Toxic Tactics And Terrors

Stinging insects proved decisive in ending many sieges and battles, but few military historians know that a war was started by a bee.1 In 637 ce, a rancorous fellow named Congal, heir to the throne of Ulster, was paying a state visit to the king of Ireland and his family. Domnall, the Irish king, was a gracious host, except for one small oversight: he failed to put adequate distance between his beehives and his guests. As fate would have it, Congal was stung in the eye by an errant bee.

If it had just been painful perhaps the offense could have been forgiven, but Congal was blinded. To add insult to injury, he was given the nickname "Caech," meaning "one-eye," after the incident. Enraged by their patriarch's being blinded and called a cyclops, Congal's kin demanded retribution. In keeping with the notion of "an eye for an eye," they demanded that one of Domnall's sons be blinded. Domnall was not keen on this solution and tried a less drastic punishment in hope of appeasing Congal. The king ordered the destruction of the entire colony of bees to ensure that the guilty insect would be killed.

Domnall apparently didn't know (or at least was hoping that Congal was entomologically unwitting) that the offending insect had eviscerated herself in the course of leaving her stinger in his guest's eye. Not placated by the legalistic ruse of executing bees, the Ulstermen decided to settle their grievance on the battlefield. Unfortunately for them, their capacity for righteous indignation surpassed their military aptitude and they were summarily defeated.

We might suppose that such a minuscule puncture as that caused by a single bee ought not to cause such egregious medical—or political—damage. After all, the stinger of a bee is a phenomenally fine needle, about 2 millimeters long and the diameter of a human hair. Of course, the trauma of a bee sting comes not from being pierced but from the chemicals released into the wound. When the stinger is torn from the bee's body, the attached tissues include a venom sac that pumps out a witch's brew of chemicals that digest cell membranes, induce inflammation, affect heartbeat and respiration, and inflict pain. There's even a dastardly component with an odor reminiscent of bananas that functions as a chemical alarm, signaling other bees to attack. The bee is effectively a missile that delivers a chemical warhead. And the warhead—in this case positioned at the back, rather than the front, of the missile—comprises a poison-filled reservoir and a lancet to deliver the payload to the target. Once insects are viewed as sources of toxins, the opportunities to exploit them in warfare expand dramatically.2

The earliest use of insect toxins was their integration with spears, arrows, and darts—manmade "stings" combined with the insect-made poisons. The San bushmen of Africa rely on gathering native plants for food, but hunting is an integral part of their culture and provides an important source of protein. The challenge is that they have lightweight arrows and heavyweight prey, such as antelopes, wildebeests, and giraffes. So various tribes use different poisons to enhance the efficacy of their arrows. The venoms of snakes and spiders, along with the toxins of plants, are often used, but in the northern Kalahari the most common source of toxin is a beetle.3

Digging as deep as three feet among the roots of the shrubby corkwood tree, San seek creatures that they call Ngwa or Kaa—the mature larvae of a leaf beetle (family Chrysomelidae). The young larvae, which look like miniature burnt marshmallows, fatten themselves on corkwood leaves, then drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, and construct a sandy mantle in which they can survive for years. This living encrustation is the prize that the bushmen seek. When conditions are favorable, the larva pupates and matures into a mundane brown beetle that crawls out of the soil and into the corkwood tree to mate, lay eggs, and begin the next generation.

The San prepare their arrow poison in a variety of ways. Some bushmen squeeze the freshly extracted larvae and pupae like tiny tubes of toothpaste while others opt to dry the insects in the sun and pulverize them into a lethal dust. In either case, the gooey or desiccated entrails are applied to the arrow shaft to ensure that if the hunter is accidentally pricked, he does not poison himself (see Figure 2.1). And this seems highly advisable, given the lethality of the weapon. Small game, such as porcupines or birds, die of cardiac arrest in minutes. Antelope or giraffe succumb in a matter of hours or days, depending on the number and location of arrows in the animal. Known as exceptional trackers, the bushmen can follow their weakening quarry over miles of desert scrub.

