locusts had devastated the crops) these valued children were given a double serving. In a wicked irony, the Egyptians' efforts to honor and save their prized offspring may have ensured that these children received the most lethal meals. The Israelites used different methods of food storage, preparation, and allocation, which may have prevented the toxins from being concentrated into deadly doses.

Exodus provides the best-known account of entomological warfare with Yahweh using these weapons to defeat the Pharaoh—at least insects were central to the plagues that beset ancient Egypt, whatever their cause. But this is not the only book of the Bible that scholars have scrutinized for evidence of insects having been weaponized in the ancient world.

Biblical accounts of entomological warfare reveal tempting tidbits from which history can be tentatively reconstructed. Various books in the Old Testament allude to the use of insects in battle. Edward Neufeld contends that stinging insects were used for ambushes and guerrilla raids: "it may be confidently assumed that these texts give a strong impression of illustrating an authentic tradition of the use of insects as warfare agents."12 And the most common tactic was probably dislodging an entrenched opponent. Joshua 24:12 recounts that "I sent the hornet before you, which dr[o]ve them out from before you, even the two kings of the Amorites; but not with thy sword, nor with thy bow." From this passage, historians surmise that insects were used like modern-day shock troops as a means of routing an enemy from a stronghold. The use of hornets in this manner is consistent with the passage in Exodus 23:28: "And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee." Presumably, the enemies of the Israelites were driven out of caves or other fortifications and forced into open combat. The use of hornets to flush an adversary from hiding seemed to be a sufficiently common practice that this tactic was attributed to the Almighty, as well: "Moreover the Lord thy God will send the hornet among them, until they that are left, and hide themselves from thee, be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 7:20). Making sense of such accounts means stepping into the murky realm of interpreting ancient scripture, and there are linguistic reasons for exercising caution in scriptural interpretations.

Scholars are divided as to the meaning of the Hebrew word Some translators take this to literally mean "hornet," thereby supporting the case for entomological warfare. Other linguists interpret it as "panic," suspecting that the original word might have been a metaphor referring to any calamity. A tenth-century Arabic translator apparently took a middle position, using the term "plague" or "pest" to suggest an unspecified biological disaster. However, the interpretation becomes problematical because Arabic uses the same word to refer to a hornet and to a mass of people in panicked flight.

While one might question the extent to which humans or deities made effective use of insects as weapons, the analysis of biblical passages leaves little doubt as to the importance of entomological warfare in the military culture of ancient times. In particular, as the people thought of insects in terms of their potential as weapons, they appreciated that insects could inflict considerable damage to an enemy. They understood that these organisms were not only able to cause physical suffering but also had the capacity to instill fear and panic. Then, as now, winning a conflict is about defeating both the bodies and the minds of one's opponent.

Although ancient textual evidence is limited, we might reasonably surmise that for a long period of history entomological warfare primarily was a means of assaulting a concentrated, stationary foe. Gaining the upper hand during a siege by raining insects on your enemy was a rather simple tactic. Real human ingenuity would be needed to take these surly creatures onto the battlefield and make an opponent suffer their wrath in open combat.

A nest of stinging insects is much like a grenade inside a hatbox: you can't throw it very far, and once it explodes, projectiles whiz in every direction. What you need is a means of directing the six-legged shrapnel toward your target. To address this challenge, various cultures have developed stunningly astute methods.

The Tiv people of Nigeria developed the "bee cannon," an elegant battlefield weapon designed to ensure that the projectiles—angry bees—were directed at one's opponent.13 The bees were loaded into large, specially crafted horns. In the heat of combat, the Tiv would aim the mouth of the horn toward the opposing tribe, the shape and length of the cannon effectively directing the bees toward the enemy. The accounts of this remarkable contrivance are recent, but the bee cannon is likely a very old device, perhaps even as venerable as the entomological weaponry of Mesoamerica.14

By 2600 bce, the Mayans had weaponized bees or wasps.15 The Mayan language does not distinguish these insects, although we might presume that wild bees were used, given that the Mayans had domesticated a stingless species that would not have been of much use in battle. The sacred text, Popul Vuh, tells of the people building dummy warriors topped with headdresses to conceal both the inanimate condition and the real purpose of the manikins. The heads were hollow gourds filled with stinging insects. When attackers smashed the gourds, the insects retaliated, precipitating a chaotic retreat that allowed the Mayans to annihilate the would-be invaders.

