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.”


Herbicide-Resistant Grains Reduce Global CO2

June 25, 2014

THE WAR BANNERS of the North American Global Climate Change Brigade are flying high and flapping in the wind as the West’s Crusade Against CO2 (carbon dioxide) ratchets up against the alleged Lex Luther of fossil fuels, the super-villain coal favored by the up-and-coming industrial economies of India and China. But the USA has an ace in the hole, an agricultural crop super-hero warrior equivalent of the comic book-heroes Batman & Robin or the US Navy Seals ready to colonize world grain farming areas and help save the day by reducing global CO2 emissions. Though its longer term sustainability is open to question and the development of herbicide resistant weeds are almost an assured part of the package, an interesting case can be made for using grain crops resistant to herbicides (mainly glyphosate at the moment) in no-till and minimum-tillage farming systems to reduce global CO2 emissions.

“Weeds are the most significant of the economic and environmental pests, and they are the target of much of the pesticides applied throughout the world,” wrote Rachel E. Cruttwell McFadyen in an Annual Review of Entomology article titled Biological Control of Weeds. “Herbicides comprise 47% of the world agrochemical sales, and insecticides 29%. Weeding, usually by hand, accounts for up to 60% of total pre-harvest labor input in the developing world.” All this herbicide use is having predictable ecological results. According to to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds: “There are currently 432 unique cases (species x site of action) of herbicide resistant weeds globally, with 235 species (138 dicots and 97 monocots). Weeds have evolved resistance to 22 of the 25 known herbicide sites of action and to 155 different herbicides. Herbicide resistant weeds have been reported in 82 crops in 65 countries.”

However, when the herbicide use is coupled with grain crops that are herbicide-resistant in no-tillage or minimum-tillage farming systems, the reduction in CO2 emissions from the farming systems is quite dramatic. In a 2008 article titled “Glyphosate: a once-in-a-century herbicide” in the journal Pest Management Science, S.O. Duke and S.B. Powell wrote: “Glyphosate-Resistant crop use worldwide in 2005 resulted in a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and potential additional soil carbon sequestration equivalent to the removal of about 4 million family cars from the road in terms of effects on global carbon balance.” This positive view of Roundup Ready® crops, which are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, was echoed in 2012 in the Weed Science Society of America’s journal, Weed Science: “Adoption of conservation tillage in the United States since 1982 is credited with reducing average soil erosion by 30%, raising the amount of soil carbon, and lowering CO2 emissions.”

In 2010, the combined biotech crop-related carbon dioxide emission savings from reduced fuel use and additional soil carbon sequestration were equal to the removal from the roads of 8.6 million cars, equivalent to 27.7% of all registered cars in the UK (United Kingdom),” wrote Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot in their 2012 UK report. “Based on savings arising from the rapid adoption of no till/reduced tillage farming systems in North and South America, an extra 4,805 million kg of soil carbon is estimated to have been sequestered in 2010 (equivalent to 17,634 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that has not been released into the global atmosphere).”

If you subscribe to the CO2-centric consensus that temperature change on planet Earth revolves almost exclusively around the evil-demon molecule, CO2, then like night follows day the case for no-tillage farming schemes using herbicide-resistant GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that sequester carbon, reduce soil erosion, minimize fossil fuel use and reduce CO2 emissions in a major way is tough to fight, even if the GMO scheme has some discomforting side-effects to swallow.

On the other hand, the consensus or majority view can sometimes turn out to be dead wrong, be it CO2 or commodity prices (e.g. houses, gold). I remember vividly the early 2000s, being in the 17% minority when an overwhelming 83% of the USA population were “in consensus” with the world “intelligence community” consensus belief in the absolute certainty of another evil demon threatening life on planet Earth, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. Turned out to be Iraqi Weapons of Mass Deception. But realistically, we cannot demand God-like perfection and 100% correctness from the consensus-making machinery. On a more scientific level, before the USA came into existence as a nation-state, there was a very sincere consensus belief (perhaps 97%) that the Earth was flat and ships sailing from Europe towards North America would be swallowed by dragons or perish in the void. A skeptical Christopher Columbus undeniably demonstrated otherwise. Likewise, Aristotle’s most accepted ancient scientific wisdom was later revised; and a skeptical Albert Einstein punched holes into previous beliefs about the nature of the physical world.

Organic and traditional grain growers do have some good reasons to resist growing herbicide-resistant GMO (genetically modified organisms) grains, despite the reduced CO2 emissions. Indeed, it is theoretically possible to develop organic herbicides (e.g. allelopathic extracts of sorghum, eucalyptus, sesame, sunflower, tobacco and brassica fight weedy wild oats & canary grass in wheat fields) and implement organic no-till and minimum-till systems with cover crops, green manures, mulches, intercropping, crop rotations, etc.