Figure 2.1. A San hunter squeezing the innards of a leaf beetle larva onto an arrow. The insect, Diamphidia vittatipennis, is excavated from among the roots of the corkwood tree. The poison within the larvae—which look like miniature burnt marshmallows (see foreground)—is potent enough to kill a small mammal in minutes and larger animals, such as antelope, within hours. (Photo courtesy of H. Robertson, Iziko Museums of Cape Town)

Figure 2.1. A San hunter squeezing the innards of a leaf beetle larva onto an arrow. The insect, Diamphidia vittatipennis, is excavated from among the roots of the corkwood tree. The poison within the larvae—which look like miniature burnt marshmallows (see foreground)—is potent enough to kill a small mammal in minutes and larger animals, such as antelope, within hours. (Photo courtesy of H. Robertson, Iziko Museums of Cape Town)

For the most part, the San were remarkably peaceful until the arrival of the Dutch and French in the 17th century. Various accounts tell of native people using poisoned projectiles in warfare, and the beetle-tainted arrows of the San probably played a role in these battles. But Europeans had little basis for crying foul, given their own history of using insect-derived toxins in warfare.

Although Claudius Aelianus probably did not witness the defeat of Severus's army by Hatrian scorpions, he was curious as to the nature of venom and its potential as a military weapon. The Roman naturalist thought that the flow of poisons through the living world was a process originating from the realm of the gods, and he imagined that clever humans could tap into the flow.4 Aelianus believed that Hercules cadged the idea of poisoned arrows from wasps, who were understood to acquire their venom in a most interesting way. As anyone with a backyard grill can attest, wasps are attracted to meat, and the Romans observed these insects buzzing around dead animals, including the corpses of vipers. Aelianus believed that the wasps drew venom from the dead snakes, which had consumed poisonous plants, which had tapped into the original source of poisons—the noxious vapors at the entrance to the Underworld.

Although venomous snakes aren't herbivorous, the ancient notion of poisons being relayed through a food chain isn't entirely absurd. Some plants acquire toxic elements from the soil, such as the poisonvetches and golden-weeds that concentrate selenium in their tissues. Likewise, insects often acquire their toxins from feeding on poisonous plants—the monarch butterfly larva obtains its toxins from milkweed, for example. And gods and humans can apply the same principle.

Aelianus contended that "Hercules dipped his arrow in the venom of Hydra, just as wasps dip and sharpen their sting." So compelling was this account that Greek mythology provides the term that is still applied those who devoted to archery: toxophilus (toxo refers to both "poison" and "bow," whilephilus refers to "love"). But applying wasp venom to arrows was not practical for Roman warriors. Various plant poisons were tried, but they lacked potency. There was, however, a mysterious substance that captured the military's imagination.

In the fifth century bce, a Greek physician named Ctesias described a remarkable poison from the mountains of India.5 He had no idea whether a mineral, plant, or animal was the origin of the poison. But so potent was this substance—the smallest droplet could kill a man—that 700 years later Aelianus still marveled at the enigmatic extract. The intervening centuries had provided time for some further details to emerge. The poison—one of the most expensive gifts given by the king of India—was extremely rare. It was a treasured constituent of the royal pharmacy, ideal for suicide or assassination. If only the Romans could acquire their own supply of the toxin, their archers would be nearly invincible. If only they could find the dikairon, a tiny orange bird whose droppings were said to be the source of the legendary poison.

The Romans never found the bird, but neither did anyone else. Well into modern times naturalists speculated as to the identity of the dikairon, which the ancients described as being about the size of a large grape. Some argued that such a tiny creature could not have been a bird at all; rather, dung beetles were about the right size and some had orange markings. Moreover, "droppings" might have been a mistranslation of the word for secretions. The only problem was that dung beetles don't secrete toxins.