In addition to bee-based booby traps, ancient texts suggest that the Mayans used bees in open battle. The details of this armament are not clear, but given their pottery skills and what we know of other cultures, we can infer that they devised the "bee grenade." At about this time, some people in the Middle East were molding special containers from clay that were heavy enough to throw and fragile enough to burst upon landing. The shell casings were set outside to be colonized by bees or hornets. When a fight was in the offing, warriors plugged the openings with wads of grass to contain the insects while allowing air into the colony.16 Such "pots of pain" could be readily carried into combat and conceivably thrown quite effectively at an enemy cornered in a draw or otherwise conveniently grouped on the battlefield.

With the integration of pottery into entomological warfare, the assailants were not limited to using bees or wasps. A nest of ants (family Formicidae; some species deliver a double-whammy of a burning bite and a searing sting) would make a fine weapon when encased in a clay pot. More than one ten-year-old kid has contemplated the possibility of using an ant farm to create mayhem— multiply this fantasy by a few orders of magnitude. Thousands of frenzied ants with a score to settle would have been just the ticket for flushing an enemy from battlefield cover or a fortified stronghold. But just as the integration of pottery and entomology was heading toward a technological apogee, the balance of power in the art of siegecraft was undergoing a reversal of fortunes.

The military advantage of allying with the Hymenoptera shifted from those who could mercilessly harass an entrenched force to those who could construct fortifications from which devastating counterattacks could be launched. Architectural engineering provided building methods that allowed the construction of formidable walls around cities and military installations. Try tossing a clay pot over a 30-foot wall while a bunch of guys on top of the rampart are shooting arrows and dropping beehives, and you get the picture.

In one of the earliest "how to" books, Aeneias the Tactician wrote How to Survive under Siege in the fourth century bce. The 200-page manual is chock-full of helpful hints, including the author's advice for "besieged people to release wasps and bees into the tunnels being dug under their walls, in order to plague the attackers."17 The tactic of burrowing was developed in response to assailants' being greeted with a hail of nasty items—stinging insects, along with boiling oil and molten tar—from the ramparts. And no conflict better exemplifies the capacity of insects and their kin to repulse a potentially overwhelming attack than does the battle for Hatra.18

At the end of the second century, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus set his sights on wresting control of Mesopotamia from the local monarchs. The Romans waged several ineffective campaigns, but Severus's Waterloo was the desert stronghold of Hatra—a city that wallowed in wealth by virtue of controlling the caravan routes connecting Mesopotamia with Syria and Asia Minor. Today, the remnants of Hatra lay 50 miles southwest of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. The crumbling ruins reveal a once-formidable fortress. Hatra boasted a defensive perimeter of nearly five miles, formed by a moat sandwiched between 40-foot-high walls. King Barsamia and his citizens holed up inside this redoubt as the Roman legions advanced. But a proud desert people don't simply cower behind the city walls.

Thanks to Herodian, a historian from Antioch (Syria), we know that the Hatrians prepared for the onslaught by crafting earthenware bombs loaded with "insects" to hurl onto their attackers. The mystery, however, is precisely what creatures seethed within the clay pots. As with other ancient writers, entomological nuances were not Herodian's concern, and modern historians are left trying to reconstruct what he meant by "insects." The most obvious interpretation is that the Hatrians used beehives made of clay. But the problem is that this desert region supported only solitary bees, which would have been far too difficult to collect in sufficient numbers for arming the residents.

The favored hypothesis is that the bombs were not loaded with insects at all, but that they were filled with scorpions.19 Scorpions were so prevalent and dangerous that Persian kings regularly ordered scorpion hunts and offered bounties to ensure safe passage for the caravans. According to the best-known scientist of Roman antiquity, Pliny the Elder, "[scorpions] are a horrible plague, poisonous like snakes, except that they inflict a worse torture by dispatching their victim with a lingering death lasting three days." Although he exaggerated a bit, the sting of a scorpion is intensely painful, and the venom can induce convulsions, slowed pulse, irregular breathing—and occasionally death (see Figure 1.1). Being lethal, dreaded, and plentiful are strong qualifications for an agent of war, but practical concerns had to be addressed to convert scorpions into weapons.

