Jeffrey A. Lockwood


On his book Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War

Cover Interview of January 16, 2009


While using insects as weapons seems darkly fantastical, the history of entomological warfare suggests that a scenario such as the following is frighteningly plausible.

Dusk descends on a sweltering New Orleans. A naked man lies moaning in an apartment a few blocks from Canal Street.  His jaundiced body is mottled with bruises where vessels have hemorrhaged.  The pillow and bedside are caked with blood that he has vomited. The man’s breathing is labored as he drowns in his own fluids.  The window of the room is shut tightly, letting in no breath of air—and letting out none of the thousands of mosquitoes that cover the walls and the man’s body.  Aedes aegypti is not the most common species along the Gulf Coast, but anyone with a course in medical entomology could build a simple trap and conscript a bloodthirsty army.  Across the hall, another man cracks his door and peers out. Seeing nobody in the hallway, he emerges wearing beekeepers’ garb. After slipping into the sickroom, he watches as a convulsion wracks the martyr’s body.  The insects rise in a ravenous cloud, droning their annoyance at having their meal disturbed.  Taking advantage of the moment, the garbed man crosses the room and opens the window.  Sensing the air currents, a cloud of mosquitoes pours through the window, carrying a payload of yellow fever.  The city’s tropical heat, stagnant waters, crumbling infrastructure, decrepit health care system, and haggard people—nearly a quarter million resolute souls after Katrina—will provide an ideal setting for an epidemic.  The man pulls a cell phone from his pocket and reads the coded text messages from his associates in Houston and Miami.  He smiles, brushes a mosquito from the key pad, and dials the news desk at CNN.

A vaccine against yellow fever does exist—but that is more than can be said for other mosquito-borne diseases.  To be more specific, given our losing battle against West Nile virus, the greatest concern is its African cousin, Rift Valley fever.  This virus devastates livestock, and a strain capable of invading the human nervous system emerged in 1977.  Of 200,000 Egyptians who fell ill during a single outbreak, some 2,000 lost their eyesight and 598 died of encephalitis. Every region in the United States has a mosquito species capable of transmitting this disease.  Consider that a person with $100 worth of supplies, a set of simple instructions, and a plane ticket from an afflicted African nation could introduce the disease to the United States with virtually no chance of being caught.  I hope government officials, business and health leaders, and the general public will come to understand that the biological weapons of the 21st century may not be microbial but six-legged.

© 2009 Jeffrey Lockwood