Of Bee Bombs and Biblical Plagues
The History of Biological Warfare, Part 3
“I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out from before you, even the two kings of the Amorites; but not with thy sword, nor with thy bow.” Joshua 24:12
About 100,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic period, humans skilfully chucked objects at animals and each other. Weapons made of wood and stone, were swung, thrown, or fired at the enemy to threaten, harm, and kill. The logical transition from inanimate to animate objects must have lead to the first living weapon, and what else would be as handy and dangerous as a hive full of angry bees, wasps, or hornets?
These armies of female soldiers - angry miniature suicide bombers courageous enough to protect the life of the queen with their own - can raise a full fledged panic among a group of humans hiding in a cave.
The hives might have been collected at night, when the bees where calm. The openings were probably plugged with mud and grass to prevent the insects’ premature escape, and then either thrown or catapulted at the enemy. Although speculative, these scenarios are quite reasonable. Once writing was invented some 5,000 years ago, people started leaving indications for the use of insects in warfare.
The most famous of all is the Bible, notably the book of Exodus where Yaweh waged six out of ten battles with the help of insects.
“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). The first plague is interpreted by scientists as a dinoflaggelate bloom, turning the water of the Nile blood-red and poisoning all aquatic life.
Next in the line was the plague of frogs - aquatic life that can hop away from the toxic Nile water: “if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs” (Exodus 8:2)
A frog invasion comes across as a rather funny threat. But if a warlord (or deity) predicts it and it indeed happens, that might scare even the toughest ruffian.
Now, with insect eaters dead or gone (fish and frogs), a balanced ecosystem starts to tip. The third plague could have been an invasion of biting midges from the rich and moist riverbank soil.
“…stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the land that it may become gnat-swarms throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 8:16)
The fourth plague was an army of flies: “… 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 rotting fish and vegetable matter on the Nile’s river banks must have been a haven for stable, horse, and deer flies that could deliver painful bites.
“…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)
The fifth plague, entomologists argue, might have been brought upon by blood feeding insects such as gnats, spreading bluetongue disease to cattle, sheep, and camels, and African horse sickness to the equines.
The Egyptian agriculture bordered to the Nile, making it much more susceptible to gnat attack, because these insects do not fly far from their hatching place. The Israelites, building a storage city in the desert and being far away from the marshy lands of the Nile, were safe.
“…take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it towards the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beats, throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 9:8-9).
What had caused the sixth plague is not clear. One hypothesis is that midges transmitted glanders and anthrax bacteria, which caused the symptoms of open sores or “blains”.
While the seventh plague of Egypt was a hailstorm, the eighth was again an insect army: a flood of desert locusts.
“…tomorrow will I bring the locusts into thy coast. And they shall eat the residue of that which escaped, which remained unto you from the hailstorm and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field.” (Exodus 10:3-5).
All vegetation had been eaten and the soil lay bare. Winds carried the dust into the air and blackened the skies for days on end, representing the ninth plague.
The tenth and most terrible of all plagues was said to have killed all Egyptians’ first born children. While some scholars say that the death of the first born illustrates the suffering caused by the nine plagues, others believe that the bubonic plague, a disease transmitted by rats and fleas, was the culprit.
While the Jewish people fastidiously removed all grain from their homes in spring, because they knew about the connection of grains, rats, fleas and disease, the Egyptians had no such tradition and an outbreak of the bubonic plague must have affected them much more severely.
The book of Exodus is not the only biblical account of using insects in warfare, but leaves little doubt that humans knew how to use them as effective and terrible weapons. I do wonder, though, whether the first football game (the one before the Spartans kicked stones about) was to train young warriors to skilfully kick a bee hive into an enemy’s stronghold.