The people of Hatra would have had no difficulty finding plenty of scorpions in the surrounding desert, but avoiding being stung in the course of harvesting these creatures was surely a challenge. Fortunately, the Hatrians

Figure 1.1. Desert scorpions commonly found on the U.S. airbase in Tallil, southeast of Baghdad, including Scorpio maurus (left), Mesobuthus eupeus (top), and Odontobuthus doria (right). At least two species from Iraq can deliver deadly stings, but even nonlethal species, such as those pictured, could have inflicted more than enough pain to convince the Roman legionnaires to abandon their assault on Hatra in the second century bce. (Photo by Senior Airman Matthew Hulke, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Figure 1.1. Desert scorpions commonly found on the U.S. airbase in Tallil, southeast of Baghdad, including Scorpio maurus (left), Mesobuthus eupeus (top), and Odontobuthus doria (right). At least two species from Iraq can deliver deadly stings, but even nonlethal species, such as those pictured, could have inflicted more than enough pain to convince the Roman legionnaires to abandon their assault on Hatra in the second century bce. (Photo by Senior Airman Matthew Hulke, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

didn't depend on the advice of Roman experts. Pliny advised that the venom was most deadly in the morning, "before the insects [sic] have wasted any of their poison through accidental strikes"20—an odd claim given that scorpions are nocturnal hunters. Another Roman natural historian, Claudius Aelianus, who enjoyed the patronage of Severus, suggested that one carefully spit on the tip of the sting to temporarily block the tiny opening through which venom was injected. Crawling around the desert spitting on short-tempered scorpions seems wholly ill-advised.

Aelianus's alternative recommendation was to sprinkle the creatures with powdered monkshood, a poisonous plant that would temporarily stun the scorpions, allowing them to be safely captured. Given that monkshood was used to kill body lice in the Middle Ages, it seems plausible that a low dose might have sedated an irascible scorpion. Such a method would have had a further advantage given the propensity of scorpions for cannibalism. Without sedation, a jarful of these creatures gathered in the morning might have yielded only a few fat survivors by the end of the day.

The "scorpion theory" of the city's defense is a tidy reconstruction of the events preceding the arrival of Severus's legions. But there is one baffling detail provided in Herodian's account. The Syrian historian further specified that the creatures used in the defense of Hatra were "poisonous flying insects." And, alas, there is no such thing as a flying scorpion. The ancient naturalists, however, were of a different opinion.

Aelianus reported 11 types of scorpion: white, red, smoky, black, green, potbellied, crablike, fiery red-orange, seven-segmented, double-sting, and those with wings.21 We might dismiss the last two types as being fantastical, except that there are reliable, scientific reports of a rare developmental anomaly that results in two-tailed scorpions. And while no malformation produces winged scorpions, there are such things as scorpionflies (order Mecoptera). In these insects, the male's genitalia curl over his back to resemble a scorpion's tail. Although scorpionflies can fly, they are typically associated with damp habitats, rarely exceed an inch in length, and are quite harmless. Aelianus might have seen these insects at some time and mistaken them for scorpions, but they would not have been the allies of the Hatrians.

Another explanation of flying scorpions comes from Pliny, who maintained that these creatures became airborne in high winds and then extended their legs to function like wings. No modern text makes mention of such a phenomenon, and the winds necessary to lift a scorpion into the air would probably have blown Severus's army back to Rome. Other scholars speculate that the clay vessels were filled with assassin bugs (family Reduviidae). These insects don't particularly resemble scorpions, but they can fly and deliver an extremely painful bite. Perhaps the containers were loaded with a potpourri of biting and stinging creatures, which included some flying insects along with a liberal measure of scorpions.

We may never know what beasts rained down on Severus's men as they tried to scale the walls of Hatra, but the historical account makes clear the results. Herodian describes creatures of some sort inflicting severe punishment on the Romans wherever there was exposed skin—lower legs and arms, as well as their faces, and, worst of all, their eyes. Although the immediate effect of the arthropod arsenal was impressive, its ultimate role in the outcome of the siege remains a matter of dispute. Severus was held at bay for 20 days, but his troops were finally able to breach the walls. However, just as victory was at hand, the Roman emperor broke off the battle. Military historians can offer no convincing explanation for this turn of events. Some posit that a secret treaty was reached, or that the troops had become mutinous, or perhaps the brutality of the defenses had demoralized the legionnaires. In any case, the Romans slunk back home, and Hatra remained autonomous for another half century until the Sassanids arrived from Iran with armor-clad troops and reduced the city to ruins (see Figure 1.2). By that time, the use of insects to defend walled cities had become common throughout Europe.