But for the moment, herbicide-resistant GMO grains have been voluntary adopted (no mandates or penalties for non-use) and dominate in the Americas for reasons having little to do with direct concern for CO2 emissions. Reduced CO2 emissions from farming systems incorporating herbicide-resistant GMO crops might be called a pleasant side effect; though logically it could become a global selling point, if not a global mandate (perhaps even enforced by the USA, EU, NATO or United Nations) as part of the “War on CO2.”

In point of fact, the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change), which sets the European Union (EU) and global agenda on these matters is on record in their official reports, that herbicide-resistant GMOs used in no-tillage and minimum-tillage farming are a valid remedy for reducing CO2 emissions.

Though Brookes and Barfoot caution against taking their numbers too literally, because they are estimates based on assumptions and models (e.g. IPCC data), the contribution to CO2 emissions reduction from herbicide-resistant GMO crops and no-tillage farming is hard to dispute. If the consensus case against CO2 as the climate-change evil demon molecule is fully accepted and considered closed and beyond debate, then the case for herbicide-resistant GMO grains becomes politically correct and GMO-skeptics should logically be housed with CO2-skeptics in the same denial and heretic camp. However, the evil-demon status of CO2 is open to alternative interpretations incorporating some beneficial attributes of carbon atoms and CO2 molecules as essential to life on planet Earth.

Call it carbon skepticism or CO2 denial if you wish, but the famous Italian chemist Primo Levi, a concentration camp survivor (who later committed suicide) and knew firsthand that majority opinion can sometimes be tragically wrong, questioned the mainstream CO2 obsession and wrote: “Carbon dioxide, that is, the aerial form of carbon…this gas which constitutes the raw material of life, the permanent store upon which all that grows draws, and the ultimate destiny of all flesh, is not one of the principal components of air but rather a ridiculous remnant, an ‘impurity,’ thirty times less abundant than argon, which nobody even notices. The air contains 0.03 percent (CO2)…This, on the human scale, is ironic acrobatics, a juggler’s trick, an incomprehensible display of omnipotence-arrogance, since from this ever renewed impurity of the air we come, we animals and we plants…”

Lost in the shrill certitude and climate change bullying is the fact that CO2 is only 1 of about 200 atmospheric gases interacting with each other and other factors such as cloud cover in still not fully understood ways affecting climate and temperature; lack of adequate understanding for computer input is one reason why the computer model predictions are inherently prone to error and inaccuracy. Side effects of reduced atmospheric CO2 may include less plant photosynthesis (e.g. less food crop growth) and less water transpiration by plants (which may affect cloud cover and rainfall in ways that actually increase global warming).

Coal gets more of the blame for CO2 emissions. But, ironically, scrubbing (removing) sulfur dioxide (SO2) from burning coal caused much of the global warming blamed on CO2 by shrinking the Earth’s sulfate layer (which offsets the warming effect of CO2). Though the SO2 from coal burning is a pollutant we would not want back, it illustrates the complexity of the atmosphere, where selectively manipulating one thing leads to other unexpected problems. For example, put back the SO2 “scrubbed” from burning coal, and almost like magic the CO2 warming effects vanish (along with the rationale for global carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and herbicide-resistant GMO crops to fight CO2). It’s like Dem Bones song on YouTube. Indeed, the cooling of the Earth when SO2 or sulfates are put back into the atmosphere by natural sources like volcanic eruptions is very dramatic. According to the U.S. Geological Survey:

“The most significant climate impacts from volcanic injections into the stratosphere come from the conversion of sulfur dioxide to sulfuric acid, which condenses rapidly in the stratosphere to form fine sulfate aerosols. The aerosols increase the reflection of radiation from the Sun back into space, cooling the Earth’s lower atmosphere or troposphere. Several eruptions during the past century have caused a decline in the average temperature at the Earth’s surface of up to half a degree (Fahrenheit scale) for periods of one to three years. The climactic eruption of Mount Pinatubo on June 15, 1991, was one of the largest eruptions of the twentieth century and injected a 20-million ton (metric scale) sulfur dioxide cloud into the stratosphere at an altitude of more than 20 miles. The Pinatubo cloud was the largest sulfur dioxide cloud ever observed in the stratosphere since the beginning of such observations by satellites in 1978. It caused what is believed to be the largest aerosol disturbance of the stratosphere in the twentieth century, though probably smaller than the disturbances from eruptions of Krakatau in 1883 and Tambora in 1815. Consequently, it was a standout in its climate impact and cooled the Earth’s surface for three years following the eruption, by as much as 1.3 degrees at the height of the impact. Sulfur dioxide from the large 1783-1784 Laki fissure eruption in Iceland caused regional cooling of Europe and North America by similar amounts for similar periods of time.”

