Entomologist: Insects Could Be Used as Bioweapons

Sometimes, the aphids moved in swarms as they ate their way across a large slice of America's heartland. They achieved notoriety in Toronto when they appeared in such a dense swarm that the Blue Jays had to cancel a baseball game because of low visibility, Reese says.

"No aphid has ever built up to numbers quite like that," Reese says.

And it did it in a remarkably short period of time.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson set out to map the spread of the critter using a powerful technique known as a "geographical information system," or GIS, which combines visuals and data to document conditions across a landscape. He had some pretty basic questions to answer. How was the aphid expanding its territory so rapidly? How did it get from one point to the next? It could fly, but not hundreds of miles. Was it borne on the wind? Did it hitch rides?

One early conclusion was that the aphid was moving more in an east-west direction. So students at the university were recruited as sentinels to monitor the aphid's movement from Missouri, where it had already established a stronghold, into Kansas, where it had not been found.

"We had people running up and down the border" between the two states, hoping to catch it in the act, Ramaswamy says. But they didn't. And then last August, the Asian soybean aphid showed up in Manhattan, in the university's own back yard, at least a two-hour drive from the border.

How did it get there without being detected crossing the border? Rasmaswamy has a theory.

Hitchhiking Bugs

In a hobby that only an entomologist can appreciate, Rasmaswamy pays attention whenever he sees an insect land on his car.

"I will speed up to 90 miles per hour, or hit the brakes, or whatever," to see if he can shake or blow the critter off, he says. "But the bug is not going to be dislodged. It's hanging on for dear life."

So he theorizes that a female aphid hopped on somebody's car, possibly while they were stopped for gasoline in Missouri, and held on until the next stop, which turned out to be near Manhattan. Then it jumped off and headed for the lush soybean fields.

All it would take, he says, would be a single female, which would begin feeding and reproducing, to start a new colony in a process that likely would be repeated over and over again, wherever soybeans grow, or wherever conditions are suitable for this heavy eater to multiply.

As so many insects do, it could carry all kinds of pathogens, but even just doing what comes naturally, it could cause economic ruin over a wide area.

Of course, as biological warfare experts are quick to point out, bugs may not be the best way to distribute pathogens. A bug doesn't always go where you want it to go, one expert told me.

But if someone doesn't really care who dies in a given geographical area, even if the bug ends up biting the hand that feeds it, it might be useful. At the very least, it's worth honing our skills to track, and if possible, control the movement of insects across our land.

Just because that's not the kind of spectacular event that appeals to terrorists today, that doesn't mean it won't be in the future.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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