Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Wasps as a Force for Good: Combating Agroterrorism

During Max Cleland’s time as U.S. Senator (1997-2003), the country tackled the ongoing problem of preventing terrorist attacks. But while airport security cracked down nationwide post 9/11, the University of Georgia’s Department of Entomology was hard at work developing alternative means to prepare for potential terroristic threats.

Though not at the forefront of media coverage, the possibility of an attack on America’s food supply was also of national concern. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution article found in Cleland’s papers details that such an attack could be especially harmful to Georgia where agriculture is the largest industry. Of the $5.7 billion per year that agriculture was bringing into Georgia’s economy as of 2001, it was projected that a single cow infected with foot-and-mouth disease could cost $3 billion. With the effects of that kind of isolated incident in mind, a targeted attack on poultry, local crops, or imported grains coming into the Port of Savannah would be unbelievably devastating. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, then there’s the added problem of recognizing infected crops that could be laced with hard-to-detect chemicals. The modern technology to monitor the food supply was not only impractical, but also expensive and often inaccurate.

UGA’s solution: trained wasps.
Photograph of wasp trained to exhibit a head sticking response
(source: Cleland Papers, Series V., Box 29, Folder 25)
Apparently, using wasps to monitor the food supply had first been considered in the 1970’s when UGA scientists began utilizing a particular species’ incredible sense of smell. In nature, these parasitic wasps (Microplitis croceipes, if you speak Latin) use chemical cues to find food and to track the host caterpillars in which they lay their eggs. When scientists at UGA experimented with manipulating this ability so that the wasps would associate food with other smells, they found that, like Pavlov’s dog, the hungry wasps began to exhibit certain behavior when chemicals were introduced, even when food was nowhere to be found. As agroterrorism became a growing threat, it seemed only natural to use these wasps’ powers for good.

Cartoon of wasp detecting hazardous chemical
(source: Cleland Papers, Series V., Box 29, Folder 25)
As potential supporter for anti-terrorism insect funding, Senator Cleland received a bundle of information about the program’s development in 2002. Complete with diagrams and even a cartoon of a sentient wasp looking for clues to track down the bad guys, a report titled “Use of Insects and other Organisms as Chemical Biosensors” details exactly how these unlikely heroes could be conditioned and then put to work fighting terrorism.

The portable system involves wasps in PVC pipes that can be attached to an air chamber containing testing samples. [picture 3] It is also surprisingly easy to train the wasps; they can be conditioned in under an hour and can recognize the presence and intensity of explosives, illegal drugs, and naturally occurring threats to agriculture. (At the time that the wasps were brought to Senator Cleland’s attention, some wasps had already been trained to detect a mold harmful to Georgia’s peanut crops). The species is no bigger than flying ants, and they only use their stingers on caterpillars, posing no danger to allergic humans. So while not as intimidating as German shepherds, wasps have abilities to rival drug dogs. And, keeping it local, they’re native to Georgia, too.

Diagram of detection device employing wasps
(source: Cleland Papers, Series V., Box 29, Folder 25)
In 2005, this research led to the development of the “Wasp Hound.”

For further information on agroterrorism and other issues affecting Georgia and the nation, please consult the Max Cleland Papers, which are now available for research.

Post by Rachael Zipperer, Russell Library student assistant

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