Yes, major volcanoes are rarely more than a few per century; but there is also possibility of global cooling from a nuclear winter triggered by nuclear explosions. In 2011, a “rare” combination of a tsunami triggering a nuclear power plant meltdown intimidated the Japanese into shutting down their “clean” (as far as CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions go) nuclear power plants and substituting CO2-emitting fossil fuels; ironically, going against the United Nations Kyoto Protocol treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan. The Kyoto Treaty, whose stated “goal is to lower overall emissions from six greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs,” had a few other flaws: “Please recall that China and India are Exempt from Kyoto standards,” writes Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis. “The US opted out because China was not a party. Canada signed the treaty but in 2012 Canada Leaves Kyoto Protocol, Lets China Buy Into Oil Sands.”

CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere of planet Earth have actually dropped dramatically over geologic time, and are nowhere near returning to former levels that favored plant life over animal life. University of Cambridge chemist John Emsley notes that natural sources, mainly the metabolism of food sources by plant and animal life, are still responsible for most CO2 production on planet Earth. In his book, Nature’s Building Blocks, Emsley writes: “The Earth’s early atmosphere may have contained a lot of carbon dioxide and methane, but once life evolved that began to change. Today, there is very little of these gases and a lot of oxygen instead, thanks chiefly to the action of plants which convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate and oxygen by photosynthesis. The Earth’s atmosphere contains an ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, from fossil fuel burning, and of methane, from paddy fields and cows. Human contributions to these sources are still minor compared with natural sources: most carbon dioxide comes from plants, microbes and animals, while methane is given off by swamps, marshes and termite mounds.”


Drones, Bug-Bombs & Future Weed Control

February 21, 2014

FUTURE WEED CONTROL, looking out several decades, will inevitably by necessity gradually start shifting towards weed-eating insects for biological control, with a lesser mix of herbicides and tillage. Drones delivering “Bug-Bombs” with payloads of beneficial weed-eating insects may not be the fastest or deadliest means of killing weeds, but it is an ecological strategy with many benefits for fighting weeds in remote terrain, rangelands and large, hard-to-reach areas in general.

Yong-Lak Park, a West Virginia University (Morgantown) entomologist, calls it “Shooting insects from the sky: Aerial delivery of natural enemies using aerospace engineering.” At a late-night session of the KYE (Korean Young Entomologists) in Austin, Texas as part of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, Park’s informative slide show (now posted on the Internet) depicted a range of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) designs and even a California vineyard in the agricultural vanguard with its own drones (not unlike flying model airplanes). Indeed, it is not hard to imagine a New Feudalism, where behind moated walls with locked gates and barking dogs, in an entertainment room with big screens and small monitors, sit modern medieval lords with joy sticks in hand commanding drone armies and air forces trying to rule universes, suburban lots and whatever.

Like model airplanes, UAVs are lightweight, inexpensive and relatively safe and easy to control, Park told the room full of Korean entomologists and a lone non-Korean writer in attendance. Equipped with sensor modules, GPS, digital cameras and video image analysis capabilities, UAVs can monitor weeds and detect weed biocontrol weevils on the ground with a resolution of up to 3 inches (8 cm). UAVs similar in design to the infamous drones used by certain governments for extrajudicial killings, and small helicopter-like octarotors are among the aerospace vehicles capable of delivering beneficial “Bug-Bombs” (bug pods) to large, hard-to-reach areas for biological control of weeds such as morning glory and mile-a-minute weed (Polygonum perfoliatum).

Galileo’s legendary sixteenth century scientific experiment dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to see how fast they fell came to mind when Park described his rooftop tests dropping Bug-Bombs filled with weed-eating weevils from different heights. Only rather than challenging Aristotle’s ancient teachings, Park wanted to see if the bug pods, which are cannisters shaped like the bombs you see dropping from Allied planes in World War II film footage, would cushion the weevils when they hit the ground from different heights. Indeed, 80-90% of the beneficial weed-eating weevils inside the bomb-shaped pods survived being dropped 0, 10, 20 and 30 meters (0, 33, 66, 98 ft). The idea being that the pods pop open when they hit the ground in some remote weed-infested area, and the weevils hop out and go about their everyday life of eating their favorite weed and reproducing new generations of weevils.

