Entomological warfare
Entomological warfare is a type of biological warfare
Biological warfare
Biological warfare is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war...

 that uses insect
Insects are a class of living creatures within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body , three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae...

s to attack the enemy. The concept has existed for centuries and research and development have continued into the modern era. EW has been used in battle by Japan and several other nations have developed and been accused of using an entomological warfare program.


Entomological warfare (EW) is a specific type of biological warfare
Biological warfare
Biological warfare is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war...

 (BW) that uses insect
Insects are a class of living creatures within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body , three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae...

s in a direct attack or as vectors to deliver a biological agent
Biological agent
A biological agent — also called bio-agent or biological threat agent — is a bacterium, virus, prion, or fungus which may cause infection, allergy, toxicity or otherwise create a hazard to human health. They can be used as a biological weapon in bioterrorism or biological warfare...

, such as plague or cholera
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The main symptoms are profuse watery diarrhea and vomiting. Transmission occurs primarily by drinking or eating water or food that has been contaminated by the diarrhea of an infected person or the feces...

. Essentially, EW exists in three varieties. One type of EW involves infecting insects with a pathogen
A pathogen gignomai "I give birth to") or infectious agent — colloquially, a germ — is a microbe or microorganism such as a virus, bacterium, prion, or fungus that causes disease in its animal or plant host...

 and then dispersing the insects over target areas. The insects then act as a vector, infecting any person or animal they might bite. Another type of EW is a direct insect attack against crops; the insect may not be infected with any pathogen but instead represents a threat to agriculture. The final method of entomological warfare is to use uninfected insects, such as bees, to directly attack the enemy.

Early history

Entomological warfare is not a new concept; historians and writers have studied EW in connection to multiple historic events. A 14th century plague epidemic in Asia Minor that eventually became known as the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

 is one such event that has drawn attention from historians as a possible early incident of entomological warfare. That plague's spread over Europe may have been the result of a biological attack on the Crimean city of Kaffa.

According to Jeffrey Lockwood
Jeffrey A. Lockwood
Dr. Jeffrey Alan Lockwood is an award-winning author and University of Wyoming professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities. He writes both nonfiction science books, as well as meditations. Lockwood is the recipient of both the Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.Lockwood earned a B.S...

, author of Six-Legged Soldiers
Six-legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War
Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War is a nonfiction scientific warfare book written by award-winning author and University of Wyoming professor, Jeffrey A. Lockwood...

(a book about EW), the earliest incident of entomological warfare was probably the use of bee
Bees are flying insects closely related to wasps and ants, and are known for their role in pollination and for producing honey and beeswax. Bees are a monophyletic lineage within the superfamily Apoidea, presently classified by the unranked taxon name Anthophila...

s by early humans. The bees or their nests were thrown into caves to force the enemy out and into the open. Lockwood theorizes that the Ark of Covenant may have been deadly when opened because it contained deadly fleas.

During the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 the Confederacy accused the Union of purposely introducing the harlequin bug in the South. These accusations were never proven, and modern research has shown it more likely that the insect arrived by other means. The world did not experience large-scale entomological warfare until World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

; Japanese attacks in China were the only verified instance of BW or EW during the war. During, and following, the war other nations began their own EW programs.

World War II


Among the Allied Powers, Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 led the pioneering effort in vector-borne warfare. After Japan became intent on developing the plague flea as a weapon, Canada and the United States followed suit. Cooperating closely with the United States, Dr. G.B. Reed, chief of Kingston
Kingston, Ontario
Kingston, Ontario is a Canadian city located in Eastern Ontario where the St. Lawrence River flows out of Lake Ontario. Originally a First Nations settlement called "Katarowki," , growing European exploration in the 17th Century made it an important trading post...

's Queen's University
Queen's University
Queen's University, , is a public research university located in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Founded on 16 October 1841, the university pre-dates the founding of Canada by 26 years. Queen's holds more more than of land throughout Ontario as well as Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex, England...

's Defense Research Laboratory, focused his research efforts on mosquito vectors, biting flies, and plague infected fleas during World War II. Much of this research was shared with or conducted in concert with the United States.

Canada's entire bio-weapons program was ahead of the British and the Americans during the war. The Canadians tended to work in areas their allies ignored; entomological warfare was one of these areas. As the U.S. and British programs evolved, the Canadians worked closely with both nations. The Canadian BW work would continue well after the war, including entomological research.


