There is no question that insects have shaped and molded human civilizations. On more than one occasion, the presence of insects has thwarted human attempts to colonize new settlements. Early Norse communities on the island of Greenland, for example, were abandoned long before Columbus “discovered” the New World because the settlers could not compete with insect herbivores (probably armyworms, Agrotis noctua) that pillaged their crops and pasturelands. Mosquitoes and chiggers (the immature stages of certain mites) foiled Francisco de Montejo’s attempts to conquer the Mayan civilization in 1549 and delayed Spanish rule over the Yucatan peninsula (Mexico) by nearly 150 years. Even today, tsetse flies (Glossina spp.) prevent colonization of large parts of central Africa because they spread the trypanosome parasites that cause sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in cattle.
On the other hand, insects have also served to accelerate cultural evolution. Silkworms, for example, were certainly a driving force behind the establishment of trade between Europe and China, and were still a factor in 1492 when Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the New World More about Sericulture in his quest to find a sea route to the silk and spices of the Orient. The cotton boll weevil, a major agricultural pest that ravaged the South’s economy during the late 1800’s, has been credited with forcing agricultural diversification, stimulating industrial development, and stabilizing the South’s rural economy. A large monument erected in 1919 on the town square of Enterprise, Alabama is inscribed: “In profound appreciation of the boll weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity.”
The sociological impact of insects has been keenly felt on the battlefield. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that, over the course of human history, more soldiers have died from lice and mosquitoes than from bullets and bombs. These insects spread diseases that have affected entire armies, influenced the outcome of wars, and determined the fate of empires. More about
Insects and WarBody lice are notorious for the spread of epidemic typhus, often called trench fever because it thrives so well in the unsanitary conditions of wartime. Malaria and yellow fever, both transmitted by mosquitoes, have also taken a deadly toll - especially when battles have been fought in tropical and subtropical climates. The wartime impact of insect-borne disease has decreased ever since the discovery of modern chemical insecticides. The turning point came during World War II (1942-1945) when American forces gained a tactical advantage over their enemies by using DDT, a newly discovered insecticide, to kill the lice and mosquitoes that spread disease. In fact, DDT has been credited with saving more lives than penicillin, particularly in the Pacific theater. The Japanese army was not well-equipped to fight insect-borne disease, and some historians believe that widespread epidemics of typhus and malaria would have soon forced Japan to surrender, even if the United States had not dropped the atomic bomb.