Natural Nicotine Heals Honey Bees

January 23, 2017

NEONICOTINOID INSECTICIDES (e.g. thiamethoxam, imidacloprid, clothianidin) developed at Bayer Japan as safer alternatives (e.g. to human spray applicators) to the natural nicotine once widely used by farmers and gardeners, is now suspected of contributing to honey bee health problems like learning disorders and colony collapse. In contrast, natural nicotine, found in honey produced by bees working tobacco fields, as well as in pollen, nectar, leaves and other plant parts, is a nutrient and medicine helping to heal weak honey bee colonies, said Susan Nicolson of South Africa’s University of Pretoria at “Entomology Without Borders,” a joint meeting of the International Congress of Entomology (ICE) and the Entomological Society of America (ESA) in Orlando, FL.

Natural nicotine, even if produced organically in a sustainable recycling sort of way from tobacco waste products, is mostly shunned in organic farming and gardening. “Over 120 million sites will be returned on a web search on tobacco, but most will not be associated with plant science,” wrote USDA-ARS researcher T.C. Tso in Tobacco Research and Its Relevance to Science, Medicine and Industry. “Many plant scientists in academic institutions cannot obtain grant support for projects using tobacco as a research tool. Some even have to avoid tobacco because of the applying of ‘political correctness’ to academic research. The tobacco plant has served as a valuable tool since the dawn of plant and biological sciences, so it is indeed a great loss to scientific progress that a research tool already invested with so many resources and about which there is such abundant knowledge and such great potential for new advancement is now being wasted.”

Honey bees readily consume bitter alkaloids such as nicotine mixed in sugary plant nectars. Adult honey bees excel at detoxifying alkaloids such as nicotine, which should not be surprising, as survival depends on it. Younger, larval honey bees have fewer enzymes to detoxify nicotine, but also survive quite well even when their royal jelly contains high levels of nicotine. Honey bees and insects immune to nicotine, such as green peach (peach-potato) aphids, transform nicotine into less toxic butanoic acid. A knotty question naturally arises: If natural nicotine heals honey bees, why are synthetic neonicotinoids so terribly different? Are natural compounds like nicotine inherently more beneficial and their synthetic analogs (e.g. neonicotinoids) inherently bad, perhaps due to subtle differences in molecular structure? If bees and other pollinators are a major concern, perhaps natural product restrictions on nicotine need to be relaxed to provide competition to the synthetic neonicotinoids.

“Alkaloids, especially in the nicotine family, have been the main focus of tobacco research because alkaloids are the characteristic product of tobacco,” writes Tso. Dozens of other tobacco molecules are relatively overlooked, including sugar compounds providing least-toxic botanical insect and mite control. Anabasine (neonicotine), an alkaloid found in tobacco and other plants, has also been widely used as a natural insecticide. Strangely enough, anabasine is also an insect attractant and a poison gland product of Aphaenogaster ants. In a strange urban twist to the wild bird practice of lining nests with medicinal herbs emitting essential oils counteracting parasites: Researchers in Mexico discovered urban birds lining nests with cigarette butts to similar advantage. In times past, organic gardeners soaked cigarette butts in water to get a nicotine spray brew. Historically, most commercial nicotine insecticide used on farms and gardens was a sustainable tobacco waste extract.

There are 60-80 described tobacco or Nicotiana species, some available in seed catalogs and grown as ornamentals. Most Nicotiana species grow wild in the Americas, with some in Australia and Africa. “Tobacco plants are easy to grow and have a short growing period,” writes Tso. “Each tobacco plant may produce 14 g or about 150,000 seeds which may provide seedlings for 2 to 5 acres (1–3 ha) of field tobacco, depending on the type.” In Europe, oil extracted from tobacco seeds is being explored for an alternative bio-diesel fuel industry, with dry leftovers as animal feed.

Native American Nicotiana species are being integrated into China’s ancient agricultural interplanting tradition. When tobacco is interplanted in vineyard rows, tobacco roots and grape roots intermingle. Perhaps some sort of biological soil fumigation occurs. Whatever the mechanism, vineyards are cleansed of soil-dwelling phylloxera aphids, a pest that almost destroyed wine grape growing in France in the 1800s and is still a worldwide problem. According to the journal Chinese Tobacco Science, intercropping tobacco with sweet potato also alleviates soil and other pest problems, maximizing profits per unit area of land. Burley tobacco is intercropped with cabbage and other vegetable crops, according to the Journal of Yangtze University (Natural Science Edition).

Neonicotinoids are soluble in water and absorbed systemically by plants, and some are sprayed on urban lawns and landscapes. However, over 80% of synthetic neonicotinoids are applied to seeds prior to planting hundreds of millions of acres of corn, soybean, sunflowers and other crops. In Canada’s Ontario and Quebec provinces, 100% of corn seed is treated with neonicotinoids, said Nadejda Tsvetkov of Toronto’s York University at “Entomology Without Borders.” Though neonicotinoids were seldom found in corn pollen samples, somehow, perhaps by water transport, neonicotinoids are finding their way into clover and willow tree pollen far from corn fields.

“For a lot of farmers it is hard to get seeds untreated, especially corn,” as commercial seed is routinely treated with neonicotinoids regardless of need, said the University of Maryland’s Aditi Dubey at “Entomology Without Borders. In Maryland and other mid-Atlantic USA states where low pest pressures are the norm, neonicotinoid seed treatments are both unneeded and counterproductive. In 3-year Maryland rotations with double-cropped soybeans, winter wheat and corn, sowing seeds treated with thiamethoxam or imidacloprid reduced beneficial predatory ground beetles and increased slug damage to crops. Mid-Atlantic USA farmers typically apply 4 unnecessary prophylactic seed treatments every 3 years. Besides reduced biocontrol and more pest damage, soil accumulation over time is a disturbing agro-ecosystem possibility.

Alternative seed treatments include natural plant hormones such as salicylic acid and methyl jasmonate, which induce a natural immunity called induced systemic acquired resistance (SAR). Crops such as lettuce and argula (rocket) grown from seed treated with salicylic acid and methyl jasmonate also release volatile gases repelling pests such as sweet potato whitefly, a major worldwide pest, said Ben-Gurion University’s Mengqi Zhang at “Entomology Without Borders,” a gathering of 6,682 delegates from 102 countries. Numerous botanical materials and microbes have also been investigated around the world as alternative seed treatments.

A proactive approach to honey bee and bumble bee health includes a diversified landscape sown with herbs and medicinal botanicals for self-medication, not just natural nicotine from tobacco nectar or other sources. Thymol, an essential oil found in thyme and many other plants, is already sprayed in hives by beekeepers to combat Varroa mites. At “Entomology Without Borders,” North Carolina State University’s Rebecca Irwin reported laboratory choice tests where bumble bees rejected nicotine. In field tests, bumble bees were given a choice of different colored flowers each with a different botanical such as thymol, nicotine, anabasine and caffeine. Bumble bees only selected flowers with thymol to self-medicate. Interestingly, thymol and other herbal essential oils also synergize nicotine, boosting effectiveness against disease pathogens and perhaps also minimizing the likelihood of colony collapse.

Landscapes and hedgerows sown with medicinal plants such as thyme, sunflower and foxglove minimize bumble bee disease transmission, said Lynn Adler of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The current USA farm bill will actually pay farmers to plant bee-friendly sunflower edges or hedgerows around canola fields. Antimicrobial and medicinal honeys derived from sunflower, bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), black locust, etc., also effectively combat bee diseases like chalkbrood and foulbrood, said Silvio Erler of Martin-Luther-Universität in Halle, Germany at “Entomology Without Borders.”

Bee pharmacology is also useful in human medicine. In Oaxaca, Mexico gangrene is stopped and wounds are healed by combining maggot therapy and honey, reported Alicia Munoz. Maggot therapy uses sterilized (germ-free) green bottle fly maggots to disinfect and cleanse wounds by eating unhealthy tissues and secreting antibiotics, allowing healthy pink tissue to grow back under honey-soaked gauze. This cost-effective approach reduces hospital stays, lowers morbidity and can eliminate the need for surgery. It may sound yucky, but for diabetics and patients with bed sores or wounds where surgery is medically impossible, a few maggots and a little honey is preferable to amputating wounded or infected limbs.

