Oxford University Press
Oxford University Press

Each year, new insects, plants and microbes slip into the United States unnoticed. Most quickly perish, but some wreak havoc: they spread tree diseases, wipe out native species, endanger whole ecosystems.

In a global society, such introductions are perhaps inevitable. Conservationists continually warn that prevention is cheaper than control, but with so many other national priorities, can we really adjust the expense of better monitoring for non-native species arriving into our country?

What if the cost of not doing so meant that millions of us could perish as the result of a deadly, insect-borne disease? Or if the next invasive species wiped out most of our food supply?

A wild-eyed conspiracy theory? Hopeless melodrama to hype up invasive species? Not quite, according to a new book by entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood.

In his excellent Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, Lockwood takes a look at the ways humans have allied with the natural (and sometimes horrific) capabilities of insects: From hurling wasp nests over castle walls to using infected fleas to spread bubonic plague in World War II.

Today, the rapid spread of invasive species — and insect-borne diseases– across the country demonstrates how effective bio-terrorism could be. If West Nile virus or the New Zealand mud snail can sneak through our borders unnoticed, why not something designed by terrorists? The rapidity of the spread of some invasive species suggests that a terrorist-introduced insect carrying a deadly disease could spread rapidly as well.

Lockwood argues that we need to put a better effort into catching unwelcome species as they arrive — by plane, by boat, in cargo. The costs of prevention dwarf the costs of control. Consider the tons of pesticides used now to control noxious weeds, the efforts to contain tree diseases like hemlock blight, the dollars poured into control that seem to often fail to stop the invaders.

Despite their threats to native wildlife, it’s difficult to get people to take the threat of invasive species seriously.

But maybe we need to consider this also a national security issue — a potential threat to our food supply and even our health.

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