The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 is known to have pursued entomological warfare programs during World War II. Like Germany, the nation suggested that the Colorado potato beetle
Colorado potato beetle
The Colorado potato beetle , also known as the Colorado beetle, the ten-striped spearman, the ten-lined potato beetle or the potato bug, is an important pest of potato crops. It is approximately 10 mm long, with a bright yellow/orange body and five bold brown stripes along the length of each...

, aimed at the enemy's food sources, would be an asset during the war. As early as 1939 biological warfare experts in France suggested that the beetle be used against German crops.


Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 is known to have pursued entomological warfare programs during World War II. The nation pursued the mass-production, and dispersion, of the Colorado potato beetle
Colorado potato beetle
The Colorado potato beetle , also known as the Colorado beetle, the ten-striped spearman, the ten-lined potato beetle or the potato bug, is an important pest of potato crops. It is approximately 10 mm long, with a bright yellow/orange body and five bold brown stripes along the length of each...

 (Lepinotarsa decemlineata), aimed at the enemy's food sources. The beetle was first found in Germany in 1914, as an invasive species from North America. There are no records that indicate the beetle was ever employed as a weapon by Germany, or any other nation during the war. Regardless, the Germans had developed plans to drop the beetles on English crops.

Germany carried out testing of its Colorado potato beetle weaponization program south of Frankfurt, where they released 54,000 of the beetles. In 1944, an infestation of Colorado potato beetles was reported in Germany. The source of the infestation is unknown, speculation has offered three alternative theories as to the origin of the infestation. One option is Allied action, an entomological attack, another is that it was the result of the German testing, and still another more likely explanation is that it was merely a natural occurrence.


Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

 used entomological warfare on a large-scale during World War II in China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

. Unit 731
Unit 731
was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. It was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese...

, Japan's infamous biological warfare unit, used plague-infected flea
Flea is the common name for insects of the order Siphonaptera which are wingless insects with mouthparts adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood...

s and flies covered with cholera to infect the population in China. The Japanese military dispersed the insects by spraying them from low-flying airplanes and dropping bombs filled with a mixture of insects and disease. Localized and deadly epidemics resulted and nearly 500,000 Chinese died of disease. An "international symposium" of historians declared in 2002 that Japanese entomological warfare in China was responsible for the deaths of 440,000.

United Kingdom

A British scientist, J.B.S. Haldane, suggested that Britain and Germany were both vulnerable to entomological attack via the Colorado potato beetle. In 1942 the United States shipped 15,000 Colorado potato beetles to Britain for study as a weapon.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 researched, developed and tested an entomological warfare program as a major part of an anti-crop and anti-animal BW program. The Soviets developed techniques for using insects to transmit animal pathogens, such as foot and mouth disease — which they used tick
Ticks are small arachnids in the order Ixodida, along with mites, constitute the subclass Acarina. Ticks are ectoparasites , living by hematophagy on the blood of mammals, birds, and sometimes reptiles and amphibians...

s to transmit. The nation also used avian ticks to transmit Chlamydophila psittaci
Chlamydophila psittaci
Chlamydophila psittaci is a lethal intracellular bacterial species that may cause endemic avian chlamydiosis, epizootic outbreaks in mammals, and respiratory psittacosis in humans. Chlamydophila psittaci is transmitted by inhalation, contact or ingestion among birds and to mammals...

to chickens. In addition, the Soviet Union claimed to have developed an automated mass insect breeding facility, capable of outputting millions of parasitic insects per day.

United States

The United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 seriously researched the potential of entomological warfare during the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

. The United States military developed plans for an entomological warfare facility, designed to produce 100 million yellow fever-infected mosquitoes per month. A U.S. Army report titled "Entomological Warfare Target Analysis" listed vulnerable sites within the Soviet Union that the U.S. could attack using entomological vectors. The military also tested the mosquito
Mosquitoes are members of a family of nematocerid flies: the Culicidae . The word Mosquito is from the Spanish and Portuguese for little fly...

 biting capacity by dropping uninfected mosquitoes over U.S. cities.

