Insects that have Shaped Human History

Insects that have shaped human history

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Insects are all around us. They’re the most abundant type of land-dwelling creature, and there are more than 900 thousand living species that we know of.

Whether you love them or hate them, insects have had a profound impact on human history. Some have had an incredibly positive impact, whereas others have been more of a nuisance. Still, their role in our history cannot be ignored.

1. Honeybee

Honeybee: Insects that have Shaped Human History

The honey bee is perhaps one of the most important insects on the planet. They’re responsible for pollinating a huge number of human crops like melons, raspberries, cucumbers, and apples, among others. Plus, they produce honey which has long been used for its nutritional and medicinal properties.

Use of Honey in Ancient Civilizations

The use of honey over thousands of years has been highly documented. Look at the promised land of Milk and Honey in Biblical scriptures, and let’s not forget about how highly prized the substance was in Ancient Egypt.

In fact, the earliest harvest of bee products can be traced back to the year 7000 BC, where we find the remains of beeswax used by humans.

In Ancient Egypt, honey would be combined with propolis and the resulting substance would be used to embalm the deceased, preventing decay from taking over. It was believed that honey was a sacred liquid and, while obviously delivered by bees, the Egyptians believed it to be the tears of the ancient God, Ra.

Not only this, but the ancient Egyptians would use honey for the treatment of wounds and other medicinal purposes, as well as eating plenty of it in their diet. The beautiful Queen Cleopatra was famous for taking milk and honey baths, and the Egyptians may have been one of the first civilizations to realize the beneficial effects of honey on the skin.

But it wasn’t all good back in those days. There were some sorcerers in Egyptian times that would craft dolls from beeswax, in the hope that any pain the befell the doll would also be inflicted upon the person on which it was created. These might be considered some of the first voodoo dolls!

If we go back to the 14th century BC and head to Ancient Greece, we see the use of beeswax for writing tablets. And it’s no wonder they were so keen to use bee products here since many believed that the longevity of the Greek philosophers was because of their affinity for honey.

The ancient Romans also seemed to have figured out the benefits of honey and, just like the Egyptians, would use it to treat wounds.

Throughout many civilizations and periods, we see the use of honey as a sweetener, and it wasn’t until much later on in the 17th century that sugar began to take over. Even at this point, beeswax was being used to make candles in churches, and it’s still a popular choice for candles to this very day.

Importance to Agriculture & Food Production

It’s quite easy to swat a bee when it’s buzzing around you or look for ways to remove or kill an uninvited nest in your backyard. But without bees, we wouldn’t have the variety of foods we are used to. That’s because bees are responsible for pollinating as many as 75% of crops.

The beekeeping industry is one that rakes in billions of dollars for agriculture every year. Apiarists transport hives to farms throughout the growing season and some farmers even start their own apiaries so that the bees can assist in pollination. This is so successful that reports state that even wild bees provide more than $3000 worth of profit for every hectare of land each year.

There is a myth that states that, without bees, all crops would fail but this isn’t necessarily true. While there would be a hugely noticeable reduction in crop yield, humans are coming up with ways to artificially pollinate. That said, it’s still vital that we protect our bees and let nature do what it does best.

Consider that bees are responsible for producing half of the world’s oils and as much as a third of our entire food production, and it’s easy to see why they’re so essential.

Use in Modern Day Medicine & Cosmetics

Honey is one of the most resistant natural substances on the planet. There have been jars of perfectly preserved honey found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and it’s said that this stuff never spoils. That’s because bacteria cannot survive in honey which is one of the reasons it’s used in medical products; it’s an antimicrobial.

Not only that, but honey is also an effective anti-inflammatory that is used in the treatment of rashes, scars, wounds, and other skin conditions. This is known as apitherapy and is something that has existed for many thousands of years.

Honey is also an effective treatment for respiratory infections and is often used as a natural treatment for coughs, colds, and sore throats. Honey bee venom is now also being used for the treatment of respiratory conditions such as asthma.

And it doesn’t end there! The venom of honey bees has been used in injections not only as a viable method of treating bee sting allergies but also for the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism.

