Stowaway U.S. Corn Rootworm Eats Its Way Across Europe

Tom Hundley
Chicago Tribune
September 24, 2001

As far as farmers in Yugoslavia are concerned, a tiny beetle known as the western corn rootworm is an unholy force of nature more devastating than a drought and fiendishly smarter than all of the smart bombs unleashed by NATO during the 1999 Kosovo war.

Fifteen years ago, one of these beetles found her way onto a plane, perhaps at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Somehow she—and the results bear out that is was definitely a she—ended up in Belgrade.

Arriving at the airport in the Yugoslav capital, she liked what she saw: soil and climate almost identical to her native Illinois, miles and miles of gently rolling cornfields. She settled in for a feast.

With its prodigious appetite and prolific capacity for reproduction, the western corn rootworm has been the bane of Midwestern farmers since the 1950s. The yearly cost, measured in crop losses and pesticide expenses, is estimated at U.S. $1 billion.

Now this American pest is eating its way across Europe. Political turmoil in Yugoslavia during the 1990s created ideal conditions for the unchecked spread of the beetle, and by the mid-1990s it had infested corn crops in neighboring Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. It appeared in Italy in 1998 and in Switzerland and Slovakia last year.

Agricultural experts predict that Austria is next, and that it is only a matter of time before its domain reaches from Ukraine to Spain. Damage estimates range up to $400 million a year. Tens of thousands of small farmers could face ruin.

Origin of Problem

Among the experts, there is a surprising consensus on when and how the beetle got to Belgrade in the first place.

"My guess is that it originated out of the Chicago area, probably on a flight that went directly to Belgrade or maybe through a third country," said C. Richard Edwards, a Purdue University entomologist who has followed the rootworm crisis in Yugoslavia since 1994.

"It could have started with one female, but probably it was more than one. You can imagine: Nighttime at O'Hare, loading up the airplanes, lights on, doors open, insects moving through. When they opened up the airplane, it got on and went to Belgrade," he said.

This would have occurred in the early to mid-1980s. At the time, Chicago, which is home to the largest Serb community in the United States, was served with direct flights to Belgrade by Pan Am and JAT, the Yugoslav national carrier.

"There is little or no chance that soil or corn root with larvae could have been transported, so I think it must have been a pregnant female (rootworm)," said Jozsef Kiss, a Hungarian entomologist who is coordinating the rootworm control project in Eastern Europe for the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Continued on Next Page >>


ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.