North Korean and Chinese officials leveled accusations that during the Korean War
Korean War
The Korean War was a conventional war between South Korea, supported by the United Nations, and North Korea, supported by the People's Republic of China , with military material aid from the Soviet Union...

 the United States engaged in biological warfare, including EW, in North Korea. The claim is dated to the period of the war, and has been thoroughly denied by the U.S. In 1998, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagermann claimed that the accusations were true in their book, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea The book received mixed reviews, some called it "bad history" and "appalling", while other praised the case the authors made. Other historians have revived the claim in recent decades as well. The same year Endicotts' book was published Kathryn Weathersby and Milton Leitenberg of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington released a cache of Soviet and Chinese documents which revealed the North Korean claim was an elaborate disinformation campaign.
During the 1950s the United States conducted a series of field tests using entomological weapons. Operation Big Itch
Operation Big Itch
Operation Big Itch was a U.S. entomological warfare field test using uninfected fleas to determine their coverage and survivability as a vector for biological agents. The tests were conducted at Dugway Proving Ground in 1954.-Operation:...

, in 1954, was designed to test munitions loaded with uninfected fleas (Xenopsylla cheopis). Big Itch went awry when some of the fleas escaped into the plane and bit all three members of the air crew. In May 1955 over 300,000 yellow fever
Yellow fever
Yellow fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease. The virus is a 40 to 50 nm enveloped RNA virus with positive sense of the Flaviviridae family....

 mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti
Aedes aegypti
The yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti is a mosquito that can spread the dengue fever, Chikungunya and yellow fever viruses, and other diseases. The mosquito can be recognized by white markings on legs and a marking in the form of a lyre on the thorax...

) were dropped over parts of the U.S. state of Georgia to determine if the air-dropped mosquitoes could survive to take meals from humans. The mosquito tests were known as Operation Big Buzz
Operation Big Buzz
Operation Big Buzz was a U.S. military entomological warfare field test conducted in the U.S. state of Georgia in 1955. The tests involved dispersing over 300,000 yellow fever mosquitoes from aircraft and through ground dispersal methods.-Operation:...

. The U.S. engaged in at least two other EW testing programs, Operation Drop Kick
Operation Drop Kick
Operation Drop Kick was a 1956 U.S. entomological warfare field testing program that deployed Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to carry a biological warfare agent...

 and Operation May Day
Operation May Day
Operation May Day was a series of entomological warfare tests conducted by the U.S. military in Savannah, Georgia in 1956.-Operation:Operation May Day involved a series of EW tests from April to November 1956. The tests were designed to reveal information about the dispersal of yellow fever...

. A 1981 Army report outlined these tests as well as multiple cost-associated issues that occurred with EW. The report is partially declassified — some information is blacked out, including everything concerning "Drop Kick" — and included "cost per death" calculations. The cost per death, according to the report, for a vector-borne biological agent achieving a 50% mortality rate in an attack on a city was $0.29 in 1976 dollars. Such an attack was estimated to result in 625,000 deaths.

The United States has also applied entomological warfare research and tactics in non-combat situations. In 1990 the U.S. funded a $6.5 million program designed to research, breed and drop caterpillar
Caterpillars are the larval form of members of the order Lepidoptera . They are mostly herbivorous in food habit, although some species are insectivorous. Caterpillars are voracious feeders and many of them are considered to be pests in agriculture...

s. The caterpillars were to be dropped in Peru
Peru , officially the Republic of Peru , is a country in western South America. It is bordered on the north by Ecuador and Colombia, on the east by Brazil, on the southeast by Bolivia, on the south by Chile, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean....

 on coca
Coca, Erythroxylum coca, is a plant in the family Erythroxylaceae, native to western South America. The plant plays a significant role in many traditional Andean cultures...

 fields as part of the American War on Drugs
War on Drugs
The War on Drugs is a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid and military intervention being undertaken by the United States government, with the assistance of participating countries, intended to both define and reduce the illegal drug trade...

. As recently as 2002 U.S. entomological anti-drug efforts at Fort Detrick
Fort Detrick
Fort Detrick is a U.S. Army Medical Command installation located in Frederick, Maryland, USA. Historically, Fort Detrick was the center for the United States' biological weapons program ....

 were focused on finding an insect vector for a virus
A virus is a small infectious agent that can replicate only inside the living cells of organisms. Viruses infect all types of organisms, from animals and plants to bacteria and archaea...

 that affects the opium poppy
Opium poppy
Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the species of plant from which opium and poppy seeds are extracted. Opium is the source of many opiates, including morphine , thebaine, codeine, papaverine, and noscapine...