Outside of medicine, bee products are widely used in the production of cosmetics and beauty products. Lip balms made from beeswax are big business thanks to the substances softening and healing properties. When the lips are dry or chapped, the anti-inflammatory properties of beeswax can calm irritation and will lock in moisture, preventing further dryness.

Similar results can be achieved when wax is used in lotions and skincare products. Moreover, honey is a common ingredient in things like hair care products thanks to its ability to smooth hair follicles and prevent flyaways. What’s more, it’s super nourishing and moisturizing, leaving the hair feeling soft and in excellent condition.

Even around the home, beeswax is an important product. You’ll often see it being used to make candles, and it’s a common ingredient in furniture polish as the wax protects the wood from moisture and effectively buffs out scratches.

2. Silk Moth

Silk moth: Insects that have Shaped Human History

The silk moth, as well as its larvae, the silkworm, has been used for many years in the production of silk. Silk is a highly sought-after material, and the use of these insects is one of the most important ways that bugs have shaped our history.

Production of Textiles Since Ancient Times

The production of silk can be dated back to the 4th millennium BC in ancient China. It was here that silk was confined until the silk road opened almost 3 millenia later. Prior to this, silk was used in China for clothing but also for a variety of other applications, such as writing. In ancient Chinese civilizations, even the color of silk was important as it denoted your class. Only the very wealthy and the nobility would be permitted to wear silk, and it wasn’t until the 1600s that anyone in the lower classes was allowed to wear it.

The initial idea of harvesting and using silk is thought to be attributed to Leizi, wife of the yellow Emperor. Legend has it that she was taking tea in the garden when an unraveled cocoon fell into her lap, and she was able to see how strong the silk was. It’s so strong that scientists have reported it to be 70% stronger than spider silk. 

It wasn’t until a thousand years after the silk road opened that other countries began producing anywhere near as much silk as China. It took until 300 AD for another nation, Japan, to begin taking over the monopoly. This was thanks to the Byzantine Empire, who began cultivating their own silkworms in order to produce their own products. It was at the same time that Arab countries also jumped on the bandwagon. That said, it is thought that the Indians began producing silk well before this in around 120 AD.

For many years, silk production was unheard of in Europe, but by the 13th century AD, the Italians had gotten on board and became one of the most prolific producers of silk in the world. Even today, the country is renowned for its fine silk.

It’s pretty amazing how silk is produced and it all starts with the cocoon of the silk moth larvae. After four molts, the cocoon becomes covered in a silk filament protein known as fibroin. These are held together with sericin, and when the cocoon is soaked in hot water, the filaments can unravel. At this point, the sericin is removed and the remaining fibers can be reeled and spun.

Today, many materials are made from synthetic fibers, but there’s still a place for silk in the market. In fact, in the last 30 years alone, global silk production has more than doubled. While China and nearby Japan are still some of the largest producers of silk, other countries like Italy, India, Brazil, and Thailand are all producing enormous amounts each year.

Impact on Trade & Commerce

Today, we take for granted the ability to trade with countries all over the world. But things haven’t always been quite as simple. Before the opening of the silk road, silk was only produced and used in China. There were examples of silk being used in other cultures, such as Ancient Egyptian mummies from around 1070 BC, but these incidents were few and far between.

However, in the 2nd century AD, the silk road allowed other nations to take advantage of this highly prized material. That said, for the following 1000 years, China would still monopolize the silk industry.

The silk road ran from the northern part of China, across the Middle East and ended up in the Mediterranean. This changed the way that silk and other products such as gold, silver, and wool could be traded. And it wasn’t just goods that traveled the silk road, religious scholars would travel along its 4000 miles spreading the word of their faith. Moreover, travelers were able to spread their culture via the silk road, performing dances and music, as well as offering paintings and other crafts. On the downside, it was thought that the bubonic plague was transferred from Europe to Asia via this route.

Economically speaking, the silk road had a major impact on society. Never before have we people been able to trade valuable goods, and the ability to do so meant a growth in urban areas and greater prosperity for nations and their citizens. But without the humble silk moth, none of this would have been possible.

Use in Biotechnology & Medicine

Many insects have been used in medicine, and the silk moth is no exception. These critters make small cocoons for their metamorphosis from larva to moth. Their structure and construction is so adept that humans have begun creating their own versions in order to store sensitive proteins and molecules for use at a later date. These microscopic versions of natures’ cocoons were created at the University of Cambridge and are up to 1000 smaller than those of the silk moth larva. 