The solution to the poison puzzle was finally revealed in the 20th century, when scientists realized that Paederus, a genus of rove beetles (family Staphylinidae), matched the description of the dikairon (see Figure 2.2). These

Figure 2.2. A representative specimen of the genus Paederus, a type of rove beetle that harbors symbiotic bacteria producing a chemical called pederin. This was likely the legendary poison of the dikairon, a mysterious creature from India that the Romans believed to be a tiny bird. Although they were wrong about the source of the poison, pederin is more powerful than the venom of the black widow spider, which is itself 15 times more potent than cobra venom. (Photo by Tom Murray)

Figure 2.2. A representative specimen of the genus Paederus, a type of rove beetle that harbors symbiotic bacteria producing a chemical called pederin. This was likely the legendary poison of the dikairon, a mysterious creature from India that the Romans believed to be a tiny bird. Although they were wrong about the source of the poison, pederin is more powerful than the venom of the black widow spider, which is itself 15 times more potent than cobra venom. (Photo by Tom Murray)

black-and-orange beetles are found in northern India, where most species live in damp forest litter. Some species of Paederus are capable of flying, although at I/2 inch in length they could hardly be mistaken for birds and they are rather smaller than grapes. However, rove beetles have been associated with bird nests. Misunderstandings were common in ancient communications, and perhaps the nature of this creature changed as stories moved westward from India. Heavy rains can trigger mass emergences of the beetles, and in 1966 some 4,000 people in Okinawa were given painful lessons by Paederus fuscipes (most likely the dikairon).6

The Okinawans rediscovered what Asian cultures knew in earlier times. In the eighth century, Chinese physicians used the skin-blistering secretions of Paederus to remove tattoos and kill ringworm. Today, the people of India refer to a condition called "spider lick," a string of suppurating sores caused when someone brushes away a beetle and inadvertently smears the insect—and its toxin—across the skin. Less than a hundred-thousandth of a gram of this chemical, pederin, can cause festering lesions. Although painful and potentially disfiguring, these encounters are not lethal.

However, ingestion of the beetle leads to severe and deadly internal damage, and pederin is lethal if injected into the bloodstream. Indeed, this chemical is more powerful than the venom of the black widow spider, which is itself 15 times more potent than cobra venom. Pederin has recently been discovered to be a product not of the beetle itself but of symbiotic bacteria living within the insect7—Aelianus's theory of insect poisons being acquired from ever "lower" organisms was not so far off. But even Aelianus could not have guessed that the poison might turn out to have beneficial effects; as little as one billionth of a gram of pederin inhibits the growth of malignant cells. But not all modern interest in Paederus has been benevolent.

In 2002, the Indian Defense Ministry funded a study of ancient texts to identify natural substances as chemical weapons.8 The toxin of Paederus beetles was among the poisons of interest, as were other insect-derived ingredients, including a potion of fireflies (family Lampyridae) and wild boar's eyes purported to bestow night vision. Although none of these chemicals or concoctions has become standard issue, the Indian military evidently values the lessons of history. Had previous generals been attentive to historical tactics— including the ability of a cunning enemy to exploit the poisonous potential of insects—thousands of soldiers might have lived to fight another day.

The use of toxins in waging war extends back to at least 600 bce, when the Athenians uprooted cartloads of poisonous hellebore from the countryside around the besieged city of Kirrha and dumped the plants into the river that supplied the city.9 The contaminated water induced violent diarrhea, providing the Athenians with the opportunity to overrun the city and put a lethal, but perhaps merciful, end to their enemies' intestinal agony.

The Greeks and Romans had a botanical arsenal at their disposal, including extracts of belladonna, hemlock, monkshood, and yew berries. In addition, they were well acquainted with rhododendron, a shrubby tree possessing gorgeous pink and white flowers—along with neurotoxic sap and nectar. This plant flourished throughout the Mediterranean, around the Black Sea, and into Asia, where its poisonous properties were widely known. Although the sap was used as an arrow poison, killing one enemy at a time is a laborious way to secure victory. For the crafty military mind, an intriguing property of rhododendron gave it the potential to become a weapon of mass destruction.

Although it was poisonous to humans, the nectar was harmless to bees. And this attribute made for a honey of a weapon.

