Insect Insurgents

By Matthew Harwood

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, an entomologist and professor at the University of Wyoming, argues in The Boston Globe our counterterrorism efforts gloss over a potentially devastating weapon in the terrorist arsenal: insects.

One of the cheapest and most destructive weapons available to terrorists today is also one of the most widely ignored: insects. These biological warfare agents are easy to sneak across borders, reproduce quickly, spread disease, and devastate crops in an indefatigable march. Our stores of grain could be ravaged by the khapra beetle, cotton and soybean fields decimated by the Egyptian cottonworm, citrus and cotton crops stripped by the false codling moth, and vegetable fields pummeled by the cabbage moth. The costs could easily escalate into the billions of dollars, and the resulting disruption of our food supply - and our sense of well-being - could be devastating. Yet the government focuses on shoe bombs and anthrax while virtually ignoring insect insurgents.

Indeed, a great strategic lesson of 9/11 has been overlooked. Terrorists need only a little ingenuity, not sophisticated weapons, to cause enormous damage. Armed only with box cutters, terrorists hijacked planes and brought down the towers of the World Trade Center. Insects are the box cutters of biological warfare - cheap, simple, and wickedly effective.

While Lockwood's argument may initially make eyes roll, he takes the reader on a quick historical tour of how insects have been used in warfare. Prime example: While many know the Black Death was caused by the louse, not many know if began because the Mongols catapulted lice-infested dead bodies into the port city of Kaffa. When the denizens evacuated, they spread the disease throughout the Mediterranean to horrific effect.

And as Lockwood notes, many of the major players in World War II either used or experimented with various forms of insect warfare. As many as 440,000 Chinese died when Japan unleashed plague-carrying fleas and "cholera-coated flies" on the population.

Besides, insects don't only kill humans, they kill crops and other agricultural products. Two insects, according to Lockwood, hold the potential to cause $700 billion in economic damage if they infested American forests. They are the Asian long-horned beetle and the emerald ash borer. For perspective, the 9-11 attacks cost the U.S. economy $27.2 billion in direct losses.

Lockwood argues the United States needs to build an effective pest management system. The upside is it will pay for itself.

Even without help from terrorists, new pests will infiltrate our borders. In the last century, an estimated 553 nonnative organisms settled in the United States, and two-thirds were insects. The 43 insect species for which economic analyses have been conducted account for $93 billion in losses.


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