Clemson University
Clemson University
Clemson University is an American public, coeducational, land-grant, sea-grant, research university located in Clemson, South Carolina, United States....

's Regulatory and Public Service Program listed "diseases vectored by insects" among bioterrorism scenarios considered "most likely". Because invasive species
Invasive species
"Invasive species", or invasive exotics, is a nomenclature term and categorization phrase used for flora and fauna, and for specific restoration-preservation processes in native habitats, with several definitions....

 are already a problem worldwide one University of Nebraska entomologist considered it likely that the source of any sudden appearance of a new agricultural pest would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine. Lockwood considers insects a more effective means of transmitting biological agent
Biological agent
A biological agent — also called bio-agent or biological threat agent — is a bacterium, virus, prion, or fungus which may cause infection, allergy, toxicity or otherwise create a hazard to human health. They can be used as a biological weapon in bioterrorism or biological warfare...

s for acts of bioterrorism than the actual agents. Insect vectors are easily gathered and their eggs easily transportable without detection. Isolating and delivering biological agents, on the other hand, is extremely challenging and hazardous.

In one of the few suspected acts of entomological bioterrorism an eco-terror group known as The Breeders claimed to have released Mediterranean fruit flies (medflies) amidst an ongoing California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

 infestation. Lockwood asserts that there is some evidence the group played a role in the event. The pest attacks a variety of crops and the state of California responded with a large-scale pesticide
Pesticides are substances or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest.A pesticide may be a chemical unicycle, biological agent , antimicrobial, disinfectant or device used against any pest...

 spraying program. At least one source asserted that there is no doubt that an outside hand played a role in the dense 1989 infestation. The group stated in a letter to then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley
Tom Bradley (politician)
Thomas J. "Tom" Bradley was the 38th Mayor of Los Angeles, California, serving in that office from 1973 to 1993. He was the first and to date only African American mayor of Los Angeles...

 that their goals were twofold. They sought to cause the medfly infestation to grow out of control which, in turn, would render the ongoing Malathion
Malathion is an organophosphate parasympathomimetic which binds irreversibly to cholinesterase. Malathion is an insecticide of relatively low human toxicity, however one recent study has shown that children with higher levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites in their urine are more likely...

 spraying program financially infeasible.

Legal status

The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 does not specifically mention insect vectors in its text. The language of the treaty, however, does cover vectors. Article I bans "Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." It would appear, due to the text of the BWC, that insect vectors as an aspect of entomological warfare are covered and outlawed by the Convention. The issue is less clear when warfare with uninfected insects against crops is considered.

Further reading

  • Bryden, John
    John H. Bryden
    John H. Bryden is a Canadian politician, journalist, historian.-Education:He received an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from McMaster University in 1966, and a Masters of Philosophy in English from the University of Leeds in 1968.-Early career:From 1969 to 1989, Bryden held...

    . Deadly Allies: Canada's Secret War, 1937-1947, (Google Books), McClelland & Stewart, 1989, (ISBN 0771017243).
  • Garrett, Benjamin C. "The Colorado Potato Beetle Goes to War", Chemical Weapons Convention Bulletin, Issue #33, September 1996, accessed January 3, 2009.
  • Hay, Alastair. "A Magic Sword or A Big Itch: An Historical Look at the United States Biological Weapon Programme", (Citation), Medicine, Conflict, and Survival, Vol. 15 July–September 1999, pp. 215–234, (ISSN 13623699).
  • Lockwood, Jeffrey A. "Entomological Warfare: History of the Use of Insects as Weapons of War" (Citation, Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, Summer 1987, v. 33(2), pp. 76–82, ISSN 00138754.
  • Lockwood, Jeffrey A. "The Scary Caterpillar", The New York Times, April 18, 2009, accessed April 24, 2009.

External links

  • The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, official site, accessed January 5, 2009.
  • Bugs as bombs, Oregon State University
    Oregon State University
    Oregon State University is a coeducational, public research university located in Corvallis, Oregon, United States. The university offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees and a multitude of research opportunities. There are more than 200 academic degree programs offered through the...

    , Department of Entomology, accessed December 25, 2008.
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