Historical Events Mediated By Insects

Finally, insects have made their mark on human cultures by influencing events that shape history, such as wars, or by changing the way societies can or cannot accomplish things. The Panama Canal was built and ultimately controlled by the United States in part because the earlier effort by France was thwarted by mosquito-borne yellow fever. As vectors of African sleeping sickness, Glossina spp. (Diptera) have made huge pieces of land in Africa uninhabitable by humans. Bubonic plague, spread by its flea vector, helped cause drastic changes in the social and economic structure in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. The populations, and thus the sites, of more than one ancient eastern Mediterranean city moved because of the actions of insects, particularly flies.

In many military campaigns, the number of casualties attributed to insects has exceeded that caused by actual fighting. The activities of insects, primarily by transmitting disease to troops in battle, have determined the outcome of entire wars. Napoleon's invading army lost hundreds of thousands of men and was decimated by the louse-borne disease typhus during their eastward march across Europe in 1812 and 1813.

Insects have also served as important determinants in the fates of human societies and economies throughout human history. The survival of the Israelites during their extended journey through the Sinai Desert was apparently made possible by insects. The manna that they gathered, ate, and survived upon was most likely the excretions of scale insects. If not for the arrival and help of divinely inspired seagulls, a plague of mormon crickets in 1848 may have ruined the crops and doomed the Mormons soon after their arrival in their new home in Utah. The silk trade was central to the economy of the Chinese Empire as was cochineal to the Aztecs of central Mexico. This is also true on a smaller scale for producers of honey and shellac, and for the thriving modern-day trade in insects sold for scientific, educational, and hobbyist uses.

The action of insects even helped to revolutionize the production of one product that has greatly shaped the whole of human civilization over the past 2000 years. Since the "invention" of paper was first proclaimed to the Chinese emperor Ho Ti in 105 A.D. by Ts'ai Lun, a variety of plant fibers were used in the production of paper. As writing flourished, supplies of raw materials for making paper became in short supply. Such was the situation in 16th century Europe, where paper was made from cotton and linen. It was here that observations of paper wasps inspired the French naturalist and physicist Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumer to suggest the use of wood as a papermaking fiber in 1719. These wasps, which chew wood and mix the fibers with saliva to make their nests, served as the inspiration for the use of the plentiful fiber on which modern papermaking is based.

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