Basically, you get an army of weevils on the ground doing weed control, as opposed to aerial bombardment with herbicides and all their environmental side effects. This is known as classical biological control of weeds, and it has a long track record. On the downside, it is expensive to find the right insects, as they must be collected, reared and tested to make sure that they stick to the weeds (so you don’t inadvertently introduce a crop pest, for instance). Then you need permits. It might be millions of dollars and decades later before all the hurdles are leaped and a successful program is out the gate. But it has worked against several dozen weeds, and often a successful program can then be easily replicated in a new location.


A Butterfly Ballet (haiku)

July 28, 2013

A butterfly ballet
In the front window
White wings and black dots dancing on purple lantana


Fireflies in Tennessee: Tourism, Light Shows & Algorithms

January 25, 2013

A TRUISM IN TRAVEL is that on your first trip to a destination you learn what you should have done or gone to see. Sometimes you get back to do or see it, and sometimes you don’t. It is even more difficult, for scientific research as well as travel, to be there to witness rare, occasional or brief seasonal events in the life of a plant, animal or region. For example, I was in New Zealand the wrong season, and missed their famous glowworm (firefly) caves. Too much is happening and the world is too big to see or do everything; and some things are out of our vision, anyway; being too big or too small, too distant, or in the ultraviolet, infrared or some other electromagnetic frequency beyond our immediate sensory perception.

Viewing firefly (aka glowworm; lightning bug, firefly beetle, hotaru) photonic light displays at their rhythmically flashing best means being in the right place at the right time. Many of the world’s 2,000 known fireflies species lack the night fire, and are rather anonymous. Some glow as eggs and larvae (presumably to ward off predators), and as adults (advertising for mates). But most of the year, even the best flashers remain hidden (often as eggs, larvae or pupae) in the soil. More rarely, some esteemed Asian species have underwater larval life stages living in rivers, streams, wetlands and rice paddies and providing biocontrol of freshwater snails. The genji-botaru and heike-botaru fireflies (hotaru), celebrated since the 8th century in Japanese poetry (e.g. Man’yoshu) as early-summer “little lights darting about in the night,” are also icons of water purity.

Enchanting traveler’s tales involve the synchronous rhythmic flashing of many thousands, perhaps millions, of fireflies as far as the eye can see across the landscape. “Over the past four hundred years many anecdotal accounts of synchronous flashing of myriads of fireflies in trees in Southeast Asia have been scattered through travel books,” wrote pioneering firefly scientist, John Buck, who got started wondering about fireflies as a kid and advanced his studies working with his wife, Elisabeth, during summer vacations from his main work at the National Institutes of Health. “Pride of place in antiquity passes from Kaempfer’s (1727 Dutch physician’s book: The History of Japan (With a Description of the Kingdom of Siam)) description of synchronized flashing at the classic locality, the banks of the Chao Phraya (Meinam) River in Thailand, to Hakluyt’s (1589 book: A Selection of the Principal Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation) account of what was probably the same phenomenon, as seen by Sir Francis Drake’s 1577 expedition: ‘a certaine little Island to the Southwards of Celebes…Among these trees, night by night, through the whole land, did shew themselves an infinite swarme of fiery worms flying in the ayre…make such a shew of light, as if every twigge or tree had been a burning candle.’”

Synchronized firefly flashing was late being recognized in the Americas. “Early in this century sightings of synchrony among flying fireflies in American meadows began to appear,” wrote John Buck in 1988. “No reasonable explanation of the behavior was offered: in fact a strong aura of incredulity or even mysticism pervaded the subject.” Indeed, when John Buck started studying fireflies in earnest in the 1930s: “The fast film, laboratory oscilloscope and image-intensifier that would eventually confirm and dissect synchrony were, like the jet airplane…still in the future…Today the phenomena has been photographed, charted, and videotaped…”

“The modern study of synchrony in fireflies dates from 1968, when John and Elisabeth Buck used cine photography and photometry to demonstrate that a certain number of Southeast Asian firefly species flash in rhythmic synchrony,” wrote Jonathan Copeland and Andrew Moiseff, who “used videography, photometry, computer-shaped LED flash, and flash entrainment experiments” in their own studies of flash rhythms in the synchronous firefly, Photinus carolinus, a popular tourist attraction in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When the Entomological Society of America (ESA) met for its annual meeting in Knoxville, TN, in November (2012), the synchronous fireflies famous for what locals call “The Light Show” were slumbering about 50 miles away in the former logging town of Elkmont, which was swallowed up (residents sent packing) into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Huge numbers of male fireflies flash synchronously, dazzling the human spectators and drawing female P. carolinus for the purpose of mating,” wrote Lynn Faust of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, a former Elkmont resident, who along with local volunteers have collected 20 years of firefly data; aided by Paul Weston (Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, Australia) and other scientists.

