Funtabulously Frivolous Flyday Five 093

Flying corpses, drug-fuelled orgies and things that go squish in the night: there is a distinctive buzz about this week’s Funtabulously Frivolous Flyday.


Question 1

Which insect-borne disease was used for biological warfare in 1346?

  • Bubonic plague
  • In one of the earliest – and deadliest – examples of biological warfare, a horde of Tartars catapulted plague-ridden corpses into the besieged city of Caffa in the Crimea:

“They ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army. Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.”

Gabriele de’ Mussi, Historia de morbo sive mortalitate que fuit de 1348.

Biological warfare at the 1346 siege of Caffa. Wheelis M. Emerg Infect Dis. 2002 Sep;8(9):971-5.

Question 2

Excluding vectors of disease like the mosquito, what is the world’s most dangerous insect?

  • The honeybee
  • The humble bee has a fairly good claim to be the world’s most lethal animal. Approximately 50 people are killed from bees each year in the US, mostly as a consequence of anaphylaxis.
  • There have been several recent high-profile deaths from the invasion of the Americas by African Killer Bees, a notoriously aggressive hybrid that escaped from a breeding facility in Sao Paolo in 1957.


Question 3

Which potentially lethal bug bit Charles Darwin during a visit to Argentina?

  • A triatomine bug – also known as a kissing or assassin bug.

“At night I experienced an attack, & it deserves no less a name, of the Benchuca, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over ones body; before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards round & bloated with blood, & in this state they are easily squashed.”
— Charles Darwin, Journal and Remarks, 26 March 1835

  • Triatomines are vectors for Trypansoma cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas disease. They are known as kissing bugs because they are attracted by the odour of human breath and usually bite people near their mouth, during sleep. Humans become infected with the trypanosome by scratching the bite site, and inadvertently rubbing triatomine excreta into the wound.

triatomine bug

Question 4

How can you close a wound with an arthropod?

  • With an army surgery ant, various species of which can be found in Central America and East Africa.

Question 5

What insect-derived aphrodisiac was also used to kill unwanted husbands?

  • Cantharidin – colloquially known as Spanish Fly.
  • The Spanish Fly isn’t a fly at all – it is a blister beetle, which secretes cantharidin, a powerful vesicant.
  • Small quantities of cantharidin cause irritation of the urogenital tract, and it is this property that earns its reputation as an aphrodisiac. The Marquis de Sade is reported to have given cantharidin-laced aniseed pastilles to prostitutes at an orgy in 1772.
  • In higher doses cantharidin is lethal. It was incorporated in Aqua Toffana, a mixture of beetle extract and arsenic created by Giulia Toffana, a 17th century Italian businesswoman, for the purpose of mariticide (elimination of unwanted husbands). Signora Toffana later confessed – under torture – to the poisoning of 600 men.
  • These days cantharidin is used for more mundane purposes – topical treatment of molluscum contagiosum.


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  1. says

    This is brilliant! It has been a while since I have read something so simultaneously horrifyingly disgusting yet fascinating. Catapaulting rotting plague ridden copses?!? Inspired!

    • says

      Credit goes to the Tartars who tried to turn a negative (dying from plague) into a positive (killing someone else). They thereby made the serendipitous discovery that bubonic plague can be transmitted directly from human to human, particularly if the donor goes splat. It took another 500 years before the connection between plague, rats and fleas was made -- by Alexandre Yersin.

      Rumour has it that Steak Tartare is named after its resemblance to a catapulted human body, post-impact.