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Insect warfare is more relentless than man’s belligerence

Posted in Biology, Insects, Medicine, Nature on Monday, 30 January 2012

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This edited article about insects originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 619 published on 24 November 1973.

Plague rat, picture, image, illustration

Fleas living on rats aboard ships newly docked from the East were responsible for carrying the deadly virus which is known as the plague

Visitors to a huge zoo in recent years have been very astonished when confronted by a notice there. “You are now staring at the most savage creature in the world,” it reads, from a position above a full-length mirror. For people who don’t immediately grasp the message, a keeper usually can be found nearby to explain that Man is the cruellest, deadliest species on this planet.

In the Second World War, he killed over 22 million of his own kind. Since peace came, he has whittled down this number to nearly two million. Somewhere in the region of 200,000 people a year are killed in acts of violence.

With such scant respect for his own species, it is not surprising that he has had very little for others. Many animals have been made almost extinct by his desire for food, pelts, ivory, territory or merely the pleasure of hunting and killing.

Most animals fear him – an instinct created by thousands of years of subjugation, it has been suggested – and few rise against him. It is those few that concern us in this series. Man is a proven man-killer. But which other creatures are? Which can he regularly fear?

If any one creature were to be indicted as the greatest mass slaughterer of Man it would be Anopheles – still breeding and killing prolifically, yet unknown to the vast majority of people by its proper name. It is the deadliest of over 2,000 mosquitoes and carries malaria, a disease that has affected Man disastrously.

Either it kills outright or so undermines the health of people that they have no desire to work and thus advance their standard of living, a fact noticeable in primitive parts of Africa.

Because malaria rarely strikes in the west, it tends to be regarded there as an overseas curiosity, something heard about and soon forgotten. Harsh reality, however, is different . . . and alarming. Half the world is still menaced today by the mosquito, and over 1,000 million people are held to ransom by the disease it carries.

If it must have a headline, the mosquito could be called queen of the man-killers – for it is always the female that transmits the disease – and yet, it is only the most efficient of an army of killers.

It has been said grimly that this is not so much the age of man as the age of insects. And it may well be true. Insects have baffled and frustrated us since the beginning of time, developed uncanny skills and organisation long before we did, waged unremitting war on us and resourcefully shrugged off our attempts to overwhelm them. The mosquito, for instance, is gradually building up a resistance to the chemicals developed to exterminate it.

Other insects, too, have a greater hold on Man than is popularly thought. There is a tendency to believe that because an insect has been identified as the carrier of a disease, and because a cure of sorts has been found for that disease, the problem is ended. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The insects swarm onwards, regaining influence they once lost because of factors like indifference, ignorance, unstable circumstances in a country or lack of financial resources.

Thus the tsetse fly keeps sweeping back to lay low thousands of people. This tiny creature, little larger than a housefly, causes sleeping sickness which kills humans and cattle. The victims are seized by terrible sickness and lethargy which may last days, months or years, depending on the species of the fly. And eventually death comes.

Research has worked wonders in combating the disease but the wonders have not yet proved sufficient. Every year there are outbreaks in Africa, some of them nearing epidemic proportions. At the start of the 1960s, for example, the tsetse fly seemed well under control in the Congo.

Very few cases of sleeping sickness were reported. But then came civil war in that area, and medical attention had to be diverted to its casualties. By the time civil unrest was stilled, tens of thousands of people had fallen victim to the tsetse fly and the position has grown little better in recent years. Then, too, because cattle are affected, there is another catastrophic effect on Man. Not only do the cattle die, but they also fail to reproduce, and thus the already grave problem of starvation becomes worse.

As is the case with the mosquito, insecticides have been successful in controlling the onslaught of the tsetse fly, but they have never been entirely effective. Somehow it builds up a resistance to them and starts to proliferate once more.

Tiny as it is, the flea continues to be a scourge of Man as well. The plague, which decimated Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages, may seem just a bad memory now confined within the pages of history books, but it still has its outbreaks.

In medieval times, it was spread throughout the civilised world by the black rat, which carried the fleas that transmitted the disease. Only when the black rat was driven away by the sturdier brown rat did the plague die out.

What is not generally known is that, even now, perhaps as many as seventy species of animal may accommodate plague fleas. In America, it was reported not long ago that rabbit burrows were found crawling with them.

The first half of this century has seen millions of deaths from the plague, notably in India. Between 1894 and 1917, nearly ten million died of it there. There have also been severe outbreaks in parts of South America. Admittedly it can be brought under control quickly nowadays if it looks like reaching epidemic proportions, but nevertheless there are still something like 200 deaths a year from it. The plague is still very far from being extinct and will remain so as long as fleas remain alive.

Fleas are also responsible for a form of typhus, though a milder form than that which has terrorised mankind in years gone by.

That one is caused by the louse, pediculus humanus, and it has killed millions. Again, it is largely under control today, only a few fatalities being recorded each year, but its source has not been eliminated. Conceivably there could yet be severe outbreaks if the conditions were ripe: namely the filth and squalor in which the louse thrives.

Mosquitoes, flies, fleas and lice – these are the animal kingdom’s greatest enemies of Man. And, as far as can be seen, they will go on imposing a severe threat to his existence for years to come.

It is agreed by health organisations that these tiny killers could be wiped out entirely. All that prevents it is Man himself. He never takes the threat of insects very seriously, and consequently he never provides enough money to facilitate the research and conditions that could lead to his greatest conquest. He appears to be more fascinated by insects that appear bigger and bolder and more dramatic than the germ-carrying killers.

When bees kill about twenty-five people a year in the United States, it is news. When driver ants march like armies but rarely kill anyone – and then only in freak circumstances – it is news. When the Black Widow, the world’s deadliest spider – and not technically an insect but an arachnid – causes vast numbers of deaths that, too, is chilling news.

In the meantime, the insects go marching on – causing far more deaths than all the other animals in the world put together.

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