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10 Surprising Ways Bugs Shaped The Modern World

by Himanshu Sharma
fact checked by Jamie Frater

No matter how much we all hate them, bugs are a crucial part of life on Earth. They help keep the planet’s ecosystem healthy, and without them, life on our world would probably look a lot different than it does now.

That’s not all, though: Bugs have had a huge part to play in the shaping of our civilization as well. Throughout our history, bugs (used here to refer to insects, pathogens, and other assorted creepy-crawlies) have turned the tide of wars, influenced politics, and generally played an important role in shaping the modern world.

10 Lice Halted Napoleon’s Invasion Of Russia

Photo credit: Adolph Northen

Invading Russia and getting destroyed in the process has turned into a running joke by now. Ever since the Russian region was consolidated into one empire, very few forces have had the gall to think of taking it over, given its vast size and bitterly cold winters. Not everyone has been smart enough to figure that out on their own, though. Armies like Hitler’s Germany and Napoleon’s France had to learn their lessons the hard way.

While the Nazis were always kind of doomed to lose due to waging war on more fronts than they could count, France had a real chance of winning. Many people think Napoleon lost due to the same factors as Hitler, though according to some researchers, it wasn’t the cold that defeated him but rather insects.[1]

A French study concluded that about one third of Napoleon’s army during the invasion was decimated by deadly diseases. The worst of them—trench fever and typhus—are caused by body lice. If it wasn’t for the reduced morale and casualties, the outcome of the invasion might have been very different.

9 The Louisiana Purchase

The United States has been a major world power for so long now that we forget that bringing it all together was quite a tedious task. Even after the country gained independence, a lot of what we now know as US territory was owned by multiple factions. If it wasn’t for certain factors coming together for the US government at the right time, maps of the United States today might look quite different.

One of those factors was the Louisiana Purchase. You see, back in the very early 1800s, a huge chunk of North America, known as the Louisiana territory—was held by France under Napoleon. He had no plans to give it up and actually wanted it to be a thriving French colony on the continent.

What changed his mind was a bout of yellow fever among his soldiers fighting in the Caribbean. The disease was spread through mosquitoes and was especially deadly for the French, who had no natural immunity against it. Yellow fever killed about 100 to 120 men per day.

Napoleon’s failure to assert control in the Caribbean due to the disease made him reconsider his plans for the Louisiana territory, and he sold it to the US government for $15 million in 1803.[2]

8 Disease Stopped The Japanese Advance On British India

Japan’s role in World War II has been extensively discussed and scrutinized, though mostly in the context of battles in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. One part that’s often left out of the conversations is its advance on British India, and how close Japan was to winning the war if it wasn’t for some crucial battles there.

In 1944, Japan had successfully managed to surround two major cities in northeast India: Kohima and Imphal. They would have taken them and set up bases for further offensives against the British, too, if it wasn’t for the jungle.

Because of mounting casualties due to diseases like malaria and dysentery in the region, Japan decided to withdraw from both of those advantageous positions. They lost a majority of their forces in the retreat through Burma to disease,[3] and this defeat ended up being the turning point of the war in the Eastern theater. It wasn’t just the Japanese, as the British forces had to deal with the diseases, too. They still held their strategic advantage, though, which eventually helped them to win.

7 When Flowers Took Over The World

If you take a look at all the plants around you, you’d notice that many of them are flowering in nature. They make up a big part of our food, gave us some of our earliest medicines, and provided us with artistic inspiration back when there was nothing to do. Without flowering plants, life on Earth would be very different.

How it happened, though, is one of biology’s biggest mysteries. Before flowering plants took over the world roughly 130 million years ago, the most abundant type of plant was the conifer. But then flowers came out of nowhere and took over, aided by insects like honeybees and butterflies.[4]

If it wasn’t for pollination, flowering plants would have never been able to spread across the world, which would have dramatically altered the modern natural landscape. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that insects made human civilization possible, or at least human civilization as we know it.

6 The Spanish Flu Helped Britain Maintain Control Of India

World War I was such a monumental event that we forget about other, equally important things happening at that time. One of those was the Spanish flu, which possibly killed more people around the world than both of the World Wars combined in a matter of a few years. The reason it happened so fast was the flu bug responsible for it, which spread much faster than normal viruses.

While it had a crucial impact on many world events, one of the most important was its impact on British-controlled India. Indian calls for independence were growing louder in light of the war and Indian participation in it. Mahatma Gandhi had plans for independence and widespread protest as soon as it was over, when Britain was at its weakest. This was also the time when the Spanish flu hit, and—combined with a widespread drought—it adversely affected a large part of the Indian population, including Gandhi.[5]

Because of Gandhi being too weak to oppose it, the Brits continued their strict implementation of martial law (first introduced during the war) across the country. That allowed them to quell any threatening revolts and reaffirmed their hold on the country for another three decades.