“The display lasts only several days to slightly over a week, which means that the ability to predict its occurrence is of critical importance to the National Park Service, which organizes shuttle buses to ferry visitors from parking areas to the ecologically sensitive areas where the fireflies put on their display,” Faust and Weston told the ESA annual meeting. For the 10-day peak Light Show display, there have been up to 26,000 tourists. “Predicting the timing of this natural phenomenon is of equal importance to the researchers and naturalists who study its annual occurrence.”

In his Newbery Medal winning book (1989), Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, poet and children’s book author, Paul Fleischman, calls fireflies: “…glowing insect calligraphers practicing penmanship…Six-legged scribblers of vanishing messages, fleeting graffiti…Fine artists in flight adding dabs of light, Signing the June nights as if they were paintings…” A description hard to top, even with the many fine firefly night light paintings from light shows around the world displayed on photographs on the Internet and in YouTube videos.

“The synchronous firefly Photinus carolinus (Green) of the moist cove hardwood forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts much public attention during its spectacular month-long mating display known as The Light Show,” writes Lynn Faust in the Florida Entomologist. Besides the human tourist hordes, predatory biocontrol species also seem attracted to The Light Show: “Orb-weaving spiders (Araneidae) prey on P. carolinus. Late at night, after all courtship flashing had ceased, often the only lights visible were the rhythmic distress flashes or the steady glow of fireflies caught in webs. In addition, harvestmen (Phalangiidae) often were seen carrying glowing pupae, adult fireflies, or only the still glowing firefly lantern…local Photuris fireflies readily eat captive P. carolinus and regularly fly and signal within the dense display areas of male P. carolinus… Phorid flies (Apocephalus antennatus Malloch) parasitize Photinus fireflies by ovipositing eggs within the firefly’s body…” So, with the risk of being eaten by predators and becoming part of the greater ecological food chain during the short performance season, the life of an adult firefly Light Show performer must be as tough as it is brief.

Over the past two decades, lifelong firefly-enthusiast Faust and the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association volunteers collected data on “four landmark phenological events,” namely: 1) male emergence (date on which first flashing male fireflies are observed); 2) “good” display (date synchronized flashing by males is seen over wide areas; not just isolated patches); 3) female emergence (date of first female flashing in response to males; doublet flashes in leaf litter or low vegetation); and 4) peak display (final night of maximum male flashing displays; determined in retrospect, usually after a sudden fading out of The Light Show).

“A degree-day model based on a base temperature of 50 F (10 C) and a seasonal starting date of March 1 has resulted in remarkably accurate predictions of four landmark phenological events for Photinus carolinus,” Faust and Weston told the ESA. “This predictive ability has proven very helpful for timing research visits to field sites, and will be a valuable tool for the National Park Service when scheduling visits of thousands of visitors to the Smokies Mountain National Park to witness the Light Show.” The better the prediction of when “The Light Show” will occur, the more likely researchers, tourists and travelers will come away satisfied; versus feeling like they missed out.

“The Light Show is the name given by locals in the Smoky Mountains to the annual synchronous display of male P. Carolinus,” Faust and Weston told the ESA. “The males produce a string of about 6 flashes over 3-4 seconds, then remain dark for 6-15 seconds. Remarkably, these fireflies synchronize their flashes and dark intervals with those of their neighbors, which leads to visually striking displays stretching as far as the eye can see into the wooded hillsides and glens of the Smoky Mountains. The display can last for 2 hours or more on peak nights.”

The mathematics or calculations behind degree days (aka day-degrees, growing degree days, heat sums, thermal units, threshold temperatures) can be a bit tedious, but degree days are basically just a way of calculating the impact of temperature on a life process (or physiology). Degree days are used in botany, horticulture and agriculture to predict a range of phenomena, including flowering times, as higher temperatures mean plant enzymes are more active. Insects are also temperature-dependent creatures. Thus, degree-day models work to predict firefly adult emergence and light show times. Similarly, degree-day models can help time pest control actions by predicting the egg hatch of the codling moth, the proverbial worm inside the apple.

Raymond Bonhomme nicely sums up the agriculture origins of the degree-day concept: “The ‘degree-day’ unit stems mainly from the relationship between development rate and temperature. It was Re´aumur (1735) who first laid the basis of this notion: ‘The same grains are harvested in very different climates; it would be interesting to compare the sums of heat degrees over the months during which wheat does most of its growing and reaches complete maturity in hot countries, like Spain or Africa … in temperate countries, like France … and in the colder countries of the North,’ (original text in Old French: Durand, 1969). Even if the exact vocabulary was not correct (what is a sum of heat degrees?), the concept of a relationship between the development rate of crops (here the sowing to maturity period) and temperature was born. Hundreds of works have set about using, proving, or even disproving this idea…”

Degree days are only a warm-up exercise for mathematicians and computer scientists studying the synchronous rhythms and periodicities of fireflies. Indeed, synchronous flashing in fireflies may have similarities to other physiological events, like the human heartbeat (cellular coordination) or the schooling and swarming behaviors of fish and birds. No doubt some envision coordinating the actions of armies of drones or robots, though the Ant Colony Optimization (ACO) or Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO) algorithms might be better for that. Rather than being the dark warlike side of the light show, this work could also do great good in helping fight diseases involving coordination at the cellular or other levels, aiding theatrical productions or designing swarms of robotic devices for hazardous situations like fighting toxic disasters.

