Book Review

Weanée Kimblewood

Jeffrey Lockwood:
Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War.

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (October 31, 2008)
Price: 17.00 EUR

Tales of Crittery and Imagination

Did the American government unleash plant­hoppers (Graminella nigrifrons) and other plant pests against Cuban crops in 1962? Fidel Casto (above) maintained for decades that it did, but could never prove it.

Biological warfare has always been a big taboo, and military secretiveness soon resulted in confused conspiracy theories. Jeremy Lockwood’s “first comprehensive look at the use of insects as weapons of war”, however, doesn’t contribute reliable facts, but dozens of unverified urban legends.

Where have all the buzzers gone? In the face of multiple biotic hazards, such as Varroa mites and insect diseases (mostly referred to as colony collapse disorder, CCD), the sudden disappearance of bee colonies and their citizens isn’t a phenomenon of the 21th century alone. An ancient version of bee mass mortality is well-documented, although the latter was for a completely different reason.

The bees disappeared because, no kidding, for centuries European military organisations used busy beehives as prickly missiles.

As Jeremy Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming, tells his readers, the furry honey-makers and their homes were in fact the long distance cruise missiles of medieval times. As “nest bombs”, bee hives were catapulted in countless battles between 1,000 and 1,300 CE (and occasionally later on), for example by King Richard’s men who terrified the Muslim ranks with the enraged insects during the Third Crusade. In the first chapter of his new book, Six-legged soldiers: using insects as weapons of war, Lockwood creates the following scenario, [Already] the Romans made extensive use of bees, whose hives were far easier to acquire as armaments. So widespread were beehives as catapult payloads that the well-documented decline in the number of hives during the late Roman Empire was probably a consequence of having headed to many of these nests into enemy fortifications.

Lockwood adds,

In the 11th century, the forces of Henry I of England were backed into a corner by the Duke of Lorraine’s marauders. The battles 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.

300 years later, the hive-heaving machinery reached its techological high, with the development of the Gatling gun’s entomological predecessor – a windmill-like device that propelled straw hives from the ends of its rapidly rotating arms. Entomological predecessor: nicely put! On the opposite side of the front, however, bee hives were part of the defence strategy, by maintaining populations of bees at 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, […] generally on the south-facing perimeter walls, which provided a warm setting for [the] cold-blooded insects.

A lot of speculation exceeds reality

Unfortunately, Lockwood’s exiting assessment of human history, using bee-hives as a weapon, has a handicap. He cannot prove it. His verbs are constantly subjunctive, making extensive use of phrases such as “perhaps”, “maybe”, “could have been” and “might”.

In another part of the book’s first chapter, Lockwood rehashes old news, filling pages in an attempt to interpret the Bible’s ten Egyptian plagues from a modern viewpoint, especially those that involve insects. Reworking speculative opinions – that’s old as the hills, Mr Lockwood!

Reaching the epitome of wildcatting, Lockwood repeatedly quotes Pliny the Elder as a source for his “bees’ nest” story. Just Pliny! The famous but unreliable Roman natural philosopher who mixed a dash of truth with a good deal of imagination, spinning far-fetched tales of, for example, slugs that pull gold treasures out of fountains and of diamonds that can be destroyed simply by the blood of a male goat.

The whole scary bandwidth

Lockwood’s book is about far more than bee hives, of course. In 26 chapters, he spreads the, “unholy trinity of strategies – transmission of pathogenic microbes, destruction of livestock and crops, and direct attack on humans” which has been used by military and intelligence services throughout history. Lockwood’s book is about this often forgotten facet of biological warfare, introducing “cold-blooded fighters”, such as beetles, lice, mosquitoes, scorpions, and many more.

Several chapters are about germ weapons, often transmitted by insects. Just think of the native American population that was decimated in the 18th century by contact with Old World diseases, such as the plague, measles, tuberculosis, smallpox and influenza (some maintain that this kind of “germ warfare” was, at least partly, intended by the European conquerors). Or take, as another example of biological warfare, the infamous “Unit 731”, a top secret biological warfare research department of the Japanese Army that did human experiments with anthrax, cholera and plague in the 1940s to develop weapons of mass destruction (and killed, depending on sources, 200,000 to 600,000 people).

Dubious “facts”

Chapters 20 and 21 finally deal with the alleged entomological warfare of the US government against the communist Casto regime in the 1960s, but it is debatable whether planthoppers and leafhoppers (such as Graminella nigrifrons and Pyrilla perpusilla) were really used as vectors of plant diseases to destroy Cuban sugarcane and rice.

And again, Lockwood’s sources are disappointing. He uses second and third hand quotes, mostly from other authors and their books. His key prosecution witness for the “cold-blooded fight against Cuba” is a persistent detractor of the US government who cannot deliver any evidence apart from paranoid suspicions. Substantial sources, such as original documents, aren’t listed in the book’s notes section (the most reliable sources are few statements from an interview that Lockwood conducted with a US military scientist).

All things considered, this is a book on a fascinating topic that is based mainly on speculation. Over nearly 400 pages, the reader has to believe reams of unproven statements and conspiracy theories. Your Lab Times editor didn’t believe them – and therefore didn’t enjoy the book.

Letzte Änderungen: 19.07.2013