Sonny Ramaswamy is trying to walk a very fine line. He doesn't want to be seen as an alarmist, but he thinks people ought to know about the thought that keeps haunting him these days.
Ramaswamy, who chairs the department of entomology at Kansas State University, is concerned that the tiny little insects he has spent a lifetime studying could become implements of international terrorism.
It's possible, he says, that even a stable fly, or something as tiny as an aphid, could be used to distribute deadly pathogens over a wide geographical area in a surprisingly rapid and efficient manner. Bugs as delivery systems for weapons of mass terror.
"It wouldn't be as spectacular as the World Trade Center," he says, "but it would be more insidious."
His concern began almost as a joke with a colleague at Kansas State. The two entomologists were talking a couple of years ago about the war in Afghanistan and the effort to flush terrorists out of the Tora Bora caves with high pressure bombs.
"They weren't having much success," Ramaswamy says, recalling the discussion with his colleague, an expert on flies that bite, particularly stable flies that can make life miserable for livestock.
Stable flies zero in on body heat and exhaled carbon dioxide, and they are accustomed to feeding on bacteria, some of which can be deadly. So as the two men chatted, Ramaswamy suggested that stable flies could be fed anthrax, and then released into the caves.
"Let the flies go in and bite those suckers," he says. The flies rid themselves of the anthrax by either vomiting or defecating, and the wound from the bite causes itching, so the natural inclination is to scratch the bite, thus rubbing the anthrax into the skin, he adds.
"It's a weird thought," he says. "We kind of laughed about it, and then forgot about it."
But a short time later Ramaswamy was at a meeting of the Entomological Society of America and the question arose about how to deal with the spread of pathogens in this country by insects that arrived accidentally, or were deliberately introduced by terrorists bent on more sophisticated means of creating havoc than blowing themselves up.
He returned to the campus in Manhattan, Kan., and discussed the issue with some of his colleagues, including entomologist John Reese, an aphid expert, and geographer Shawn Hutchinson, a mapping expert. Their target: a particularly insidious critter known as the Asian soybean aphid (Aphis glycines), a flying aphid that had spread at an astounding rate since it was first discovered in this country just four years ago.
No one is suggesting that this beast was introduced on purpose, or has anything to do with international terrorism, but it offered the researchers an opportunity to study how a small insect expands its territory, and whether the direction of future expansion could be predicted.
Having said that, however, Ramaswamy is quick to admit that this little insect might be ideally suited for terrorist activities.
Aphids Gone Berserk
It can reproduce without sex, so it only takes one female to start a colony that can grow at alarming rates. And unlike the aphids that devour rose bushes, this one can fly, thus making mobility much easier.
Prior to 2000, this aphid lived only in Asia, but after it arrived on this continent it spread from the Dakotas to Virginia, across 11 states, in less than four years, and it has been blamed for crop losses of more than $2.2 billion.