At the turn of the fifth century bce, a Greek army returning from Persia camped in the territory of Colchis, a region of modern Turkey.10 Their commander, Xenophon, noted in his journal that "there is nothing remarkable about the place, except for the extraordinary numbers of swarming bees." He was blissfully unaware that his men had intruded on the homeland of Medea—a mythical sorceress known for her powerful poisons. In short order, the Greeks raided the wild bees and satiated themselves on the golden booty, upon which the troops "succumbed to a strange affliction . . . as though under a spell." The men staggered about as if drunk, and according to Greek historians they "lost their senses and were seized with vomiting and purging." Within hours, thousands of men were sprawled on the ground, completely debilitated.

Most survived and began to recover the next day, but many could not stand unaided for three or four days. Xenophon was worried that his army was vulnerable to attack. Upset with Greek pillaging and armed with farm implements, even disorganized villagers could easily slaughter near-comatose soldiers. So he ordered his pitifully weak troops into formation and began a shuffling march back to Greece. Xenophon never suspected that six-legged sorceresses had conjured the potion that debilitated his army.

By the first century ce, the Romans had figured out the nature of what they called "mad honey." Pliny the Elder surmised that the bees acquired toxins from poisonous plants, such as rhododendron. He even proposed that the bees did so to protect their larder, and modern entomologists have confirmed that the toxic honey deters vertebrate raiders. Of course, the people of the Black Sea region were well aware of this syrupy scourge, but they also had discovered that nonlethal intoxication could be a recreational experience.

Alcohol is deadly at high doses, but humans find sublethal inebriation to be quite enjoyable. In modest doses, rhododendron honey induces a pleasant buzz.11 Called deli bal in Turkey and the Caucuses, "mad honey" was exported to Europe in the 18th century, with up to 25 tons being shipped each year. Reputable folks found that a small spoonful in a glass of milk made an effective pick-me-up, and tavern keepers discovered that their patrons enjoyed the extra kick that a dollop provided to a pint of ale. In America, the early settlers discovered that honey made from mountain laurel, another toxic plant, added a new twist to their evenings. Nor is our association with toxic honey entirely a thing of the past. In 1992 a Virginia man was hospitalized after consuming several spoonfuls of honey made from the nectar of mountain laurel.

As both ancient and modern lessons reveal, honey can be dangerous stuff. However, the near-disasters of Xenophon's men and the Virginian fellow were the result of insect ambushes—nobody tricked these people into consuming the honey. But between these incidents, the story of mad honey took a nefarious turn. Having trounced the Greeks, the Romans marched confidently and arrogantly into power. They had little use for their Grecian predecessors, but the Roman Empire would regret not having learned from Xenophon's experience.

A mithridate is a universal antidote. Such a master key to toxicology remains in the realm of legend, but the etymology of the term is grounded in history.12 Mithridates Eupator VI was born in 132 bce, in the kingdom of Pontus on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea. The poor lad had a spectacularly dysfunctional family. When Mithridates was 12, his mother ascended the throne in his name after killing his father. Shortly thereafter, his supposed guardians tried to kill him, but the boy escaped and hid in the countryside until he was strong enough to retaliate. At 21, Mithridates returned to the city of his birth, imprisoned his mother, claimed the throne, poisoned his younger brother, and married his sister—not the makings of a mentally healthy future.

Although Pontus was a fertile and thriving land, the young king was not satisfied. He ventured into the surrounding districts to scout for expansion opportunities. Meanwhile his mother and sister-wife conspired to take back the throne, forcing Mithridates to poison the women upon his return. For the next decade Mithridates busied himself with conquering neighboring kingdoms, until his growing power caught the attention of the Romans. They maneuvered to replace one of Mithridates' puppet rulers in neighboring Bithynia. With the backing of Rome, the new king attacked Pontus. When Mithridates sent a messenger asking the empire to call off the Bithynians, the Romans—who were itching for an excuse to attack Mithridates—interpreted the appeal as a declaration of war. And so the first Mithridatic War was on. The Romans, however, soon discovered that their opponent was not some half-baked tyrant.