For centuries, besieged Europeans conscripted bees in an effort to repulse invaders. In 908, the residents of Chester, England, were assailed by an army of Danes and Norwegians.22 Having found the city's fortifications impenetrable, the Scandinavians tried undermining the walls. Like a horde of obsessed gophers, the tunnelers could not be dissuaded from their subterranean escapades. Projectiles launched at the mouth of the tunnel outside the walls did not impress the burrowers. Finally, the English collected all of the city's beehives and hurled them into the tunnel, summarily ending the military mining operation.

More than 700 years later, the lesson was repeated with another Scandinavian army. During the Thirty Years War, a Swedish general led his troops in an assault on the walled city of Kissingen.23 One of the inhabitants, Peter Heil (for whom a street is now named), outmaneuvered General Reichwald. Following Heil's advice, the people threw their beehives at the invaders. Unlike the Danes and Norwegians centuries earlier, the Swedes were well protected by heavy clothing and armor. But their horses were not. The animals panicked as the

Figure 1.2. The ruins of Hatra, 50 miles southwest of Mosul, Iraq, still provide a sense of the defensive perimeter that the Romans faced during their siege of this formidable stronghold. From the top of the 40-foot walls (background), the citizens rained scorpions onto the invading soldiers until they broke off the attack. The city remained autonomous for another 500 years, although how often the Hatrians had to conscript the stinging denizens of the desert to defend the city is not known. (Photo courtesy of UNESCO)

Figure 1.2. The ruins of Hatra, 50 miles southwest of Mosul, Iraq, still provide a sense of the defensive perimeter that the Romans faced during their siege of this formidable stronghold. From the top of the 40-foot walls (background), the citizens rained scorpions onto the invading soldiers until they broke off the attack. The city remained autonomous for another 500 years, although how often the Hatrians had to conscript the stinging denizens of the desert to defend the city is not known. (Photo courtesy of UNESCO)

bees stung them mercilessly and the assault collapsed into a melee of frenzied cavalry mounts.

Between these Scandinavian defeats, bees saw action throughout Europe. In 1289, these insects were used along with hot water and fire by the inhabitants of Gussing, Hungary, to drive Albert, the Duke of Austria, and his army into retreat.24 Around the same time, the castle-dwellers on the Aegean island of Astypalaia fended off pirate attacks by dropping beehives from the parapets.25 And the Turks were on the cusp of certain victory, having broken through the walls of Stuhlweissenburg, when the Hungarians plugged the breach with beehives and repelled the invasion.26

These methods of defense required hauling hives from bee yards to the scene of battle, a difficult task if the insects were needed urgently, given that a typical hive weighs over 100 pounds. So, reasoned some savvy planner, why not put the hives where they could serve dual purposes? One might reasonably infer that this is why some noblemen maintained bees on the parapets, allowing the insects to be ready for producing honey or havoc, as the situation demanded. The walls of a few medieval castles in Scotland, England, and Wales were equipped with recesses, termed "bee boles," as permanent homes for the bees. These structures were generally on the south-facing perimeter walls, which provided a warm setting for cold-blooded insects trying to make a living in the northern climes.27

After the Middle Ages, defenses were rather less creative. Low-tech tactics were revived during the reign of Emmanuel the Fortunate, when the Portuguese king's troops were repulsed by bee-flinging Moors.28 Perhaps the simplest and most famous use of bees to defend a town came in the 1600s.29 Many years earlier, the Count of Berg had given away part of the town of Wuppertal to the Brothers of the Cross. In time, a convent was built and nuns took up cultivating bees, along with virtue. When the community came under attack, the sisters refused to admit the marauding troops. The soldiers, not dissuaded by a bunch of women in habits, attempted to enter the town by force. The fast-thinking nuns toppled the beehives in their apiary, dashed inside, and allowed the bees to vent their anger. The soldiers were driven from the gates and the town changed its name to Beyenburg (or "bee-town") in honor of the insects.

Bees were part of city defenses into the 18th century, at which time Belgrade had become the object of a long series of bloody clashes between the Austrians and Turks. During one of the battles, the Turks succeeded in breaching the walls and were poised to celebrate their entry into the city when they encountered an impenetrable barricade of beehives. The victory was short-lived, however, as the Turks claimed Belgrade in 1739. Although simple tactics of entomological warfare were demonstrably effective for centuries, the full integration of human ingenuity and insectan ferocity required the imposition of machinery between man and beast.

