Terrorist Insects

Yet another movie-plot threat to worry about:

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.


Seeing the potential, military strategists have been keen to conscript insects during war. In World War II, the French and Germans pursued the mass production and dispersion of Colorado potato beetles to destroy enemy food supplies. The Japanese military, meanwhile, sprayed disease-carrying fleas from low-flying airplanes and dropped bombs packed with flies and a slurry of cholera bacteria. The Japanese killed at least 440,000 Chinese using plague-infected fleas and cholera-coated flies, according to a 2002 international symposium of historians.

During the Cold War, the US military planned a facility to produce 100 million yellow-fever-infected mosquitoes a month, produced an “Entomological Warfare Target Analysis” of vulnerable sites in the Soviet Union and among its allies, and tested the dispersal and biting capacity of (uninfected) mosquitoes by secretly dropping the insects over American cities.

Posted on October 24, 2007 at 6:14 AM38 Comments


Phillip October 24, 2007 6:34 AM

Or…to disrupt the food supply you could use agent orange. Maybe we should completely outlaw its production! Oh wait…the US Military uses that too? hmmm….darn!

Wolf October 24, 2007 6:55 AM

I suppose disease-carrying insects are too hard to produce for terrorists.
And normal insects – they can easily be carried into a country accidentally, so this is an ecological danger, not particularly a terrorist threat.

Grant Gould October 24, 2007 7:22 AM

This has already happened. Why else do you think the NSA black helicopters had to set all of those wildfires in California? To burn the little buggers out, of course!

aetius October 24, 2007 7:27 AM

Note that while the threat is fairly far-fetched, the response he recommends in the article is a reasonable one – beef up our capacity to deal with disease epidemics or infestations, both human and agricultural. And it’s not like there won’t be non-terrorist problems in this area. He’s just using a Hollywood attack to attempt ot pitch support for sensible infrastructure defenses.

ivan October 24, 2007 8:13 AM

and tested the dispersal and biting capacity of (uninfected) mosquitoes by secretly dropping the insects over American cities.

Is that true? Does anyone have links?

Aldrin Leal October 24, 2007 8:31 AM

You might believe or not, but it has already happened before:

At the end of the 80’s in Brazil, the state of Bahia’s Cocoa Production was hurt by a plague, known as Witch’s Broom (Crinipellis perniciosa). The reason was a leftist group, which decided to hurt the local economy as a means to use the argument of the (always) slow government response and try to change public opinion.

David Harper October 24, 2007 9:01 AM

Mother Nature needs no help from the Entomology Division of al-Qaeda. Climate change and prevailing winds seems to be doing the trick here in England, where blue-tongue (a very nasty viral disease of sheep) has just arrived from mainland Europe, carried by biting midges which were blown across the North Sea in the summer.

This, along with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth, has caused the government to ban most livestock movements in England, and this in turn has led to serious animal welfare issues for farmers who cannot move their sheep from upland areas to over-winter on lowland pastures.

Hal O'Brien October 24, 2007 9:10 AM

Why am I wholly unsurprised the story is coming from a source in Boston?

I dunno what’s happened to the water supply in the city of my birth, but something is polluting their precious bodily fluids.

Clive Robinson October 24, 2007 9:35 AM

Does it matter if it is terorists or if it was an occuping force. The Romans introduced many food animals into large parts of Europe and for ever changed the landscape there.

In the U.K. the rolling South Downs (originally covered in dense woodland) are now covered in grass as direct result of rabits and sheep introduced from the Middle East. During the Second world war Japanesse soldiers introduced “The Giant African Snail” bread on Formosa for food to New Guinea and various other Pacific islands that have gone on to wipe out the local indigenous creatures.

Likewise New Zeland and Australia have suffered badly from the introduction of non native species, in most cases for food or entertainment. In more recent times (1970s&80s) attempts at “pest control” by introducing natural preditors have made things worse in that often the introduced preditor tends to find other native creatures easier prey.

In the U.K. imported timber that had termite eggs in it has resulted in the introduction of termites into the U.K. it is feared (rightly so) that they are going to spread throughout Southern England,


Also back in Shakesperian and Dickensien times Maleria was rampant in the marshes of Southern England (Marsh Ague).


Can you actualy imagine the ecanomic cost of the introduction of Maleria into the U.K and Continental U.S.A?

The cost to Africa is often underestimated,


As a terorist weapon the larger “biological agents” are not ideal as their effects will take some time and will initialy not be very news worthy. But as a way to bring a hi-tec western society/nation down they must surley be attractive to those with a very longterm view (such as the Chinese etc).

Anonymous October 24, 2007 9:37 AM

It would be trivial for terrorists to get ahold of some samples of Foot and Mouth Disease, travel to Kansas, and decimate the American cattle industry, all with very little chance of getting caught. But they haven’t. Why? Terrorism isn’t about causing the most damage, necessarily, it’s about causing dramatic damage that makes people fearful in ways that can be directly attributed to the terrorists. An Ebola incident that killed 3 people and caused $100M economic damage would be a far greater terrorist success than FMD outbreak that killed no one, but caused $30B economic damage.