Cancer-fighting bee propolis products were touched upon at “Entomology Without Borders” by Chanpen Chanchao of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, where hives of stingless bees are reared like conventional honey bees. Cardol, a major component of propolis from the Indonesian stingless bee, Trigona incisa, causes early cancer cell death by disrupting mitochondrial membranes and “producing intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS).” ROS are essential to energy, immunity, detoxification, chemical signaling, fighting chronic and degenerative diseases, etc. Cardol “had a strong antiproliferative activity against SW620 colorectal adenocarcinoma,” killing colon cancer cells within 2 hours, followed by complete cell necrosis within 24 hours. Thus, cardol is an “alternative antiproliferative agent against colon cancer.”


Sunflower Power & Health

October 10, 2016

WITH PERHAPS 25 MILLION ha (62 million acres) of sunflowers grown for seed oil worldwide, sunflower diseases and pests and their remedies have a global impact. “Sunflower oil can be used as an alternative or additive to diesel fuel to create biodiesel, a clean-burning alternative fuel produced from a renewable resource,” wrote G.J. Seiler, one of many worldwide contributing authors to the Compendium of Sunflower Diseases and Pests, a book produced by the American Phytopathological Society (APS), a scientific group whose essence includes plant doctoring, discerning what makes for healthy versus diseased plants. “Use of the product may decrease farmers’ dependence on petroleum fuels by substituting ‘farm-grown’ fuel for use in diesel engines. For use in diesel engines, sunflower oil requires more extensive purification, including removal of waxes and gums. Minor engine modifications, such as improved fuel filters, are also necessary to burn any vegetable oil. Since the energy content of sunflower oil is less than that of diesel fuel, consumption is greater and power output is less.” However, the high-protein residues leftover from sunflower oil extraction have the right amino acid balance to mix with soybean meal to grow healthy chickens and livestock, a virtuous ecological cycling of sunflower plants.

Indeed, in Argentina’s southern Pampas, if you get the planting times right, sunflower and soybean are compatible as intercrops. Working in agriculture, I observed sunflower border rows or perimeters around conventional crop fields attracting pollinators and natural enemies providing biological control of pests. However, sunflowers are so attractive to beneficial insects that they do not want to leave. Thus, sunflower stalks need vigorous shaking to get green lacewings and natural enemies of aphids and other pests to take flight into adjacent crops needing protection. At the moment, fields of GMO canola producing high quality cooking oil are displacing sunflower fields in many areas. But the APS sunflower Compendium awakened my love for sunflowers, as even the diseases afflicting the plants have a certain beauty under the microscope. So, I can see the APS sunflower Compendium serving as an outstanding library reference for biology teachers and students looking for projects in sunflower-growing areas.

R.M. Harveson opens the APS sunflower Compendium with a brilliantly concise narrative chronicling the journey of sunflower seeds from their native North America to Russia, where innovative plant breeders painstakingly created the first modern sunflower seeds high in oils, providing the platform for today’s worldwide sunflower industry. The Mennonites, an anti-violence religious group migrating from Germany (Prussia) and a war-plagued Europe to Russia in the 1780s for free farm land promised by Catharine the Great, pioneered commercial sunflower oilseed farming in a harsh landscape long thought unsuitable for even subsistence farming. Their descendants were lured to Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada to create North America’s sunflower industry. During World War II, when “securing the fields of Ukraine was a major objective of Adolf Hitler’s war on Russia,” sunflower oil was a superior antifreeze, lubricating World War II weapons that froze with conventional gun oils. Joe Pappalardo’s excellent and entertaining book, Sunflowers: The Secret History: The Unauthorized Biography of the World’s Most Beloved Weed (Overlook Press) adds color and specifics, and is cited in Harveson’s “Selected References” in the APS Compendium.

Personally, I love the feel on my head and hair of a shampoo blending organic sunflower oil, citrus oils and herbs; and organic sunflower seeds at breakfast supply trace minerals like zinc, which is often deficient in produce grown in local California soils. Sunflower sap, which occasionally has been used medicinally, contains terpenoid compounds that show potential as alternative botanical pesticides. As ingredients in traditional medicines, wild sunflowers have been used for everything from wound healing and rattlesnake bites to combating infection and pain relief. Modern medical uses include topical oil formulations with sunflower oil to improve skin health, fight fungal infections, relieve inflammation and itchy, dry skin, and in dentistry to improve the gums.

Seed hulls of certain sunflower varieties are traditional sources of yellow, ruby red, purple, and black dyes or colorants (e.g. anthocyanins) useful in body painting, cosmetics, foods and textiles. Indeed, some plant breeders are working on a sunflower seed that would be high in oil and have a ruby red husk or hull that could be extracted to replace commercial synthetic red food dyes. Other researchers see the hulls as useful absorbents for wastewater reclamation. But by far, sunflower seed oils (e.g. NuSun for cooking) are the main sunflower item of commerce, and even trade on the commodities futures markets. Sunflowers seeds like Mammoth Russian for eating and snacking or adding to birdseed blends are important crops, but minor compared to the large acreages of sunflower oilseeds grown worldwide.

For various reasons, sunflowers have not become commercialized as a biotech GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crop, which makes life easier for organic growers. Though perhaps better known from Van Gogh canvases, sunflowers were experimental subjects on the USA’s Apollo space missions. And “sunflowers have been successfully used as vehicles for the phyto-remediation of soil contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive materials (e.g. following the Chernobyl disaster),” wrote Harveson. In March 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, sunflowers and sunchokes were among the “alternative technology” plantings to concentrate and remove from soils radioactive cesium, which emits gamma rays and has a 30-year half life.

Sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, perennial sunflowers grown for edible tubers high in inulins, are sometimes recommended for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, being associated with lowering blood sugar and cholesterol. Indeed, Jerusalem artichoke chips have been tested as a snack food alternative to potato chips for diabetics, being almost devoid of starch and fats. Several dozen other sunflower species are known, including one that is 92% pure natural rubber. Most likely sunchokes and other sunflower species including backyard ornamentals are subject to pests and diseases similar to those described in the APS Compendium.

To prevent pests and diseases, as a kind of insurance, perhaps 95% of commercial sunflower seeds are coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (e.g. thiamethoxam, clothianidin) at planting time, according to Michael Bredeson of South Dakota State University in Brookings at the 2015 joint meeting in Minneapolis of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America. Bredeson studied 11 commercial sunflower fields, and found that “the seed treatment failed to improve yield or decrease herbivores.” In other words, quite apart from whatever effects on honey bees and beneficial organisms higher in the food chain, the neonicotinoid seed treatments are mostly a waste of resources and money. Though perhaps they do buy peace of mind for commercial sunflower growers, much like any insurance policy.

But the peace of mind bought by unnecessary early-season pesticide seed treatments may bring ecological food chain effects that cost sunflower growers more money and crop loss later in the season. The neonicotinoid pesticides may enter the food chain via plant nectar, plant tissues and predator consumption of tainted prey. Indeed, Pablo Gontijo and colleagues (2015) reported that sunflower seeds treated with thiamethoxam poisoned minute pirate bugs (Orius insidiosus), which are major predators of aphids, caterpillars, spider mites and other pests. Part of the problem is that the beneficial bugs, besides eating pests, also suck moisture directly from plants and thereby become poisoned by systemic pesticides used as sunflower seed treatments.

Likely the poisoned pirate bugs are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. At the 2015 ESA meeting, Sirilak Lankaew from RYFCRC in Rayong, Thailand reported that cassava cuttings treated preventively with thiamethoxam provided 1-2 months cassava mealybug protection at the cost of food chain effects on beneficial insects via poisoned cassava nectar. Specifically the wasp Anagyrus lopezi, a cassava mealybug natural enemy, feed on the poisoned cassava nectar and “experience acute mortality for up to 21 days after treatment, and have significantly reduced lifespan for at least 42 days after treatment.” With 8 million farming households in Thailand growing cassava and 70% of Thailand’s small-scale farmers using neonicotinoid pesticides, there is a need for alternative technologies “fully compatible with (naturally-occurring and cost-free) biological control.” In sunflower, something like the APS Compendium to identify the potential problems is a good first step towards minimizing unnecessary pesticide treatments and developing alternative technologies.