Without Britain’s bases in India and all the income they generated, the results of World War II might have been drastically different.

5 More Than Half Of The Human Body Is Made Up Of Microbes

Most people assume that the human body only consists of human cells, which is a fair assumption to make. Some are aware of the presence of bacteria in the gut, but as they don’t tend to cause harm, we don’t give them much thought.

If you look into it, though, you’d find that the number of microbes in the body isn’t just more than you thought; they outnumber your cells. Human cells only amount to 43 percent of the body’s total number of cells.[6] Mounting research on this topic suggests that the microbial diversity in our body is much greater than we ever thought. Everything from bacteria to fungi live in us.

That doesn’t mean that you can start being careless about harmful organisms like stomach bugs. The microbes in the body live in a sort of a symbiotic relationship with us, unlike external bugs that aim to harm. Scientists know that all of our pet microbes help us in some way, though why there are so many of them remains a mystery.

4 Bugs Gave Us Colors

Photo credit: Thelmadatter

We take the various colors around us for granted now, but for a huge part of our history, there was no way to reproduce them. Synthetic dyes didn’t exist back in the day, and other than the colors easily found in nature, it was difficult for artists and craftsmen to use the whole color palette due to that limitation. The solution? Bugs, of course.

From wasps to parasitic insects, we have a long history of using bugs to make our dyes. Take the color red as an example. For the longest time, the red we had was too dull to even look at, which changed when we came in contact with Native Mesoamerican civilizations. They had been using an insect called the cochineal to produce an almost perfect version of the red we saw in nature for quite some time.[7]

Another color that was particularly difficult to reproduce was purple. Purple could be acquired from the city of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon) and was produced from a type of mollusk found in the area. It took more than 9,000 of these mollusks to create just one gram of Tyrian purple. That’s why purple was a color of royalty for the most part, as no one else could afford it.

3 Insects Drive Evolution In Plants

We know that the love-hate relationship between insects and plants plays a huge part in keeping Earth’s ecosystem healthy and also ensures the survival of other forms of life. If that relationship were to be severed in any way, it would be catastrophic for us. The interplay between insects and plants has been extensively studied by science, though we’re nowhere near fully understanding the extent of it.

According to some research, insects may be the main drivers of evolution among plants. In a study published in Science Daily, researchers found that plants which are not treated with insecticide immediately start developing more toxins in their fruits.

In some cases, the evolved traits were visible in just one generation, suggesting that plants don’t just evolve as a response to insect behavior, but they do so rapidly. Evolution usually takes millennia to take shape, but because of insects, plants are capable of evolving in a matter of years. It provides a strong bit of evidence for what scientists have suspected for a long time: Insects are the primary reason behind the overwhelming diversity of plants on Earth.[8]

2 Malaria Gave Way To The UK As We Know It Today

Scotland may part of the United Kingdom now, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the 17th century, Scotland was an independent kingdom, with its own plans to colonize the New World. In the 1690s, around 4,000 Scots landed in the Americas, with dreams of their own colonial empire. What they got wrong, however, was the location. They had landed in what would eventually be known as the one of the world’s deadliest jungles: the Darien Gap, part of modern-day Panama.

Essentially a malarial swamp, the Darien Gap is notorious for its harsh terrain. The Scots had the right idea, as it was then believed to the be the gateway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, though they fell a bit short on reconnaissance before embarking on the mission.

Within two years, half of those settlers were dead due to deadly mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Scotland went bankrupt trying to sustain the colony, which directly led to its joining the United Kingdom in 1707. If not for that misguided attempt at colonization by the Scots—combined with the wrath of the mosquitoes—things might have been different.[9]

1 Insects Were The First Creatures To Fly

The ability to fly is one of the most unique adaptations in the natural world. We don’t think about it as much as we should because so many creatures have it, though from an evolutionary perspective, it remains a mystery. We have no idea when some animals managed to grow their own wings for the first time, and many evolutionary biologists are currently hard at work trying to figure it out.

According to some recent research, though, insects were the first creatures to develop the ability to fly. It was a natural response to plants growing taller in size around 400 million years ago.[10] Land plants came onto the scene around the same time (geologically speaking) as the earliest ancestors of insects. More importantly, insects developed the ability to fly only once, and all subsequent flying insects evolved from that one prototype.

You can check out Himanshu’s stuff at Cracked and Screen Rant, get in touch with him for writing gigs, or just say hello to him on Twitter.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Himanshu Sharma

Himanshu has written for sites like Cracked, Screen Rant, The Gamer and Forbes. He could be found shouting obscenities at strangers on Twitter, or trying his hand at amateur art on Instagram.

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