Though almost 70 percent of the world’s bees have been wiped out, they once played an important role in warfare
- A long time ago, I was stung by a bee on the nape of my neck. My husband immediately ran inside, cut a potato in half and applied it to the sting. It worked to extract the sting and some of the poison but it hurt for days. Once Rajiv, Sonia and the children went on a picnic. One of them threw a stone at a wasp’s nest and they came back with hundreds of stings, ill for days. Luckily, none of them was allergic to the poison because people who are allergic can actually die of a single sting.
Bees are essential to pollination. Many people eat their honey. Today, the nicotinoid pesticides, which came in use in 2000, have almost wiped out 70 percent of the species. I wonder whether young people these days have ever even seen bees. Let us go back to a time when they made history.
Hives as weapons
Bees, wasps and hornets were used for centuries as essential weapons of war in battles across Europe. The predecessor of the Gatling machine gun was a windmill like weapon that threw straw beehives at the enemy. Alexander’s father Philip was credited with this invention.
According to the book Six Legged Soldiers, the first time bees were used in attacks was when man still lived in caves. Warring tribes (when was man ever not in a state of constant warfare) would cut down beehives at night when the creatures were calm and unable to see intruders, cover the hive with mud to prevent them from emerging and then throw the hives into enemy caves. When the hives burst, the enraged insects would attack the dwellers of the caves who could not even run out because the enemy waited outside.
In the Old Testament of the Bible this is apparently a common tactic. The Joshua chapter 24:12 reads “I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out from before you, even the two kings of the Amorites.” In Exodus it mentions “and I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite from before thee.”
Ancient Nigerian tribes developed bee-cannons. Large horns were prepared, bees loaded into them and then directed at the enemy.
The Mayans had elegant weapons. They built dummy warriors whose heads were made of hollow gourds filled with bees. Invaders were fooled into smashing their heads and beating a hasty retreat.
The armies in the Middle East were even cleverer. Experts in pottery, they made special clay containers that attracted these insects who made nests in them. When these had to be used, the containers were plugged with grass and then these grenades were lobbed at the enemy. Seeing the success of the bees, they progressed to using other insects like ants and scorpions.
As the cities progressed and wars between city states increased, the ramparts around cities grew and each one became a fortress. Invading armies surrounded the fortress and camped there for weeks and months, stopping food and water and often digging tunnels to get in secretly. In 400 BC, Aeneias, the Roman war tactician, wrote a book on surviving sieges. He advised the besieged people “to release wasps and bees in the tunnels being dug under their walls, in order to plague their attackers.”
The Roman army used bees and hornets as an essential part of their expansion programme. And Pliny—who was considered the world’s most important naturalist of his time—wrote utter nonsense about all nature’s creatures. He declared that it took 27 stings to kill a human. So common was the use of bees as weapons by the Romans that there was a sharp decline in nests during the days of the Roman Empire.
Using insects to defend walled cities had, by then, become common practice throughout Europe. In 908, Chester in England, was attacked by Scandinavians who built tunnels undeterred by boiling oil and rocks. Finally, the residents of Chester collected all the beehives in their city and threw them into the tunnels. The attackers fled. Seven hundred years later, the Scandinavians attempted the same in the city of Kissingen and its inhabitants threw beehives at them. The warriors were protected but their horses panicked and ran.
By then, all of Europe had picked up this trick. The Germans used bees to drive the Austrians away; the Greek islands used them to drive away pirates; the Hungarians drove away the Turks and so did the Austrians; the Moors drove away the Portuguese. Even nunneries took to using bees to drive away male invaders. In fact, most cities started growing their own beehives in castles in the United Kingdom. Particularly in Scotland, recesses made for beehives can still be seen.
King Richard the Lion Hearted, the absent hero of the Robin Hood story, left England to attack the Muslims and recapture the mystical Holy Grail of Jerusalem. The wars were known as the Crusades. His title ‘Lion Hearted’ was changed to ‘Richard the Bee Armed’ because he used these insects in catapults to mount his assaults.
Even naval battles were fought with them. Ship crews as early as 300 BC took bee nests on board and flung them across enemy decks—a practice that lasted till the 16th century.
The word bombard, which is used to describe throwing a large number of projectiles, comes in fact from the Latin word ‘Bombus’ which means buzzing!
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