One approach to developing sunflower soils that are disease-free and avoiding seed treatments is the opposite of crop rotation. Namely growing the crop repeatedly in the same soil so that disease organisms build up and then are destroyed by natural biological agents. It is like the predator and prey cycle, where pests buildup to high levels and even cause some damage before being opportunistically exploited and knocked down by their natural enemies. This approach, known as building a disease suppressive soil, can take a few years; and is perhaps best suited to patient organic growers with the wherewithal to weather those tough early years, and possessed of a confidence, hope or faith that the natural cycles will eventually play out. Likely the Mennonites whose experiences Joe Pappalardo recounts in his book took this route in turning the barren Ukraine, Russian and Canadian lands into productive agricultural fields in the era predating intensive chemical agriculture.

Another interesting alternative technology with ancient roots is interplanting, the idea of mixing different crops in the same fields. In Pakistan, sunflowers are being considered as a healthful alternative for local cooking oil shortages via interplanting sunflowers with the staple mungbean crop. In Florida, sunflower strips have been proven to attract honey bees and a variety of predators and parasitoids supplying natural biological pest control to adjacent organic vegetables. In China, parts of Asia and Africa, and even the Americas, sunflowers are viewed as an alternative technology to reduce herbicide use. Sunflowers provide natural weed control via shading the ground and natural herbicidal compounds (allelochemicals) toxic to some of the world’s worst weeds, such as dodder and barnyard grass. Multiple benefits if you can get rid of a weed patch, produce beneficial insects and pollinators, and harvest some seeds at the same time.

The health benefits of sunflowers will likely be a key driver for this crop in the future, though medicinal sunflower benefits are far from the cutting edge of agriculture and medical research in the genomic era. Broader medical applications may involve anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits, bone health, detoxification, skin protection (e.g. from light & anti-aging) and anti-cancer effects. Applied to the skin, sunflower oil formulations may reduce bacterial and fungal infections, and are touted by some for premature newborns. In Cuba a product called Oleozon, sunflower oil treated with ozone gas, was registered in 1999 to treat fungal skin diseases (tinea pedis); and can stop bacteria and viruses resistant to multiple drugs.

Interestingly, researchers in Iran writing in the Journal of Food Science and Technology like the idea of infusing highly unsaturated oils like sunflower seed oil with raspberry or related Rubus species (e.g. blackberries) as a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) alternative to preservatives like BHA and BHT. Rubus leaves add other medicinal properties to sunflower oil, “including as astringent, hypoglycemic, anti-diarrhea, anti-inflammatory agents for mucous membrane of oral cavity (mouth) and throat.” Many other oils and herbs may have medicinal value when combined with high linoleic acid sunflower oil. Time will tell.

The whole idea of plant medicines may yet return to modern medical practices for a variety of reasons. “Extended life expectancy is accompanied with an increase in age-related pathologies that include cardiovascular and neurological diseases, obesity, and cancer, conditions that are inflicting an immense pressure on health care costs and quality of life,” write researchers Andrea Doseff and Erich Grotewold at The Ohio State University and Arti Parihar in Ujjain, India, in the book, Pigments in Fruits and Vegetables (Springer, 2015). “Thus, there has been an increased interest in recognizing and understanding the mechanisms of action of active nutritional compounds with health benefits, or nutraceuticals, for the prevention and treatment of various diseases.”

The researchers in India and Ohio note that over 8,000 flavonoid chemicals beyond vitamins have been identified, including a range of anthocyanins like those in sunflowers, “which are responsible for providing colors to fruits and vegetables, and have dietary value as color additives with potential health benefits.” Over 10,000 tons per year of anthocyanins from black grapes alone are consumed every year, and this whole general category of plant pigment compounds has “uses in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory diseases including cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and cancers.” Who knows what concentrated research into sunflowers would reveal?


Pigments of the Imagination: Cochineal’s Renaissance

June 22, 2016

SAP-SUCKING SCALE INSECTS, such as cochineal, kermes and lac, are sometimes sprayed with pesticides as landscape and crop pests, and other times cultivated as beneficial insects. For example, cochineal secals have provided biological weed control in India, Australia and South Africa where imported prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) hedges have escaped and become rangeland weeds. Cochineal scale insects, bred in ancient Mexico to yield 15%-30% color pigment content, have been grown in the Americas for many centuries on prickly pear cactus as a sustainable, biodegradable colorant crop yielding dyes ranging from red, yellow, orange and brown to pink, lavender and purple (depending on mordant, pH, etc.). Intensely red cochineal has a long and famous history in painter’s palettes, tapestry and fabrics, and has been used for centuries to color or stain tissues red or purple for microscope visibility in biology and microbiology labs, medicine and dentistry. Cochineal scale pigments also color selected beverages, foods (on labels as E-120 & carmine) and cosmetics like lipstick, rouge and nail polish. Biochemistry labs like the cochineal red molecule’s ability to bind or bond with proteins, nucleic acids and fats (lipids). Analytic chemists use cochineal “for photometric determination of boron, beryllium, uranium, thorium, and osmium.” At the cutting edge frontier of science, cochineal pigments are being adapted to “molecular information processing” and computing. The red pigment’s “strong photosensitization and photocurrent switching effects” are being designed into next generation optoelectronic (i.e. light, photon) devices like semiconductors, fuel cells, sensors and photovoltaic solar energy systems.

“In Latin-the indispensable language of Renaissance medical professionals—the word pigmentum signified both a pigment and a drug,” writes Amy Butler Greenfield on page 83 of the paperback edition of her meticulously researched book, A Perfect Red, which follows the parallel rise and fall of the Spanish Empire and the secretive cochineal red export trade. “Artists who made their own paints were often advised to procure cochineal from their local “Drugist” or pharmacy, advice that highlights the fact that Europeans also used cochineal as a medicine,” a practice “at least partly borrowed from ancient Mexico,” where cochineal was used to clean teeth and also dissolved in vinegar and applied as a poultice to cure wounds and strengthen bodily organs. Spain profited more from importing cochineal into Europe than from all its plundered and mined New World gold. When ancient alchemy’s metamorphosis into modern chemistry advanced to synthesizing a less expensive, wider range of brighter dye pigments, the Spanish red dye monopoly was obsoleted and the financial collapse of the steadily weakening empire allowed for a global power shift; the USA, fresh from coast to coast expansion and hot for global colonial-style conquests, easily knocked off the remnant hollow shell of the Spanish Armada in the Caribbean and Philippines in 1898.

Let’s start with cochineal and scale insects as pests, and organic control alternatives, as that is how most people encounter and view scale insects. Parasitoid wasps, lady beetles, birds and many other natural enemies provide biological control of scale insects, but not always enough at the right time. Highly refined petroleum oils, vegetable oils and high-pressure water sprays (with or without soap or surfactants) are among the often used remedies. High pressure water sprays, from a nozzle or heavy overhead rainfall, wash off or injure cochineal scales; and this remedy is sometimes used post-harvest by packing houses to clean fruit prior to shipping. Laboratory studies indicate that epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), mint (Mentha spp.) and marigold (Tagetes spp.) extracts applied with emulsifiers are potential organic or environmentally friendly synthetic pesticide alternatives.

At the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Minneapolis I talked with Colorado State University extension entomologist Whitney Cranshaw, whose special spiked shoes for killing white grub beetle larvae beneath the soil surface while walking golf course turf and lawns achieved notoriety in Smithsonian magazine many moons ago. This time he was a lonely entomologist, as out of hundreds of passersby no one was stopping at the poster of graduate student Rachael Sitz reporting on a kermes scale vectoring a bacteria causing drippy blight of red oaks in Colorado. Cranshaw was ecstatic having a customer, and figured I was studying the poster display because the kermes scale was also found in California locales such as San Jose, Mammoth Lakes and Monticello Dam on blue oaks and chinquapin bushes. Actually, I was wondering if this particular kermes scale, which went by the scientific name Allokermes rattani, was related to Old World kermes scales used for centuries by pigment artists in Europe and Asia. According to Cranshaw, workers handling the Colorado kermes scale came away with hands dyed a deep brown. So, perhaps this “pest” scale insect is indeed an untapped resource, similar to cochineal, waiting to be discovered by textile artists, painters and photographers looking for natural organic pigments.