Fred Mora October 24, 2007 9:40 AM

I call BS. Typical Boston Globe unresearched, sensationalist drivel.

To start with, France didn’t have any military program for breeding insects in WWII. If Lockwood, the article’s author, knows otherwise, he should write a paper in a history journal, because that would be a major find. Care to quote some of the never-read-before documents you obviously found, Mr. Lockwood? No? Didn’t think so.

As for the Germans, their archives have been analyzed to death by thousands of historians, and the insect-breeding program are news to them. Again, show us your documents.

If the rest of the article is as solidly grounded in facts as these two sample assertions, we have nothing to worry about. Except, of course, from lousy fear-mongering “journalism”. No wonder the Globe is losing readers. Supermarket checkout tabloids are just as reliable.

Boston already calls the bomb squad when they see a LED sign showing a cartoon character. I’d suggest that they’d start calling them when they head a mosquito — or maybe it would be more appropriate to send the SWAT teams (ha ha).

Dave October 24, 2007 9:55 AM

Insects are already a major carrier of disease. They also destroy crops in vast quantities.

What makes Boston think that the terrorists have control over the insects that thousands of years of agriculture haven’t been able to avoid ?

Insects not only outnumber humans, but their combined biomass, they would weigh more than us too !

The insects allow us to live here.

Rich October 24, 2007 10:25 AM

I had an elderly neighbor who was a researcher in WWII. He worked on a contract for the Army to develop a pathogen to wipe out rice crops in Japan. He said that it was never deployed, but it could wipe out the crops. I don’t remember him mentioning testing of dispersal methods — a non-trivial part of the process.

Wrong City October 24, 2007 10:41 AM

Why does Boston think that they’re going to be the target of terrorism? There are much better places to attack and much better ways to do it an insects.

The next attack isn’t going to be Colniel Mustard in the foyer with the candlestick. These folks ought to go out and get a Clue (packaged set) and leave the rest of us alone.

John Henry October 24, 2007 11:04 AM

I am currently reading Rick Atkinson’s excellent book “The Day of Battle” about the battle for Sicily and Rome in WWII. (He also wrote the excellent “In the company of soldiers” where he was embedded with Petraeus in the Iraq invasion and “An Army at Dawn” abut the US invasion of North Africa”

In The Day of Battle, Atkinson mentions the Pontine Marshes near Anzio and north of Naples. These had been heavily infested with malarial mosquitos and unlivable until Mussolini drained and gave out homesteads.

The Germans, destroyed the drainage partly to make them impassable but also, according to Atkinson, specifically to bring the mosquitos back so the allies would have to fight malaria as well as Krauts.

On thinking about this, I am not sure how effective it would have been given that this happened in winter.


RSaunders October 24, 2007 11:04 AM

So what?

We need to have a department of agriculture to check on stuff like undesirable insects. They already do this. They already are fighting dozens of naturally spreading insect problems.

It’s a lot of work to spread insects, it takes a lot of insects, and there is already a big government machine to undo your work. This sounds like the level of anti-terrorism I score as a success. Maybe it isn’t a movie plot after all, or at least a boring movie plot.

One can never rule out the “Boston Tea Party” effect, where the folks in Boston seem to thing revolutions are a lot easier than they really are. That, plus their papers are edited by nuts and their bomb squad is run by nuts and …

Matt from CT October 24, 2007 11:26 AM

He’s just using a Hollywood attack to
attempt ot pitch support for sensible
infrastructure defenses.

I have to admit I didn’t read the whole article, but I’ve seen enough of these from the agricultural side of the world to give in to a basic prejudice when I hear those buzzwords:

This is a scare tactic almost exclusively thrown up by mono-culture dependent, “industrial” style farms.

Truly addressing our economic and food security involves not big spending Federal programs (at least not at protectiong highly efficient food factories), but rather maintaining geographically dispersed, diverse crop and animal based farms.

No, things like “sustainable” or “organic” are not the cheapest (i.e. most profitable) way to grow food in the short-term. But the type of subsidies they need don’t go to support the likes of Monsanto producing chemical defenses, but instead to farm families.

When all you grow is the same thing, and often genetically very related same things, for mile after mile disease becomes a huge concern.

Foot & Mouth is an interesting disease to think about from this perspective.

Certain animal diseases needed to be erradicated for human and animal health — Tubercolosis comes to mind. Cows infected with TB would pass the infection threw milk to humans, and TB would cause abortions in cows with enormous impact on the farmer — no calf being born meant no milk would be produced.

Very good techniques, long before we had RFID tags, were developed to eradicate TB from the dairy industry.

Foot & Mouth doesn’t hurt humans, nor does it hurt the animals themselves that much. Tactics from the TB fight, like whole herd destruction and quarantines to prevent the spread were applied to F&M. Why? F&M makes the animals less “thrifty” — it takes a few months longer to get to market weight, etc; maybe a bit less milk; eat more feed while not producing as much. TB can be devestating to production; F&M isn’t but instead means a steer might take 20 months to reach market weight instead of 16 (4 months…representing 12.5% longer, plus that much time you couldn’t be raising the next generation already). In the tight margins of farming — and particularly in politics of keeping a cheap food supply — such waste wasn’t tolerated.