“Rhythmic communal synchronization occurs in body movements and sound production of a few insects and other arthropods,” wrote John Buck in 1988. “It is also typical of many human activities—e.g., dancing, the spontaneous rhythmic applause clapping by Russian opera, ballet and circus audiences and, notably, music. Even conducted orchestral music involves a large element of mutual cueing between performers.”

Hearing about the Firefly Algorithm, the mental lights flashed that it was perhaps created by Rufus T. Firefly, President of the bankrupt country of Freedonia, played by Groucho Marx in the 1933 USA movie, Duck Soup. But the Firefly Algorithm (FA) and the Improved Firefly Algorithm (IFA) are being studied by computer scientists and mathematicians trying to solve difficult optimization problems like “the famous economic emissions load dispatch optimization problem,” which is “one of the key problems in power system operation and planning in which a direct solution cannot be found.”

The Firefly Algorithm, developed in 2007 by Cambridge University’s Xin-She Yang, is simply a set of rules or problem-solving steps, in this case inspired by nature and programmed for computers based in part on the details of flashing firefly lights, an insect social or swarm activity. “Although the real purpose and the details of this complex biochemical process of producing this flashing light is still a debating issue in the scientific community, many researchers believe that it helps fireflies for finding mates, protecting themselves from their predators and attracting their potential prey, said Theofanis Apostolopoulos and Aristidis Vlachos of the University of Piraeus (Greece) in the International Journal of Combinatorics. “In the firefly algorithm, the objective function of a given optimization problem is associated with this flashing light or light intensity which helps the swarm of fireflies to move to brighter and more attractive locations in order to obtain efficient optimal solutions.”

Besides energy conservation algorithms for heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems, understanding firefly light production is a path to more energy-efficient household and industrial lighting. “The firefly produces its narrow-spectrum 560 nanometer light just like a chemical laser, but with even greater control,” writes Extreme Tech columnist, John Hewitt. “Understanding firefly scales as tiny prisms that change the way light impinges on an interface and creates new sharp-edged channels through which light can diffuse lets us make LEDs more efficient.” Indeed, mimicking firefly light transmission can boost light production from GaN (Gallium Nitride) LEDs by 55%.

As the Ohio State Parks web site notes in their succinct discussion of firefly bioluminescence chemicals, luciferin and luciferase: “Scientists are still not sure exactly how fireflies control their lights, but they have found many important uses for the chemicals luciferin and luciferase. Since living cells have ATP and oxygen, researchers can add luciferin and luciferase to detect harmful bacteria in food, milk or water. The two chemicals are also used for special electronic detectors used in spacecraft to look for earth-life forms in outer space! Luciferin and luciferase are also being used in research on human diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and heart disease. Firefly technology has also been used to produce safer, cold light for flashlights, flares and holiday lights.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg in innovation from studying fireflies. Just something to think about next time you are out watching fireflies, whether in your backyard, the Great Smoky Mountains or anywhere else on the planet.


Carbon Dioxide Gas Combats Bed Bugs

July 24, 2012

CARBON DIOXIDE GAS, an essential nutrient for photosynthesis and the human and animal food chain consuming green plants, can also play a key role in bed bug control. As an attractant, carbon dioxide (CO2) is useful for monitoring and trapping bed bugs and other vampire-like blood-suckers attracted to the gas, including ticks, mosquitoes, and assorted biting flies. Carbon dioxide gas, which has been used to fumigate everything from stored grain and food products to freight containers, museum collections, and hotel and motel rooms, can also be used to fumigate clothing, furnishings, books, electronics, and other bed bug-infested items.

Carbon, carbon dioxide, and the carbon cycle are integral to our very existence on planet Earth. “The carbon of the Earth comes in several forms,” writes University of Cambridge chemist John Emsley in his fascinating Oxford University Press book, Nature’s Building Blocks (An A-Z Guide to the Elements). “Most of what we eat –carbohydrates, fats, proteins and fibre – is made up of compounds of carbon…most ingested carbon compounds are oxidized to release the energy they contain, and then we breathe out the carbon as carbon dioxide. This joins the other carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from where it will again be extracted by plants and become part of the carbon cycle of nature…The cycle rules the tempo of life on Earth and turns over 200 billion tonnes of carbon each year…In this way carbon is passed up the various food chains, with each recipient releasing some as carbon dioxide, until most carbon is back where it started.”