Few enemies struck fear into the heart of the Roman Empire, but Mithridates did. After having a Roman legate arrested for bribe-taking, Mithridates executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat. And Mithridates was capable of scaling up his savagery, slaughtering 80,000 Roman citizens in an outlying province in single day. As the Pontic forces advanced toward a fearful Italy, the Roman army received a firsthand lesson in Mithridates' brutality when chariots with rotating scythes attached to the wheels sliced through the lines. The Roman legions had enough survivors to continue the fight, but they fled the battlefield in horror upon seeing the grisly spectacle of their comrades "chopped in halves but still breathing, and others mangled and cut to pieces."

The legionnaires, however, had their pride and did not retreat all the way to Rome. Once they recovered from their "shock and awe," the Romans turned against their depraved enemy. From 74 to 66 bce, Lucinius Lucullus and his army pursued Mithridates and his troops, driving them back toward the east. Having cornered his enemy near the Black Sea, Lucullus had only to strangle Mithridates' army by laying siege to Eupatoria. Anxious for victory, Roman sappers bored beneath the walls of the city. Mithridates' men drilled holes into the tunnels and released swarms of bees and—somewhat less plausibly, despite the account provided by the historian Appian of Alexandria—rampaging wild bears. With the tide of battle turned by bees, along with poisoned arrows and burning tar for good measure, the Pontic forces routed the Romans. Had Lucullus seen the bees as a premonition of Mithridates' potential for exploiting insects as implements of warfare, he might have warned his successor.

The next campaign against Mithridates was led by Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus, the rival of Julius Caesar. More generally known as Pompey the Great, this battle-tested Roman general finally vanquished the Pontic army in 65 bce. But the victory was tainted. In the chaos of battle, Mithridates slipped away, escaping over the Caucasus. In Colchis, the fallen monarch began plotting his revenge and return to power. Meanwhile, Pompey was not satisfied with having crushed his counterpart's army. True victory meant finding and killing the mastermind. Having tracked Mithridates into Colchis, Pompey was oblivious to the potential for entomological skullduggery. He had not learned of the experiences of Xenophon or Lucullus. And what you don't know can kill you.

As Pompey's army advanced, a sweet snare was set. As a student of toxicology, Mithridates was keenly aware of the poisonous potential of deli bal—a specialty of the Heptakometes, a barbarous people that he'd befriended. After his allies gathered masses of honey from the local rhododendron forests, the cunning Mithridates directed them to place jars of the insidious syrup either along a narrow mountain path on Pompey's route or more surreptitiously in what appeared to be a hastily abandoned cache. Historians differ on this tactical detail, but what came next is clear from all accounts.

The Roman legions were not especially well compensated by the empire. Allowing them to profit from raiding and looting provided incentive for soldiers to engage the enemy and kept the military budget within bounds. The jars of honey were found by Pompey's men, who eagerly took the bait. His troops were soon reeling, babbling, and vomiting. As they collapsed, the Heptakometes rushed in and put them out of their misery. Mithridates had secured a sweet revenge for his humiliating defeat at the hands of Pompey's army.13

Having poisoned a thousand Roman soldiers (along with his mother, brother, four sons, and various political opponents), Mithridates retired to a castle in Crimea. Obsessed with the possibility of being poisoned himself, he'd concocted what he thought was a universal antidote: a mithridate. The concoction was composed of 54 ingredients, in a base of—what else?—honey (most likely deli bal). In the end, he didn't need the antidote. The one son whom he hadn't gotten around to killing led a revolt against Mithridates, who, rather than facing death at the hands of the rebels, ordered his bodyguard to run him through with a sword.

As for the Romans, they eventually subjugated the region and imposed a war tax to pay the costs of having subdued the people. But the Romans were not to be fooled again. Having learned the hard way what Xenophon and Pompey might have taught them, the Romans prohibited the payment of tribute to the empire in the form of honey.

There is something particularly dishonorable about enticing an enemy with sweets, debilitating him with toxins, and then hacking him to death. In this regard, Mithridates might be crowned the champion of entomological depravity, if it were not for a ruler who conceived of insects not merely as weapons of war but also as instruments of torture.

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