Disturbance regimes strongly determine vegetation patterns and succession in the boreal landscape. One of the current challenges for boreal vegetation modellers is to represent disturbance agents as dynamic factors that can respond to climate change. Outbreak species of insects and plant pathogens can cause marked changes in vegetation patterns and should be incorporated into vegetation change models. This introduction to the ecology of boreal biotic disturbance agents is designed as a brief overview for global change researchers and modellers. We discuss the importance of biotic disturbance agents in the boreal forest, offer an overview of their ecology, and review modelling approaches. We illustrate these issues with examples from different systems, drawing largely from our experience with bark beetles.