The strength of silk moth silk is also one of the main reasons it’s used in science and medicine for things like dressings. While the spider usually takes the limelight where strong silk is concerned, we’ve now discovered that chemically bathed silk moth silk is more than 70% stronger than that of a spider.

On top of this, silkworm silk is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and is therefore used in a drug designed for this very purpose. The drug, known commercially as Danzen, contains a compound called serrapaptase which is derived from silkworm silk. The drug has been used to treat swelling after oral surgery as well as for upper respiratory conditions, among other things.

3. Mosquito

Mosquito: Insects that have Shaped Human History

Mosquitoes are one of the insects with the worst reputations. They’re pesky, they bite, and they seem to be everywhere! However, while they may be bothersome, they’re also an important part of our history.

Spreading Diseases

If you’re heading to a foreign country where mosquitoes are a big problem, you’ll likely be advised to have a vaccine before traveling. This is to avoid contracting conditions such as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and the dreaded Zika virus, all of which are carried by mozzies.

These flying insects bite humans and other animals, often without being noticed. While their mouthparts pierce the skin, this is typically painless, and it’s only afterward that we start to feel the itchy, irritating effects.

Malaria, one of the most dreaded diseases spread by mosquitoes, is responsible for killing more humans than any other disease in history. It has created more pandemics and endemics than anything we’ve ever known and it’s a particular problem for developing nations. While there are programs promoting the use of malaria vaccines in developing countries, supplies are still limited so this disease is much more easily spread. Each year, more than 245 million cases of malaria are diagnosed. 

Zika virus is another potentially deadly disease transmitted by mosquitoes, and while cases around the world have declined, it’s still a serious problem. In many people, the condition does not show any symptoms. However, where it does, this may include things like headaches, muscle pain, and conjunctivitis. In pregnant women, the Zika virus can affect the unborn fetus and even result in miscarriage. The virus often resides in the sexual organs, so sexual activity is discouraged for those diagnosed with the virus to prevent its spread.

Historical Impact on Wars & Colonization

Imagine you’re a military leader, taking an army into an area where mosquitoes are rife. The last thing you’d want would be for your men to contract potentially deadly viruses and be unable to fight. But this is an issue that has faced military strategists over the course of history and careful planning around the problem has been necessary.

But for the United States, foreigners facing problems from mozzies has actually been a good thing. During the war for American Independence, more than 60% of the British Army was struck down by mosquito-borne diseases meaning that their leader, Cornwallis, had to withdraw because, and I quote he could not call more than 1000 men healthy. 

John McNeill, a professor of history from Georgetown penned an entire book on the subject of mosquitoes and their historical impacts, called Mosquito Empires. It points out some of the ways that these creatures have shaped our history, including their impact on the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire was surrounded by marshes and since mosquitoes love to lay their eggs around water, it’ll come as no surprise that these marshes were infested with them. This was certainly to the benefit of the Romans who had a natural barrier around their land. However, while this barrier was certainly effective, over the course of time, even the Romans were affected by mosquito-borne diseases which eventually caused the downfall of their empire.

Scientific Discoveries

We often think of mosquitoes as bad insects and it’s true that they cause a lot of problems. But they’ve also helped humans in many ways in terms of scientific discoveries. For example, these creatures actually helped humans discover treatments for the disease malaria, which they spread, as well as developing vaccines for it. And without using mosquitoes in research, we never would have discovered that they were responsible for spreading malaria in the first place. 

Moreover, using mosquitoes, scientist Walter Reed was able to prove that these pesky insects also spread yellow fever, which was previously thought to have been caused by linens and clothing. As a direct result of his findings, it was then possible to trial a series of inoculations against the disease.

Hundreds of years ago, people in Peru noticed the positive effects of the cinchona tree on malaria. It’s no surprise when you learn that its bark contains quinine, a common ingredient in anti-malarial drugs. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the chemical components of the bark were discovered by scientists. Off the back of this, modern anti-malarial drugs were made using the now well-known chloroquine.