My own interest in these insect pigments is a bit abstract, how to incorporate these pigments into the photographic printing process, inspired in part by viewing Robert Rauschenberg’s vegetable pigment prints with photo images from Indonesia. Cochineal was apparently on occasion used in early color photography printing, dating back to the 1800s and heliochromes, which I surmise are solar prints that also use silver as a light-sensitive pigment. Some modern authors talk of a “green synthesis,” fusing conventional silver nanoparticle photography with cochineal red pigments; but I have not found much on the subject. “Color photography,” U.S. Patent No. 923,019 from 25 May 1909 reads: “To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, EDGAR CLIFTON, a subject of His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, residing at 3 BeaufortVillas, London Road, Enfield, in the county of Middlesex, England, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Color Photography…known as the two color process; the three color process; and the four plate process…so that the assemblage gives more or less natural color effects…As the red dye: alizarin (with alumed reliefs), cochineal red (or carmin with ammonia), or magdala red…”

SCALING UP PRODUCTION of pigment scales, versus natural harvest, is often surprisingly difficult. For one thing, about 14,000 individual scale insects are needed to obtain 100 grams of raw cochineal pigment. Far from being dumb savages, ancient Mexico’s New World cochineal growers were superb insect breeders. The best cochineal “breeds” contain 18%-30% pigment by dry weight. Spaniards settling in the New World never mastered the delicate art of cultivating cochineal scale on prickly pear cactus, and instead relied on the indigenous los indios de Mexico, some of whom grew rich on the cochineal trade in what was essentially a free market. Many Spanish colonists found it intolerable that the natives were becoming the richest citizens, and this led to all kinds of frictions and conflicts aimed at turning the natives into poorer, more docile (less uppity) and easier to control colonial subjects. The Spanish were remarkably successful at keeping curious outsiders out of the cochineal production areas for centuries, making the cochineal red dye one of the world’s all-time best kept trade secrets. Most Europeans assumed the grana or granules of cochineal were seeds or plant material, like indigo or madder. On those rare occasions when the secret was revealed, the public refused to believe that cochineal red was literally dried insects. This combination of secrecy and worldwide ignorance allowed the Spanish cochineal monopoly to persist for several centuries and be more lucrative than precious metals.

As any entomology grad student can tell you, the same insect that is an abundant pest can often be impossibly hard to grow when you want it for experiments or as a thesis subject. For one thing, the “insect crop” usually has its own set of pests (called natural enemies), which for cochineal scales includes bacteria, lady beetles, syrphid or hover flies, predatory caterpillars, rodents, reptiles and birds. To prevent “crop failure,” cochineal scales need pampering and protection: 1) from natural enemies; 2) shade to protect from direct sunlight; 3) shelter from heavy rains that wash off and injure the scales. Raising cochineal scales as “farm animals” or “livestock” on prickly pear cactus was often a family enterprise in Old Mexico, an art or skill passed down from generation to generation. The prickly pear cactus itself is still also food, animal fodder and medicine in Mexico. But cochineal grana are no longer treated like money or currency, as it was in Aztec Mexico when cochineal was used in payment of tribute or taxes. In that sense, in contrast to a modern dollar, euro, yen, peso, pound, rupee or digital currency, which cannot be directly used as dyes or medicines, the grana possessed an exquisite versatility and flexibility in ancient times.

CARMINIC ACID, a MEDICINAL CHEMICAL pigment compound extracted from cochineal and first synthesized in 1998, belongs to a class of anti-tumor and antibiotic compounds called anthracycline derivatives, which “are believed to develop their cytotoxic effect by penetrating into the tumor cell nucleus and interacting there with DNA,” write chemists at Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey. Combined with other compounds, cochineal is also active against viruses and other microbes. In Tamil Nadu, India cochineal scale insects collected from cacti are crushed, boiled in water and dried to a powder used against whooping cough and as a sedative. Other traditional uses likely abound.

In nature, cochineal functions as an insect repellent. One theory is that cochineal repels ants, protecting young scale insects before their protective waxy outer covering forms. A carnivorous caterpillar eating the scales incorporates the cochineal dye into its own bodily defenses. A study in the Journal of Polymer Science concluded that cochineal and other natural dyes (madder, walnut, chestnut, fustic, logwood) and mordants (aluminum, chrome, copper, iron, and tin) increased the insect resistance of the wool fabric to attack by black carpet beetles.” Indigo was least effective, and cochineal and madder were most effective except when used with tin and chrome as the mordant or binding agent. I only remember one ESA presentation investigating cochineal as a natural insecticide, and that was back in 2004; the idea was that since carminic acid was already approved as safe for food by the FDA, cochineal could be formulated as an organic bait spray to stop fruit flies without losing organic certification. The researcher theorized that cochineal needs sunlight to be activated as an insecticide, and would thus be ideal for organic agriculture. But as far as I know, the idea was never adapted as an agricultural or quarantine practice.

COMBINING COLOR and HEALING is, however, an idea gaining traction. Carminic acid, a brilliant red compound constituting about 10% of cochineal8, “is one of the most light and heat stable of all the colorants and is more stable than many synthetic food colors,” write Khadijah Kashkar and Heba Mansour in the Department of Fashion Design at King Abdul Aziz University, Saudi Arabia. “Besides the color attributes, recently, also has been reported to beneficial to health with potential antibiotic and antitumor properties. At the beginning of the 21st century it is predicted that many colors will be used for both their additional beneficial functions in the body, as well as, coloring effect.” Whether color and healing were also linked in ancient or Aztec times with cochineal is an intriguing question. Perhaps everything old is indeed new again, but who knows what the ancient New World healers or shaman thought when applying bright red or purple cochineal poultices.

PREVENTIVE MEDICINE might be what to call the combination of organic cotton and natural cochineal dyes to block ultraviolet light from skin contact. Ajoy Sarkar of Colorado State University, writing in the journal BMC dermatology: “The ultraviolet radiation (UVR) band consists of three regions: UV-A (320 to 400 nm), UV-B (290 to 320 nm), and UV-C (200 to 290 nm). UV-C is totally absorbed by the atmosphere and does not reach the earth. UV-A causes little visible reaction on the skin but has been shown to decrease the immunological response of skin cells. UV-B is most responsible for the development of skin cancers…Other than drastically reducing exposure to the sun, the most frequently recommended form of UV protection is the use of sunscreens, hats, and proper selection of clothing. Unfortunately, one cannot hold up a textile material to sunlight and determine how susceptible a textile is to UV rays.” Heavy concentrations of synthetic dyes in synthetic fabrics generally provide good UVR protection, but are not as comfortable as cotton fabrics for warm, humid climates. Generally, the darker the color and the thicker the weave or denser the fabric, the better to protect against UVR. Depending upon the weave (e.g. twill vs sateen), Sarkar reported good to excellent UVR protection with natural dyes such as madder, indigo and cochineal.

COCHINEAL’S 21ST CENTURY RENAISSANCE and resurgence includes harnessing cochineal’s ability to capture (harvest) or route light (photons) and electrons in advanced or next generation optoelectronic devices such as semiconductors, light harvesting antennae, sensors, fuel and solar cells, and molecular information and logic gates for computing devices. I was surprised to learn that natural pigments have a long history in advanced electronics: “As early as the birth stage of lasers, coumarin, which is found naturally in high concentration in the tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata), was used in dye lasers” and “coumarin dye is still the basic active medium for many tunable dye laser sources,” writes M. Maaza (2014) of the University of South Africa. “Extracts from Hibiscus sabdariffa, commonly known as Roselle, carminic acid of the cochineal scale and saffron exhibit exceptional nonlinear optical (NLO) properties of a prime importance in optics.”