The panics in England over F&M have nothing to do with animal welfare or human health — but just farm profits and public policy for cheap food for the masses.

Nomen Publicus October 24, 2007 12:25 PM

Why go to all the bother of breeding vast numbers of insects, getting them into the country and releasing them in the hope that they will fly in the correct direction.

It’s much simpler to start a rumour that the milk supply is contaminated with benzene. A few visits to random shops with a syringe full of benzene would provide all the supporting evidence needed to destroy the public trust.

Daniel Pawtowski October 24, 2007 2:02 PM

Why not fear plants next? Imagine a terrorist traveling the highways with a bucket of kudzu seeds.

Harrkev October 24, 2007 2:10 PM

This was published in Boston? Yikes. Soon, the Boston PD will arrest some Chinese kid for haing a pet cricket, and will charge him with hatching a terrorist plot. And don’t forget the city-wide panick if somebody sees a beetle.

dragonfrog October 24, 2007 2:15 PM

@ Aldrin Leal

If you want a really solid campaign of bio-terrorism, look no further than the USA. They’ve been carrying out biological attacks against Cuba since the late 60’s until at least 1996 (these are just the documented cases – I don’t see any reason to think the CIA just suddenly stopped trying for the last 10 years).

The most famous of those attacks is of course the swine fever attack of 1971, which required the destruction of essentially all the pigs in Cuba.

chronology of known and suspected attacks:

details of the most recent known incident, in 1996:

Don Marti October 24, 2007 3:55 PM

The bacterium that causes bacterial ring rot of potatoes can be spread by water, and a few infected potatoes will spread the infection to all the potatoes stored along with them. And if a field has been found to be infected, you can’t plant potatoes there for two years, or the bacterium will spread again.

Frances October 24, 2007 10:04 PM

Accidental introductions are devastating enough, no need for anything else. (Think zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, the pine beetle in B.C., Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, the Asian longhorn beetle, the emerald ash borer).

Ed T. October 25, 2007 7:58 AM

“Yet the government focuses on shoe bombs and anthrax while virtually ignoring insect insurgents.”

Or, in the case of Boston, Lite Brites and blinking nametags.


Anonymous October 25, 2007 8:30 AM

@David Harper, @Anonymous – what makes you think terrorists had nothing to do with the outbreaks of Hoof-and-Mouth disease?

A few years ago I was browsing the abstracts for presentations at a conference about terrorism and noticed one that described a genetic study of several crop disease outbreaks in America and Europe. The abstract stated that based on genetic diversity they could conclude that half were of natural origin. They left unstated what the origins of the other two might have been…

conspiracy theorists will be unsurprised to learn that the abstract in question seems to have vanished from the web shortly after conference registration closed.

wm October 26, 2007 3:37 AM

@Anonymous, 08:30AM: “what makes you think terrorists had nothing to do with the outbreaks of Hoof-and-Mouth disease?”

Well, the fact that nobody is terrified, for a start. Blowing things up and saying “we did this because of X” is terrorism. Adding a slight blip to a relatively common natural occurrence and not telling anyone it was artificially induced is not.

@Anonymous: “The abstract stated that based on genetic diversity they could conclude that half were of natural origin. They left unstated what the origins of the other two might have been…”

This might mean nothing more than “based on genetic diversity we can conclude that half were natural, and for the other half genetic diversity is inconclusive”.

And there isn’t necessarily anything sinister about non-natural outbreaks — the latest outbreak here in the UK seems to have been due to a disease research lab not having adequate biocontainment procedures.

Required disclaimer:
The views expressed above are entirely those of the writer and do not represent the views, policy or understanding of any other person or official body.

UNTER October 29, 2007 7:23 PM

These sort of attacks are par for the course through out history. How was the genocide against the indigenous Americans carried out? Gengis Khan was known for catapulting diseased rodents into cities. And if I recall correctly, there was a paper linking the Black plague to warfare in the middle-east.

But note the pattern – these are not terrorist tactics, in general. They’re not used by the weak against the strong, they are used by the strong against the weak, aka, war as usual. The reason is that any kind of biological attack will hurt the poorest, the weakest, the unhealthiest much more than a dominant group, in general.

So, as an attack on us by “terrorists” – that’s movie plot stuff. But as an attack by other states — well the Soviets lost an entire city while experimenting with biological weapons to be used against their enemies. That’s not movie plot stuff — that’s a long historical pattern.

Anonymous November 15, 2007 10:37 AM

Remember the movie “The Andromeda Strain” story by Michael Crichton? The “wildfire” lab at the core of the plot was shown by the end of the movie to have been a government operation whose intent was to isolate biological agents specifically for use as weapons of war. 1971. Ok, it’s a movie plot.

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