And the development of malaria treatments did not end there. One of the major problems is that mosquitoes and the parasite that causes malaria, are becoming more resistant to our drugs. So scientists have started attempting to genetically modify mozzies in hopes that the insects will be able to attach the parasite with anti-microbial molecules, secreted after a blood meal. Scientists have also been developing a drug that works in a similar way, inhibiting the abilities of the parasite and preventing it from bursting out of red blood cells and infecting the host.

4. Flea

Flea: Insects that have Shaped Human History

A small jumping insect, the flea is another creature that’s feared by humans. It’s often found as a parasite on animals, but despite this, there’s no denying it’s been an influential insect.

Spread of Plagues

One of the most infamous pandemics in human history was the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, which occurred in the 14th century, killing more than 25 million people. That might not seem like a lot but consider that, by this time, the global population was only 440 million. With so many killed, this had a direct impact on trade, farming, and family life. 

One of the major contributors to the spread of the plague were fleas. During pandemics like this, many rodents die off, leaving the fleas without a host. As a result, they search out other hosts, including humans and, since they carry the bacteria that causes the plague, it spreads much more rapidly.

It’s believed that the Black Death was carried along trade routes which is what made it spread so easily. It was caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis which is carried by fleas. However, throughout history, the bacteria has been found in human dental remains from around 5000 years ago.

While most of us associate the bubonic plague with history, it actually still exists today. Reported cases worldwide are incredibly low, with only around 1000 to 2000 annual cases, according to the CDC. However, back in 2013, there was another outbreak of the plague on the large African island of Madagascar.

While this is one of the countries with the most reports of the plague in general, a more severe outbreak occurred in 2013. There’s a plague season on Madagascar, and this year, it arrived early. Over the course of just three months, as many as 84 cases were reported and around half of these resulted in death.

Used in Biological Weapons

What better way to defeat your enemy than with biological warfare? It’s so effective that military leaders in WWII opted for flea attacks. Japan developed a bomb that contained as many as 30,000 fleas encased in oxygen to help them survive at high altitudes. The bomb was dropped on a Chinese city and resulted in the death of hundreds of people.

But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the case was brought before a court, and evidence of the hundreds of deaths as a result of the plague-infected fleas was heard. 

There was a plan, known as Operation PX, to drop another flea-infested bomb in the United States in San Diego. However, the Japanese military backed out, realizing that this would make way for intense biological warfare between the two nations which wouldn’t benefit anyone.

5. Locust

Locust: Insects that have Shaped Human History

Did you see the latest Jurassic Park movie, where thousands of locusts were released, causing havoc? If you did, this isn’t too far from the truth; these insects have had devastating impacts on humans for thousands of years.

Historical Plagues & Famines

When you think of locusts, you probably imagine the biblical plagues released by God. According to this ancient religious test, locusts were used by the Almighty to discipline those on earth; they were a symbol of God’s wrath.

But even beyond biblical claims, locusts have often been known to swarm and cause terrible damage to crops. In the world of agriculture, these insects are one of the most feared pests. In 1874, it was reported that more than 120 billion locusts descended upon the Great Plains, eating everything they could get their mouthparts on. In total, it was estimated that that caused around $200 million worth of damage; can you imagine how much that would be in today’s money?

In 1915, in Jerusalem, there was another locust plague that was recorded by American colonists in the area. The same colonists created an innovative trapping technique to catch the locusts, but the damage to local fruit and crops was devastating, resulting in very empty market stalls for some time to come.

Impact on Modern Day Agriculture & Food Security

I’ve spoken about climate change several times and tried to drive home the fact that the effects aren’t just summers that are a few degrees hotter. As a result of global warming, humans have and will be impacted in several ways.

One of these ways is an increase in locust populations which has a direct impact on our crops. This may sound like a problem for down the line but it’s already happening in places like India and Africa. Agriculture in these areas is suffering due to these pests. There have been several reported outbreaks including a very severe one in 2020 that saw as much as 33% crop damage in the state of Rajasthan. 

Studies have shown that as global warming gets worse, so will problems with locusts, and the concern is a threat to our food security. Moreover, reports of locust outbreaks over the course of the years always seem to tie in with warm, dry weather, which is happening more and more due to climate change. 

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