THE “NEXT GENERATION” SOLAR CELL replacement for today’s silicon-based solar cells will probably be a dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC) based on titanium dioxide (TiO2), a semiconductor material that is fused with color pigments analogous to those used in conventional color photography (e.g. silver halide emulsions sensitized by dyes). TiO2 and other metal oxides are widely used in medicine, food preservation, cosmetics, sunscreens, paints, inks and a wide range of electronic devices for sensing, imaging, optics, etc. TiO2 is relatively inexpensive, and deemed low toxicity. Interestingly, TiO2 nanoparticles for solar cells can be produced from cultures of bacterial cells, such as the Lactobacillus sp. found in yogurt or curd, which means an even “greener” solar cell fabrication process.

The scientific roots of the modern solar cell go back to French physicist Edmond Becquel’s discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839; and prototype solar cells with efficiencies of 1% or less also date back to the 1800s. Though Albert Einstein explained the photovoltaic effect in 1904, the development of lightweight solar energy cells to power spacecraft in the 1950s. But the DSSC or Grätzel cell is a 1990s’ innovation attributed to Mr. O’Regan and Michael Grätzel. “This new device was based on the use of semiconductor films consisting of nanometer-sized TiO2 particles, together with newly developed charge-transfer dyes,” and had “an astonishing efficiency of more than 7%,” write Agnes Mbonyiryivuze et al. (2015) in the journal Physics and Materials Chemistry.

Next generation DSSCs or photovoltaic cells are currently undergoing a major design transition using natural color pigments like those found in cochineal scale insects. DSSCs with efficiencies in the 10% to 15% range can be manufactured with titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles bonded on a thin film with a light-sensitive dye utilizing a rare and expensive platinum group heavy metal, ruthenium (Ru; named after Russia). Ruthenium’s relatively high cost and environmental and toxicology concerns are a barrier to commercialization that is spurring the search for substitutes; namely cheaper and more environmentally friendly natural pigment. Companies working “to bring DSSC technology ‘from the lab to the fab’” include “Dyesol, G24i, Sony, Sharp, and Toyota, among others,” write Mbonyiryivuze et al. (2015). “Functional cells sensitized with berry juice can be assembled by children within fifteen minutes, the large choice of colors, the option of transparency and mechanical flexibility, and the parallels to natural photosynthesis all contribute to the widespread fascination. In 2013, the drastic improvement in the performance of DSSC has been made by Professor Michael Grätzel and co-workers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL). They have developed a state solid version of DSSC called perovskite-sensitized solar cells that is fabricated by a sequential deposition leading to the high performance of the DSSC. This deposition raised their efficiency up to a record 15% without sacrificing stability…this will open a new era…even surpass today’s best thin-film photovoltaic devices.”

“PIGMENTS MAKE NATURE COLORFUL and LIKABLE,” writes Chunxian Chen, a researcher at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center and the editor of a 277-page book published by Springer in 2015, Pigments in Fruits and Vegetables: Genomics and Dietetics, which places a heavy emphasis on the nutritional and medicinal benefits of colorful natural pigments like those coloring crops of carrots and sweet potatoes orange and radishes and tomatoes red. “Plant pigments usually refer to four major well-known classes: chlorophylls, carotenoids, flavonoids, and betalains…Chlorophylls are the primary green pigments for photosynthesis. The latter three are complementary nongreen pigments with diverse functions…The importance of colors in living organisms cannot be overstated…they are biosynthesized behind the scenes in living organisms and ultimately ingested in daily diet.” Presumably this daily consumption and medicinal benefits makes natural pigments in general logical and sustainable alternatives to expensive heavy metals in “green” electronic, computer and solar energy cell designs.

Agnes Mbonyiryivuze, in her 2014 dissertation titled “Indigenous natural dyes for Gratzel solar cells: sepia melanin,” provides a readable overview of solar energy cells utilizing natural pigments. The list of natural pigments fabricated into solar cells is long, and the sources range from cochineal scale insects, green algae, baker’s yeast, fungi and bacteria to bougainvillea flowers, Chinese medicinal plants (e.g. tea, pomegranate leaves, wormwood, mulberry fruit) and food crops like beets, parsnip, purple cabbage, blackberry and black grapes. The black pigments are of particular interest, including skin melanins providing UV protection and the black powder from cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) ink sacks. “To maximize the absorption of more photons from the sun light for DSSC,” writes Mbonyiryivuze, “it is better to have a black dye sensitizer having extremely high broadband absorption. It should absorb not only in visible range but also in ultraviolet and near-infrared regions. This challenge can be handled by using natural dyes from other sources such as fauna from which sepia melanin was obtained. Melanins are well-known natural pigments used for the photoprotective role as a skin protector because of their strong UV absorbance and antioxidant properties. Melanin possesses a broad band absorbance in UV and visible range up to infrared.” Sepia melanin “can also conduct electricity and is thus considered a semiconductor material.”

“There are numerous trials of solar cell construction which are based on biomolecules and supramolecular systems, for instance, chlorophylls, porphyrins, phtalocyanines, and other natural or bioinspired dyes,” write researchers in Poland constructing double layer solar cells with cochineal red and gardenia yellow pigments bonded to TiO2 nano-surfaces. “Hybrid materials incorporating biomolecules immobilized on conducting or semiconducting surfaces are unique systems combining collective properties of solids with structural diversity of molecules, which besides photosensitization show other unique electrochemical and catalytical properties.”

According to Mousavi-Kamazani et al. in Material Letters (2015), quantum dots composed of cochineal and copper offer the economically attractive “possibility of single step production of three-layered solar cells.” Clearly, though the distance might be measured in years or decades, we are getting closer to a cochineal and natural pigment renaissance that transcends traditional fabric dyes and artist’s pigments and extends into medicine and the heart of modern computers, lasers and electronic and optical devices of all sorts.


Insect Perceptions, Irrelevant or Important

February 23, 2016

“IT WAS THE BUTTERFLIES, my people say, who brought the first human babies to their feet,” writes Canadian Richard Wagamese in “Butterflies Teachings,” an essay touching on “what’s called Enendamowin, or Ojibway worldview” in his brilliant collection, One Native Life. “Before that, the New Ones sat in innocence beneath a tree, watching the world around them with wonder. But Creator had planned more for them. Their destiny called for them to move throughout the world. These human babies were meant to walk upon their two legs, and as long as they sat under that tree their destiny could not be fulfilled…The air seemed to tremble with butterflies. The human babies were entranced. Each time they tried to snare a handful of colour, the cloud drifted away. They stretched their arms higher. They thrust out their hands. But it was to no avail. When the butterflies danced just out of reach a final time, the New Ones lurched to their feet and raced after them across the meadow. The Animal People celebrated quietly, then returned to their dens and burrows and nests. The human babies never caught those butterflies, but they kept on running, right into the face of their destiny…”

Quite a different worldview from Prague and Eastern Europe, where Franz Kafka’s famous novel Metamorphosis begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” According to the “wall notes” in the exhibit “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Kafka’s words inspired South Africa artist Walter Oltmann. Among neon masks, dancing mask videos and sculptured African animals wearing masks are Oltmann’s large anodized aluminum and brass wire caterpillars in the midst of “transformation and change” (metamorphosis) and fashion sketches titled “Beetles & Suits.” The suit coats are gracefully curving, shell-like beetle elytra (outer wing covers) fashionably topped off with the latest antennae, and looking both business-like and sci-fi out of Star Wars or Star Trek at the same time. I can easily imagine a cell phone age makeover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band regalia and long hair with “beetle suits” and high-fashion antennae. Perhaps too much entomology affects the psyche. Oltmann writes that “spending an inordinate amount of time on making something that is usually considered insignificant like an insect, does make us look differently at them.” He says it “speaks of neither this nor that,” but I’m not so sure.

Insect observations appear in haiku by Japanese master Matsuo Basho, whom I think of as the late 1600s slightly more refined counterpart of 20th century Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski, who was too busy with “other interests” to notice beetles, flies, mosquitoes and roadside weeds. In Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times: Selected Haiku of Basho, translator David Young writes: “Odd numbers predominate; a dance is occurring, and each third of the poem is a turn, a gesture, a refining or revelation… The poem seems to end almost as soon as it has begun, a small flash of lightning…A more literal version of the haiku cited (below) would be something like: What can save your life? / one leaf, with an insect / sleeping on its journey… the journey, which refers to a Chinese story that Basho’s readers would know but that is largely meaningless to English readers…‘Basho mash-ups,’ I have sometimes called my versions”:

One insect
asleep on a leaf
can save your life

Perhaps Basho was thinking of medicinal silkworms slumbering on mulberry leaves, or perhaps his mind was journeying among high mountains where ghost moths metamorphose with fungi into plant-animal hybrids that have been used in Asian medicine for centuries. David Young says about haiku: “They love to startle, first the writer and then the reader. As though a hummingbird were to land suddenly on your resting arm. It is the way the world so often surprises us.”

