|Oxford University Press|
the guardian Fri 23 July 2010
On page 207 of this book is a picture of a giant honeycomb, some 10ft across, hanging from a tree somewhere in south-east Asia. This is home to Apis dorsata, the giant honeybee of Asia, sometimes called the "rock bee". Around half as big again as the European honeybee, it has been described by entomologists as "the most ferocious stinging insect on earth", and, when enraged, will pursue its quarry for 100 yards or more. This critter added a new terror to jungle patrols in the Vietnam war, as the Viet Cong would relocate the colonies to trails used by the Americans and then wait for the right moment to set off a firecracker.
Perhaps "new terror" isn't quite right: using insects as weapons has been a military tactic for thousands of years, and, in all likelihood, extends back into prehistory. Mithridates used bees against the Romans in the siege of Eupatoria; Henry I catapulted beehives into the Duke of Lorraine's army in the 11th century. The very word "bombard" comes from the Greek bombos, meaning the buzzing of a bee.
And then there's the use of disease-carrying insects. The question of whether the US used these in the Korean war is still moot (they say they didn't, but that hardly settles the matter, and they may have done so against Cuba in 1996), and we can thank providence that Adolf Hitler had a phobia about bacteria, thus handicapping his scientists' researches into biological warfare. The Japanese had no such qualms: in an attack on Yunnan province in 1942 they used "maggot bombs", in which adult flies were packed into a gelatinous slurry of cholera germs and then dropped on the populace. The eventual death toll due to this assault was more than 400,000, comparable to that from the two atom bombs later dropped on Japan.
There is plenty more here. You can drive your enemy into a malarial swamp and let nature take its course; or, at home, you can take your tips from chapter 3, the exquisitely repulsive "Insects as Tools of Torture". If you want to be put off your food for a few hours, read what the Persians meant when they said they were taking a condemned man to "the boats". Then there's the business of dropping bugs on a country to cause agricultural havoc. The red fire ant may have reached North America by accident, but after they settled down, the name the entomologist William Buren gave them was Solenopsis invicta, "invicta" meaning "invincible". But, as Lockwood states, "there is another insect pest that makes the fire ant seem like a welcomed guest at a picnic . . ." (The Asian longhorned beetle, since you ask, which has the potential to render a country treeless.)
At times I wondered why on earth I was reading this book. I suppose it is the fascination of the horrific. Although highly informative, it did a very good job of giving me the heebie-jeebies. Not only do we have a thoroughly horrible gallery of extremely unpleasant creatures ("even for entomologists who have an affinity for six-legged animals, the New World screw-worm is a loathsome creature"), we have a number of scenarios in which Lockwood details how terrorists may use insects to sow panic and disease among western nations. (Or, come to think of it, anywhere.) In fact, the book begins with an imagined attack on the New York subway, which involves nothing more out-of-the-ordinary than someone placing a can of soda beneath a bench. About the only feeble ray of sunshine I can see here is the news that you may just be able to survive an outbreak of bubonic plague if you consume nothing but alcohol for a while.
It is to be hoped, then, that the relevant authorities read this book and take note of the warnings it contains. That people of evil intent may be reading it too is not particularly comforting. As for the ordinary reader, you couldn't say the book contained anything that is of any practical utility. I have no intention, for instance, of making a bee bomb. But Lockwood certainly succeeds in making a specialised academic subject fascinating. Not only does he know his subject inside out, he imparts his knowledge with grisly élan.