Does this mean that using carbon dioxide for bed bug control is environmentally acceptable, since it is kind of a “miracle of life” gas behind photosynthesis and plant life? Or is carbon dioxide really more the evil greenhouse or global-warming gas causing global climatic havoc and deserving of punishment via carbon taxes and elimination from the atmosphere via geological carbon sequestration (storage) schemes? Perhaps we should offset carbon dioxide releases for bed bug pest control with offsetting carbon dioxide injections into greenhouses, where elevated CO2 levels increase yields of greenhouse roses, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other crops.

“Carbon is probably the most important element from an environmental point of view,” writes Emsley in Nature’s Building Blocks. “The Earth’s early atmosphere may have contained a lot of carbon dioxide and methane, but once life evolved that began to change. Today, there is very little of these gases and a lot of oxygen instead, thanks chiefly to the action of plants which convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate and oxygen by photosynthesis. The Earth’s atmosphere contains an ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, from fossil fuel burning, and of methane, from paddy fields and cows. Human contributions to these sources are still minor compared with natural sources: most carbon dioxide comes from plants, microbes and animals, while methane is given off by swamps, marshes and termite mounds.”

Obviously best to avoid bed bug infestations, and not have to think about remedies like carbon dioxide trapping or fumigations. Italian chemist Primo Levi makes the most persuasive literary argument: “Carbon dioxide, that is, the aerial form of carbon…this gas which constitutes the raw material of life, the permanent store upon which all that grows draws, and the ultimate destiny of all flesh, is not one of the principal components of air but rather a ridiculous remnant, an ‘impurity,’ thirty times less abundant than argon, which nobody even notices. The air contains 0.03 percent; if Italy was air, the only Italians fit to build life would be, for example, the 15,000 inhabitants of Milazzo in the province of Messina. This, on the human scale, is ironic acrobatics, a juggler’s trick, an incomprehensible display of omnipotence-arrogance, since from this ever renewed impurity of the air we come, we animals and we plants, and we the human species, with our four billion discordant opinions, our millenniums of history…”

Bed bugs concern themselves little with environmental correctness, and just tune into characteristics like the heat and carbon dioxide released by metabolizing warm-blooded meal hosts like humans, poultry, rodents, rabbits, etc. A flush from a CO2 cartridge is enough to flush bed bugs from their harborages or hiding places onto a bed in search of a meal. But more naturally, bed bugs follow CO2 gradients to locate live hosts for their blood meals.

“Carbon dioxide has been shown by several researchers to be the most effective attractant for bed bugs,” University of Florida-Gainesville entomologist Philip Koehler told a recent Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. Humans produce about 700 mg (0.02 oz) of CO2 per minute. “Thus, detectors with very slow CO2 releases cannot compete with human hosts,” said Koehler. “A rapid CO2 release is a better mimic to the human breathing pattern. Detectors with fast CO2 release captured about 4x more bed bugs than detectors with slow release.”

Trapping or monitoring bed bugs with CO2 is complicated by the fact that at different times in the life cycle bed bugs seek out hosts (releasing CO2) for blood meals when hungry; and then when well-fed, instead of CO2 bed bugs seek shelter in groups or cracks and crevices. So although CO2 is the better lure for hungry bed bugs, bed bugs that have fed have different needs and respond to different lures.

A commercial product, FMC’s Verifi(TM) trap, is a dual-action detector combining “fast CO2 generation with liquid kairomone and pheromone lures to attract both host-seeking bed bugs and aggregation-seeking bed bugs,” Koehler told the ESA. Carbon dioxide and the kairomone lure blood-seeking bed bugs into a pitfall part of the trap from which there is no escape. A pheromone lures harborage- or aggregation-seeking bed bugs seeking shelter in cracks and crevices into another part of the trap.

“An inexpensive detector that can be left in place and routinely serviced is needed to aid pest management professionals,” Ohio State University’s Susan Jones told the ESA. “Rutger’s do-it-yourself dry ice (frozen CO2) traps are a cheap and effective method for overnight surveys of potentially infested habitations.” An experiment in a 13-story high-rise apartment building in Columbus, Ohio compared (see You Tube video) 3 Verifi(TM) bed bug detectors per room with 1 CO2-generating dry ice trap per room and canine (dog) detection teams (2 dogs/room; same handler).