A haiku by Los Angeleno Mark Jun Poulos, whose observation of the seemingly mundane urban habitat nagged at me long after I thought I had dismissed its ordinary elements from consciousness:

restroom sink-—
ladybug cooling off
in a drop of water

What nagged at me was water, a vital ingredient of life, which as hard sprays of rain washes away pesky mites and aphids that are ladybug prey. Water (H2O) is also a missing ingredient in most ecological studies of interplanting, a habitat diversity strategy designed to boost populations of lady beetles and other beneficial insects providing natural pest control. Australian grape vineyards and California lettuce fields have had some success interplanting blooming rows of sweet alyssum to provide pollen, nectar and alternative prey for ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies and other beneficial species consuming aphids and other pests. Sweet alyssum is also host to micro-wasps helping Michigan asparagus growers by parasitizing leafmining pest insects, Amanda Buchanan of Michigan State University reported at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Minneapolis. But if habitats are missing water, then perhaps lady beetles, which do not puncture plants to drink fluid, will leave to find restroom sinks, puddles or other water sources. Perhaps, like providing water bowls for pets, something similar needs to be researched as part of biological control habitat alternatives. Though I would draw the line at alcoholic drinks, except perhaps beer in snail and slug traps. Another urban haiku observation by Mark Jun Poulos:

sultry afternoon—
wasp hovers over a whiskey bottle
held by a drunk bum

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, by percentage the main chemical component of distilled whiskey, should not be abused, nor perhaps should it be so heavily subsidized as a biofuel, as that incentive exacerbates huge landscape changes measurable as reduced biodiversity. At Synergies in Science, a rare Minneapolis gathering of the ESA, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, the diminishing biodiversity of a Midwest USA with 21% less wheat, 16% less hay and much more GMO corn to distill into ethanol motor fuels was as hard to ignore as a drunk with a whiskey bottle on an urban bench. Jonathan Lundgren of the USDA-ARS in Brookings, South Dakota said we need to get away from our “very pest-centric approach” and adopt a more holistic biological network approach. Instead of a Midwest saturated with pesticides to grow GMO corn to distill into fuel tank ethanol, something as seemingly simple as adding biodiversity via cover crops amongst the corn rows could produce enough soil biocontrol of corn rootworm to eliminate wasteful neonicotinoid seed treatments whose honey bee and beneficial insect friendliness is being hotly debated. Karen Friley of Kentucky State University reported at the ESA that something as seemingly simple as native plant border rows around sweet corn fields “provide microclimates in the form of moderated temperatures, which offer shelter” for numerous natural enemies controlling corn pests.

Curiously enough, ethanol (alcohol) like that in whiskey bottles and vehicle fuels also attracts pine beetles and ambrosia beetles considered destructive forest, landscape, street tree and nursery pests. Perhaps more curiously, the very trees being attacked are producing the ethanol and releasing it into the atmosphere when stressed (e.g. by drought or flood), decaying or dying. Trees may look perfectly healthy on the outside, but inside the tree is another story, because ethanol emissions are signs of sickliness and ill health. Chemical ecologist Christopher Ranger of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio said it is a real problem, for example, when nursery seedlings are used to replant spruce forests or with dogwoods, magnolias, pines, etc. in nurseries, backyards, along streets, etc. It is definitely ecology, as the ethanol is luring in the beetles to help “recycle” the trees back into the soil as nutrients.

I liked Ranger’s reasoning: Find the tree equivalent of driver breathalyzer tests as a beetle-attack early warning system. SCRAM wrist bracelets worn by offenders for transdermal drug and alcohol detection were tested, but were not sensitive enough; taking a week to detect low tree ethanol exhalations, whereas beetles detect a few parts per million of alcohol and get to trees almost on day one. The solution was a portable ethanol monitoring device with a detector tube and a plunger to pull in air samples; developed using Japan’s Gas Tech industrial gas leak detection technology for quick detection of “inebriated” trees.

So, which is more startling and surprising: art, haiku or entomology?

Strange brew: September 17, 2015 daylight turning to dark, caught in one of those infamous, almost proverbial L.A. traffic jams at a freeway underpass on Church Lane transitioning from Sunset Blvd to Sepulveda Pass on my way past the Getty Museum to Mulholland Drive, listening to the Moody Blues Live at Red Rocks, going nowhere. Haiku and fireflies flashing internally, and externally the blinking side turn lites and red back brake lights suddenly and surprisingly metmorphosed into synchronous fireflies, albeit of a mechanical or robotic nature:

Tail and Turn Lights
Flashing like Synchronous Fireflies
In the Los Angeles Traffic Jam

 


Food Sweetener Safely Slays Insects

August 27, 2015

CERTAIN SUGARS CONSIDERED SAFE as sweeteners in the human food supply can double as environmentally-friendly pest remedies, and even make biological control of insects by beneficial fungi more practical for households, farms and gardens. Considering that caffeine from coffee grounds can be used against deadly dengue mosquitoes and that a variety of traditional herbs can blast away bed bugs, insecticidal sugar compounds should come as no surprise. Perhaps the only remedy more surprising is that rain water or simulated rain sprays from hoses or irrigation equipment can safely wash away pests with no toxic pesticide residues to worry about in the environment.

Using sugars directly to slay insects is somewhat unusual. However, sugars are commonly used as attractants, for instance to lure fruit flies, moths or ants to baits and traps both for population control and as a survey method or monitoring tool. California citrus growers have a long history of using sugar sprays as an IPM (integrated pest management) strategy to lure fruit-scarring citrus thrips to organic or botanical formulations of ryania (“from woody stem and root materials of plants of the genus Ryania”) or sabadilla (alkaloids from seeds of a lily bulb, Schoenocaulon officinale). “INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT implies that techniques used to manage one pest species should not disrupt techniques used to manage other pests of the same crop,” wrote J.D. Hare and Joseph Morse in the Journal of Economic Entomology. “In citrus pest management in California, this situation is well illustrated in the choice of pesticides for the management of one major pest, citrus thrips, Scirtothrips citri (Moulton), without disruption of several effective biological control agents of the other major pest, California red scale, Aonidiella aurantii (Maskell).”

That sugars can be lethal to pests and be a source of environmentally-friendly pesticides is not exactly intuitive. “Potential of the non-nutritive sweet alcohol erythritol as a human-safe insecticide” was the strangely intriguing title of Drexel University’s Sean O’Donnell’s presentation at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. Many of the details were previously published in PLoS ONE, an open access journal, and in part because of the origins of the research in a grade school science project by one of the researcher’s sons, aspects of the story have been widely reported in various media. “Erythritol is a zero-calorie sweetener found in fruits and fermented foods,” summarized Lauren Wolf in Chemical & Engineering News, and “is Generally Recognized As Safe by the Food & Drug Administration and has been approved as a food additive around the globe.”

