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The Role of Insect Epidemics and Human History

April 1, 2013

Throughout history, bugs and people have been at odds. Sometimes we live symbiotically, while other times we’ve fallen prey to the diseases bugs can spread. Insects have had such a dramatic impact on the human race as a whole that they’ve actually changed the course of history. In this timeline, we’ll show you the impacts insect epidemics have had on human history, and the role Orkin has played along the way.


Fleas Cause Bubonic Plague

Rodent fleas transmit bubonic plague to humans, which kills 60 percent of Europe’s population. Ultimately, this changes Europe’s economy completely, since wages are raised to help those who survive.


French Wine Industry Wiped Out by Phylloxera

Phylloxera, closely related to the aphid, wipe out the French wine industry. Afterward, studies show that hybridization and grafting cuttings onto stronger root systems help strengthen the plants.

Napolean's army

Typhus Helps Destroy Napoleon’s Army

Typhoid fever, spread through lice, takes out Napoleon’s Army in Russia. Just one month into the campaign, Napoleon loses 80,000 soldiers to typhus and dysentery, which ultimately contributes to Napoleon’s retreat.

Locust swarm

The Year of the Locusts

Locust swarms 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide completely decimate the farming industry in the U.S. Midwest.

Otto Orkin

Otto Orkin Begins Orkin Pest Control

When arsenic is first commercially produced in the U.S., 14-year-old Otto Orkin begins selling his special blend of rat poison door to door. As he develops his business over the years, he also helps fight insect- and pest-borne illness into the next century.

SEM mosquitoe

Malaria Discovered to Come from Mosquitoes

Sir Ronald Ross discovers that infected female mosquitoes are responsible for carrying malaria, a disease that still kills millions every year. Malaria is endemic in Africa, Central America, and much of Southern Asia and northern South America, and cases are still found in the U.S. today.

Bol Weevil

Bol Weevil Changes Farming

The bol weevil arrives in Alabama from Mexico. It remains the most destructive cotton pest in North America for much of the twentieth century, causing losses in the estimated billions of dollars. But farmers learn to diversify their crops, avoiding future losses.

Typhoid Fever

Typhoid Fever Kills Millions Post WWI

Between 1918 and 1922, typhus causes at least 3 million deaths. In Russia after World War I, during the civil war between the White and Red armies, typhus kills 3 million people, largely civilians.

Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine


Body Lice Causes Deadly Typhus

Typhus, also known as a disease of war, is discovered to be carried by and transmitted to humans by body lice. Charles Nicolle receives the 1928 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his identification of lice as the transmitter of epidemic typhus.

Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine


DDT Is Invented

DDT — an insecticide used until the late 1960s — is invented. DDT is thought to have contributed to reduction in bed bug populations and was widely used by the government to control pests.

Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Orkin Wagon

Orkin Proves Essential to War Efforts

Orkin used wagons like the one pictured above to make customer service calls during the gasoline rationing of World War II. The “V” on the side of the wagon stood for victory.

World War II

World War II Pestilence Takes Its Toll

It’s estimated that more than 1 million people overseas died during World War II due to vector-borne illnesses alone, such as typhus, malaria, dengue fever, scabies, sand fly fever and filariasis.

Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine


Termite Fumigation Method Perfected by Orkin

Drywood termites first become a problem in Florida, which leads to a tarp fumigation method that Orkin perfects by the 1950s. The National Pest Management Association (NPMA) reports termite damage causes almost $5 billion a year for the American homeowner.


DDT Use Is Reduced

The federal government “phases out” all but “essential uses” of DDT within two years. The worldwide demand for DDT still increases as underdeveloped countries face the immediate desperate problems of feeding their populations and protecting their health.


Lyme Disease Is Discovered

Lyme disease, spread by the deer tick, is discovered in a small town in Connecticut. Children develop mysterious aches and pains as well as rashes that finally lead back to a parasite carried by deer ticks in the woods of Connecticut.

O. Orkin Insect Zoo

Orkin Exhibit Opens at Smithsonian

Orkin sponsors the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Visitors can observe live insects and their many-legged relatives. Learn more about the O. Orkin Insect Zoo.

West Nile Virus

West Nile Virus — Modern-Day Threat

West Nile Virus first appears in North America in late 1999, and since then more than 30,000 people in the U.S. have been reported with the virus. Luckily, Orkin offers mosquito control service to help reduce mosquito populations.

Center for Disease Control

Orkin Partners with the CDC

Orkin partners with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help educate consumers about West Nile Virus.


Orkin Helps Fight Malaria in Africa

Orkin raises money for Nothing But Nets, which distributes insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets to malaria-prone areas of Africa to help prevent the spread of malaria. By the end of 2011, Orkin raised more than $818,000 to purchase almost 82,000 nets.