Insect warfare

I have a copy of the book “6-Legged Soldiers” and was hoping to review it later this year,soldiers but I got scooped by the author (or his publicist) who had the clever idea of promoting the book as an example of how terrorists could destroy us all.

Jeffrey Lockwood, an entomologist at the University of Wyoming, is on the talk show circuit to promote his new book, Six-legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that planning a bio-terror attack using insects would “probably be much easier” than developing nuclear or chemical weapons.

Now, I’m always happy when an entomology book makes the popular press, but this is the sort of fear mongering that is just not helpful. Not only will it result in more folks seeing insects as evil enemies, it feeds into the hysteria over terrorism that has eroded our civil liberties for the last 6 years.

Amusingly, some of the Rapture/The End Is Near crowd have seen this book as validation of some bizarre predictions in Revelations:

Revelations, Chapter 9: 3
And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.

Aside from insects as Apocalyptic 5th Horseman, is there anything to worry about? Probably not, as I’ll explain below, but I am troubled by some of the media coverage.

The book’s blurb (which is much quoted in press stories like the one above) describes the release of medflies in California as an example of recent ecoterrorism.  I’m afraid the medfly invasion is much more complex than they portray.

The initial medfly infestation was accidental, probably from infested fruit being imported. It was only once the government began public spraying programs with malathion that a group calling themselves “The Breeders” claimed to be releasing medflies.  Their idea was to make the government acknowledge the control was hopeless and stop spraying.  (Except, of course, they just sprayed more. Oops.)

Did the “Breeders” really release Medflies? There is circumstantial evidence that flies did show up in odd numbers in unexpected places.  One way to solve this question would be to examine the genetics of the population to see if it’s from one or multiple sources–alas, from a genetics review paper, that hasn’t been too successful:

The history of medfly invasions in California has been reviewed recently by several authors (MC PHERON et al. 1995; RODERICK 1996 B; G ASPARICH et al. 1997 ; HAYMER et al. 1997 ) but the origin(s) of these infestations remain uncertain and controversial.

So, there *might* have been ecoterrorism. But there also might not have been.
And a nuanced and complex story is pretty much doomed in today’s press coverage.

As for the thread of entomo-terrorism: personally, I think a far bigger threat to human health and agriculture is the movement by infected people on planes, or tourists bringing souvenirs home that are infected with potentially invasive pests. We’ll do it to ourselves. We don’t need terrorists.

Doctors in the US are going to need to be more broadly trained so they can recognize these uncommon diseases  when they arrive in the US.  From the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene:

“We live in a global community with mass import and export of food supplies and extensive travel to foreign lands for both business and pleasure,” explains Dr. Johnson. “Therefore, tropical medicine disease specialists are more important now than ever before….”

In my opinion, making sure that all humans, not just those in the US, have a healthy and humane life is probably the clearest path toward biosecurity.

3 thoughts on “Insect warfare

  1. Pingback: Insects as weapons? « Cheshire

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