“Many pesticides in current use are synthetic molecules such as organochlorine and organophosphate compounds,” and “suffer drawbacks including high production costs, concern over environmental sustainability, harmful effects on human health, targeting non-intended insect species, and the evolution of resistance among insect populations,” write the researchers in PLoS ONE. “Erythritol, a non-nutritive sugar alcohol, was toxic to the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Ingested erythritol decreased fruit fly longevity in a dose-dependent manner, and erythritol was ingested by flies that had free access to control (sucrose) foods in choice and CAFE (capillary feeding assays) studies…

“We initially compared the effects of adding five different non-nutritive sugar substitutes (Truvia, Equal, Splenda, Sweet’N Low, and PureVia,” wrote the researchers in PLoS ONE. “Adult flies raised on food containing Truvia showed a significant reduction in longevity…We noted that adult flies raised on food containing Truvia displayed aberrant motor control prior to death. We therefore assayed motor reflex behavior through climbing assays…Taken together with our longevity studies, these data suggested some component of the non-nutritive sweetener Truvia was toxic to adult Drosophila melanogster, affecting both motor function and longevity of this insect…

“Our initial analysis of sweeteners included two sweeteners that contained extracts from the stevia plant, Truvia and Purevia. While adult flies raised on food containing Truvia showed a significant decrease in longevity compared to controls, this was not the case for flies raised on Purevia. These data suggest stevia plant extract was not the toxic element in these sweeteners. Purevia contains dextrose as a bulk component, while Truvia contains erythritol as a bulk component…To determine if erythritol was the toxic component of Truvia, we repeated our longevity studies on food containing equal weight/volume (0.0952 g/ml) of nutritive sugar control sucrose, and non-nutritive sweeteners Truvia, Purevia, and erythritol. We assured the flies were successfully eating the foods containing these sweeteners through dye labelling the food with a non-absorbed blue dye (blue food), and visual confirmation of blue food present in fly abdomens and proboscises daily…The average percentage of blue abdomens throughout the study were 97.46%.”

“These data confirm all treatment foods (including Truvia and erythritol treatments) were consumed by adult flies, and suggest mortality was not due to food avoidance and starvation…A large body of literature has shown that erythritol consumption by humans is very well tolerated, and, indeed, large amounts of both erythritol and Truvia are being consumed by humans every day throughout the world. Taken together, our data set the stage for investigating this compound as a novel, effective, and human safe approach for insect pest control. We suggest targeted bait presentations to fruit crop and urban insect pests are particularly promising.”

Interestingly, a few decades ago UK researchers found that the sweeteners (sugar alcohols; polyols) erythritol, glycerol and trehalose rendered more effective several insect biocontrol fungi, Beauveria bassiana, Metarhizium anisopliae and Paecilomyces farinosus. These insect-killing fungi need a relative humidity (RH) near 100% for germination of their conidia (seed-like propagules). “Conidia with higher intracellular concentrations of glycerol and erythritol germinated both more quickly and at lower water activity,” wrote UK researchers J.E. Hallsworth and N. Magan in the journal Microbiology. “This study shows for the first time that manipulating polyol content can extend the range of water availability over which fungal propagules can germinate. Physiological manipulation of conidia may improve biological control of insect pests in the field…Although fungal pathogens have been used to control insect pests for more than 100 years, pest control has been inadequate because high water availability is required for fungal germination.”

Curiously, erythritol and glycerol, besides being sweetening substances, also function as antifreeze compounds. Certain Antarctic midges, known as extremeophiles for living in an ultra-cold habitat, ingest and sequester erythritol from their food plants; and as antifreeze it protects the adult flies from freezing. Indeed, many mysteries remain. Besides being found in green plants like stevia and in lower amounts in fruits, erythritol is found in certain mushrooms, lichens and algae. Human and animal blood and tissues apparently have low endogenous levels of erythritol; and erythritol is a yeast fermentation product (hence in sake, beer, wine). In human medicine, erythritol has been used for coronary vasodilation and treating hypertension; and according to Japanese microbiologists, erythritol ingestion may mean fewer dental cavities (caries) than sucrose sugar.


Termite Power! (Green/Alternative Energy)

February 25, 2015

TERMITE BIOMASS ENERGY conversion offers a potential 95% to 99% efficiency in converting woody plants into usable energy forms comparable to ethanol fuels and petroleum products. “Termites are regarded as harmful because of the ability to decompose cellulosic materials such as houses made of wood,” said University of the Ryukyus (Okinawa, Japan) researchers Toru Matsui, Gaku Tokuda and Naoya Shinzato in the journal Recent Patents on Biotechnology. However, “Termites and/or their symbionts (e.g. gut protozoa & bacteria) are potentially good resource of functional genes for industrial applications…for biomass utilization, environmental remediation, and fine-chemicals production.”

Several termite genes have already been patented for biofuel (cellulase) and fighting infections (antimicrobial peptides). Combinations of cellulase enzymes and anaerobic symbionts have also been harnessed to produce hydrogen fuel (H2 gas) from waste plastics. “Lignin treatment by anaerobic bacteria from the gut of” several termite species has also been patented; thus pointing towards a greener pathway in place of today’s less environmentally-friendly caustic chemical processes. Termite energy production mechanisms might also be released as Open Source scientific information, instead of patented, as was once common in the scientific world. Indeed, the real practical innovations for sustainable world energy production may be in turning the raw material of biological science basic research into economical applied chemical engineering and bio-engineering solutions. In other words, a new energy production landscape dotted with bio-refineries approaching the 95% to 99% energy conversion efficiency of termite guts digesting woody plant and fiber materials is an objective worth working towards.

Being an ancient insect order, termites have been tapping into Earth’s abundant woody plant resources for perhaps 400 million years; well before dinosaurs and then humans roamed and pillaged the planet. “Cellulose is the most abundant biomass on the earth,” write the Ryukyus researchers. “Termites thrive on plant biomass, in which the major constituents are cellulose, hemicellulose (i.e. non-cellulosic carbohydrates), and lignin…In addition, it can be hydrolyzed to give a sugar pool which can be subsequently fermented to form ethanol, etc. However, the crystalline nature of cellulose had made it difficult to economically convert into useful chemical feedstocks…Other than cellulosic materials decomposition, there could be symbionts degrading lignin-derived compounds, a significant part of the wood constituents.”

At the hops-soaked Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, the parallels between microbrewing (hops & microbes), baking (yeasts; Voodoo donuts) and termite guts as fermentation vats (bio-refineries) producing energy fuels was bubbling just below the surface. Several research labs, including Michael Scharf’s Purdue University lab, are evaluating the genes and metabolic processes innate to termites as well as the contributions of protozoa, bacteria and other microbes living as symbionts in termite guts and helping digest plant lignins and cellulose into usable energy compounds. Figuring out how termites and their gut microbes are such efficient converters of plant matter into energy is a huge undertaking, even with the latest DNA and genetic tools.

Brittany Peterson, an ESA termite biofuel presenter working in Scharf’s lab writes on her web page about “the co-evolution of termites and their over 4,000 symbiotic microorganisms.” The implication being that the termite hindgut is a bio-refinery where termites and their microbial symbionts constitute the equivalent of a vast unknown ecosystem whose parameters are just now being delimited. Peterson and the Scharf lab view termite guts as a model system for studying synergy and biomass processing of tough toxins like lignin. In other words, as the basis and inspiration for designing green bio-refineries for alternative energy and feedstock production processes more energy efficient than turning food crops like corn into ethanol fuel.

Of course, this means figuring out exactly how termites and their several thousand hindgut microbes extract simple sugars from wood’s complex lignin-cellulose polymer structure. This termite/microbe “digestion” (or depolymerization) has an amazing 95%-99% efficiency that industrial biomass processing or biofuel production cannot match even using very toxic caustic chemistries. Most research on termite gut microbes has focused on protozoa, but Peterson envisions adding bacteria and termite-produced enzymes to create a synergistic bio-refinery mixture. In other words, replacing current caustic and energy inefficient biomass conversion chemistries with greener, more energy efficient biological technologies composed of termite-derived enzymes, bacteria and protozoa to depolymerize biomass and produce usable sugars/energy.

The synergy of termite (host) and gut microbes likely makes possible the observed over 95% lignin-cellulose biomass processing efficiency; 82% of the genes for lignin-cellulose processing, including high expression of cellulase enzymes, come from or are innate to the termite itself rather than the symbiotic gut microbes, Peterson told the ESA annual meeting. Though the termite-microbe synergism boosts the the energy efficiency to quite high levels approaching 100%. At least for woody materials.

Interestingly, though, when termites eat paper, most of the biomass processing genes come from the gut microbes. Thus, a quite complex digestive ecosystem that seems to vary greatly with the food (feedstock) input. The gut microbes also help termites detoxify harmful materials and provide antioxidant protection. Scientific bioassays using various combinations of antibiotic drug treatments and anti-protozoa diets are enabling the Scharf lab to construct a microbial “library” for continuing research, Peterson told the ESA. Recent experiments with bacteria isolated from the subterranean termite Reticulitermes flavipes, indicate that the bacteria either alone or via interaction with protozoa boost glucose (sugar; an energy feedstock) release from lignin-cellulose (plant) biomass.