While tossing bees and tipping hives are fine defensive strategies for repelling unwanted visitors, a major breakthrough in entomological warfare came with the development of machinery capable of launching insectan payloads into the enemy's ranks. What the slingshot did for the humble rock, instruments for heaving hives did for bees—and shifted the balance of entomological power in favor of the attacking forces.

The earliest machines for launching projectiles emerged from the workshops of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.30 These inventions worked well for firing arrows, but were limited in terms of their payloads. Once the Greek engineers substituted torsion springs and counterweights for composite bows, the "siege engines" became capable of heaving almost anything, including insects. The Greeks also ensured that the etymology and entomology of war become intriguingly entwined in the word bombard, which comes from bombos, meaning "bee"—an allusion to the threatening hum associated with both an angry swarm and an incoming projectile.

The Greeks might have been the inventors of the first mechanized weapons, but the Romans were history's most fervent launchers of bees and wasps. Perhaps the Roman generals were encouraged by Pliny's authoritative and exaggerated claim that precisely 27 hornet stings would be lethal to a human. Nonetheless, the Romans made extensive use of bees, whose hives were far easier to acquire as armaments. So widespread were beehives as catapult pay-loads that the well-documented decline in the number of hives during the late Roman Empire was probably a consequence of having heaved too many of these nests into enemy fortifications.31

European military history is replete with accounts of beehives having been used as missiles. Between 1000 and 1300 ce, bees were catapulted in battles stretching across the continent in settings ranging from sieges to battlefields. In the 11th century, the forces of Henry I of England were backed into a corner by the Duke of Lorraine's marauders. The battle turned when the English general ordered his men to launch "nest bombs" into the midst of the Duke's men, who abandoned their assault rather than suffer the wrath of the enraged bees. In the 12th century, King Richard catapulted hives into Moslem ranks and strongholds during the Third Crusade. In the 13th century, bees were used for both waging attacks and mounting defenses in the kingdom of Aragon in modern-day Spain. Perhaps the technological high point in hive-heaving machinery emerged in the 14th century with the development of the Gatling gun's entomological predecessor—a windmill-like device that propelled straw hives from the ends of the rapidly rotating arms.

The virtue of catapulting bees—the safe distance that this provided between those launching the hives and the point at which the unhappy insects landed— was also exploited in naval warfare.32 As early as 332 bce, earthen hives were thrown onto the enemy decks, and with the advent of the catapult, bees and hornets became standard projectiles on the high seas. Across the Greco-Roman and Syro-Palestinian worlds and into the Middle Ages, warships carried beehives as part of their arsenals. Although cannon balls largely replaced hives among the world's navies, bees were sporadically used for centuries. A well-documented case from the 1600s involved the crew of a privateer fighting off a 500-man galley by heaving earthen hives onto the larger vessel.

The most amusing, and probably apocryphal, maritime use of stinging insects took place during the War of 1812.33 As the story goes, while in an American port, a group of British seamen was intrigued by a papery nest hanging from the branch of a tree. When they asked a passing boy about the object, the scamp realized that he had the raw material for a fantastic prank. In dead earnestness, the lad declared that it was the nest of a hummingbird. With natural history fast becoming the rage back in England, the sailors were delighted to acquire such a treasure to display upon their return home. We might presume that it was a crisp fall evening when the men cut the nest free from its moorings, for the residents remained calm. The scallywag implored the sailors to "go easy, lest they disturb the bird or break her eggs," but there was, of course, no hummingbird within the structure—only a colony of wasps sedated by the cool temperatures. The men proudly took their prize aboard the ship, only to have the insects later aroused by the warmth and jostling of their nest. Most of the crew was driven from the ship as the wasps took their revenge.

For all of their virtues as weapons, bees, wasps, and ants had one major limitation. Relying on insects to deliver the painful venom that drove the enemy from the battlefields and fortresses meant accepting a great deal of uncertainty. The little conscripts might disperse from the scene before creating havoc, they might be lethargic if it was too cold, they might escape from the munitions before the payload was launched, or they might turn traitor if used in close quarters. What military commanders needed was a way of exploiting the insects' capacity to deliver debilitating pain, and even death, without the fickleness of the six-legged soldiers mucking up a brilliant battle plan.

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Responses

  • kaarlo
    What kills beehive with catapult?
    8 months ago

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