In the future, it is conceivable that bio-refineries using termite enzymes, bacterial enzymes and protozoa will make today’s ethanol and biomass to energy conversion processes look like toxic, inefficient relics of a primitive industrial energy production past. But it will likely be many more years before bio-engineers and chemical engineers are ready to begin the commercial harvest of termite energy to power our vehicles, the Internet, etc.


Termites: Good Medicine (Antibiotic Alternatives)

January 2, 2015

[Note to Search Engines: This is Not Another Termite Poop Story.]
Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Beaten by Termite Innate Immune System (the science part)

Antiseptic procedures and germ theory, stuff now routine like doctors and nurses washing their hands to avoid contaminating patients, entered modern medicine via 19th-century applied entomology aimed at solving a mysterious silkworm population decline baffling Italy’s Agostino Bassi and France’s Louis Pasteur (See blog, The Mysteries of Colony Collapse). Today, Pasteur might be looking over the shoulder of Yuan Zeng in Xing Ping Hu’s Urban Entomology Lab at Auburn University, wondering how termites make themselves more robust and immune to disease. After working with silkworms and formulating modern germ theory, Pasteur realized that “the exclusive emphasis on the germ theory of contagious disease” was a very incomplete view of reality in need of modification; a radical notion that would be opposed by many in modern medicine even today, as germ theory has attained the status of orthodoxy and relegated the alternatives to the fringes.

Pasteur told colleagues that if he had the chance to go back to silkworm entomology again he would focus on nutrition, the environment and physiology (e.g. immunity) to increase robustness, vigor and disease resistance. Stuff that would be cutting edge in the 21st century. Stuff like termite entomologist Yuan Zeng’s study of how termite “innate immune systems” overcome MultiDrug Resistant (MDR) bacteria infecting over 2 million people annually in the USA. MDR bacteria in the USA annually kill over 23,000 “because they are untreatable with today’s drugs,” Zeng told the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. MDR bacteria are also becoming “a significant global health threat.” An excellent YouTube video of Yuan Zeng describing her Auburn University research on termites defeating MDR bacteria is now available.

Zeng’s previous research with powdered extracts of Eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) against bacteria causing human gastric distress lends credibility to traditional folk medicines containing insects. “Our previous research on disease resistance in R. flavipes workers showed that the crude extract of naive termites constitutively displayed a broad-spectrum antibacterial activity including agents responsible for human gastric infections,” Zeng told the ESA annual meeting. The logic behind using termites as medicines or drugs is that subterranean termites forage and nest in soil loaded with pathogenic microbes, making them a “source for novel antimicrobial discovery because they have evolved effective innate immune systems in confronting various harmful microorganisms.”

If a termite species is both pest and medical cure, then might an alternative to chemical fumigation be to harvest (e.g. trap or vacuum) the termites and sell them as a medicinal crop? That is a question that rarely, if ever, is asked. “Science has already proven the existence of immunological, analgesic, antibacterial, diuretic, anesthetic, and antirheumatic properties in the bodies of insects,” wrote Brazilian researcher Eraldo Medeiros Costa-Neto in an article titled ENTOMOTHERAPY OR THE MEDICINAL USE OF INSECTS. “Since early times, insects and the substances extracted from them have been used as therapeutic resources in the medical systems of many cultures. Commonly considered to be disgusting and filthy animals, many insect species have been used live, cooked, ground, in infusions, in plasters, in salves, and as ointments, both in curative and preventive medicines.”

Florida is the place where all the termites of the world seem to be coming to live. The Palm Beach, Florida, TV news recently warned of a Caribbean invasion of conehead or tree termites, known scientifically as Nasutitermes corniger. Conehead termites avoid competing with subterranean termites by building “beach-ball size” nests above ground and “brown tubes up the outside walls of houses,” and according to the TV make wood look like “shredded wheat.” Even “aggressive spraying” dating back to 2001 failed in its goal of eradication, and 100 million conehead termites nesting in 120 colonies amongst 42 properties were sprayed in 2012. Conehead termites, which are “distributed from southern Mexico to northern Argentina and the West Indies,” are “commonly used in traditional medicine in Northeast Brazil,” say scientists in Brazil. No doubt the coneheads will turn up again and again in Florida until they are finally accepted as residents. That is the nature of invasive insects.

Perhaps instead of chemical eradication programs, these termites should be harvested and exported to Brazil and elsewhere for medical use. “With the increase in microbial resistance to antibiotics, the use of natural products represent an interesting alternative for treatment,” wrote Henrique Coutinho and his Brazilian colleagues in an article titled “Termite usage associated with antibiotic therapy.” Crushed and powdered conehead termites mixed with a conventional antibiotic drug (which was failing, due to bacterial resistance) produced “a new weapon against the bacterial resistance to antibiotics” via a termite-drug synergy. In other words, mixing powered conehead termites with the drug made for a more powerful antibiotic medicine than using the antibiotic drug alone. At least the coneheads are good for something.

Yuan Zeng told the ESA and YouTube that she fed subterranean termites “sublethal concentrations of MultiDrug Resistant (MDR) pathogens, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or Pseudomonas aeruginosa (PAOl),” which induced “an alternation of protective proteins” produced by the termite’s innate immune system. “The composition changes of proteins following the feeding of MDRs significantly inhibited the growth of P. aeruginosa and MRSA,” said Zeng. “The results of this research could be a significant breakthrough for developing novel effective drugs” to fight human disease pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotic drugs. Worldwide, millions of people stand to benefit.

Known termite immune proteins include termicin, spinigerin, lysozome, tGNBPs, and “two unidentified proteins from several termite species with potent antibacterial and antifungal activities.” However, Zeng’s termite antimicrobial compounds are different; though there is still much scientific work to be done.

In the journal “Recent Patents on Biotechnology,” Japanese researchers Toru Matsui, Gaku Tokuda and Naoya Shinzato from University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa discussed patenting termite genes for alternative energy and drug production. “Although termites are regarded as harmful because of the ability to decompose cellulosic materials such as houses made of wood,” said Matsui et al. “Termites and/or their symbionts are potentially good resource of functional genes for industrial applications…for biomass utilization, environmental remediation, and fine-chemicals production.” Several termite genes have already been patented for biofuel (cellulase) and fighting infections (antimicrobial peptides).

A fungus-growing termite, Pseudacanthotermes spiniger, is notable for producing termicin, an antifugal peptide, and spinigerin, an anti-bacterial and antifungal peptide. “These peptides and the corresponding cDNAs have been patented as useful for protection of plants from pathogenic fungi or medical purposes,” said Matsui et al. “Similarly, some chemical antibiotic compounds isolated from termites have also been patented for the use of treating a microbial infection or disease.”

“Although entomotherapy is an ancient practice, it is still relatively unknown in the academic world,” wrote Costa-Neto. “In fact, as Holt already stressed in 1885, the advance of medical science and the suppression of folk knowledge swept away belief in the medicinal qualities of insects.”

Insect species outnumber plant species 16-fold, according to an article in The Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge: “Yet very few researchers have concentrated on the medically useful properties of insects. Most research with insects revolves around getting rid of them.”

Medical Botany refers to plants used for medical or health purposes. But there is no entomological equivalent. Medical Entomology addresses arthropods as medical or pest problems; and by analogy is like Weed Science to Botany. Insects as medicinal cures or health enhancers are outliers, orphan science, folk healing curiosities; perhaps supermarket tabloid fodder alongside celebrity scandals and UFO abductions.

In South India winged subterranean termites (Odontotermes formosanus) are traditionally roasted in earthen pots and consumed for three evenings to treat asthma. But their anti-bacterial qualities have not been explored, “mainly because of the difficulty in harvesting large numbers.” Memo to South India: An abundance of potentially medicinal subterranean termites are ready for harvesting and roasting for export in south Florida, Hawaii, New Orleans, Auburn, Mississippi, etc. Perhaps in some distant future a doctor will say, “Take two powdered termites and some Vitamin C, and call me in the morning.”