Verifi(TM) traps detected bed bugs in 11 of 17 infested rooms in the first 24 hours; and in 14 of 17 infested rooms within a week. Dry ice traps had similar efficacy. Dogs detected bed bugs in 19 rooms, including 3 rooms where neither visual inspections nor dry ice or Verifi(TM) traps detected anything. But the dogs were also not perfect, as each dog also missed 1 room rated positive for bed bugs. So the quest to capture bed bugs with carbon dioxide and other lures goes on.

Human ingenuity seems almost unlimited when it comes to traps. Carbon dioxide, heat and other attractants are all being tested with traps as varied as Susan McKnight Inc.’s Climbup bed bug trap and pitfall traps made from inverted dog bowls painted black on the outside. Rutgers’ Narinderpal Singh tested CO2, heat, and lures such as nonanol, octanol, 1-octen-3-ol, coriander, and spearmint with inverted dog bowl pitfall traps. CO2 had an additive effect with multiple-component lures in inverted dog bowl traps, and may be developed into an inexpensive monitoring system for detecting low levels of bed bugs. Trials with baited traps are continuing.

Both carbon dioxide and ozone show fumigant potential against bed bugs. Purdue University’s Kurt Saltzmann told the ESA of “Two devices capable of delivering ozone to laboratory fumigation chambers.” One device delivered a short exposure to high ozone levels, and the other long exposure to low ozone levels. “Preliminary experiments showed that adult male bed bugs were susceptible to relatively short periods of ozone exposure when high concentrations of ozone were used,” said Saltzmann. “100% mortality was achieved when bed bugs were exposed to 1800 ppm ozone for 150 minutes.” Low ozone fumigation is also being tested with 1-2% hydrogen peroxide for up to 72 hours.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is used by libraries, museums, and others as an insect-killing fumigant. Indeed, dry ice (frozen CO2) to release CO2 gas is cheaper than washing and drying fabrics to kill bed bugs, Rutgers University’s Changlu Wang told the ESA. At an 80% concentration, CO2 kills all bed bug eggs in 24 hours (eggs are the toughest bed bug life stage to kill). A 50% CO2 concentration for 8 hours is sufficient to kill bed bug nymphs (immatures) and adults.

Wang’s CO2 fumigations involved filling Husky garbage bags 90% full of items such as mattress covers and fabrics, leaving little room for air. Then the bags were sealed with dry ice inside for several hours. Books, electronics, toys and other items damaged by heat treatments might benefit from the low temperatures created by dry ice treatments. However, for safety reasons Wang recommends wearing gloves and turning on fans for ventilation when opening many bags filled with carbon dioxide gas (fumigant).


An Eco-Organic Ode to Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol)

June 6, 2012

ETHANOL, AN ANCIENT DISINFECTANT commonly used in today’s medical and health-care hand sanitizers, is also produced by microbes in food fermentation and natural ecosystems. A simple two-carbon molecule abbreviated EtOH by chemists, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is also routinely used in organic chemistry and commerce as a solvent for natural essences or tinctures like perfumes, food flavorings, and medicinals.

“By far the most common natural source of ethanol is fermentation of fruit sugars by yeasts,” wrote Douglas J. Levey in The Evolutionary Ecology of Ethanol Production and Alcoholism, an article in Oxford Journals’ Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Although ethanol is an end product of fermentation, the fungi that produce it are locked in a complex set of interactions with fruiting plants, frugivorous vertebrates, and other microbes. Given that ethanol affects both vertebrates and microbes, it is likely to have at least some adaptive basis. In particular, it may be viewed as a defensive agent, used by yeasts to inhibit growth of competing microbes in much the same way as penicillin is thought to give Penicillium fungi the upper hand in competition with bacteria.”

“In an anthropological context, fermentation can be viewed as controlled spoilage of food,” wrote Levey. “The microbes responsible for the later stages of food spoilage generally cannot grow in alcoholic or acidic environments. Thus, by culturing the production of alcohols and in many cases organic acids via limited exposure to oxygen, the food is protected. Long before refrigeration and synthetic additives, fermentation was one of the most important food preservation technologies… As they discovered the inebriating qualities of some fermented foods, they focused attention on those fermentative processes, ultimately leading to the beer and wine industries of today.”

Ethanol and fermentation are part of fruit plant reproductive ecology. Ethanol molecules multi-task: Fruit pulp is protected from microbial decay by ethanol. Ethanol also attracts fruit pulp-eating (frugivorous) animals aiding plant reproduction via seed dispersal. In essence, fruit pulp is redirected in the ecological food chain from microbes to higher animals, to the benefit of fruit plant reproduction.

“The low molecular weight of ethanol and its substantial concentration within fruit pulp well suit this molecule for long-distance signaling of availability to appropriate consumers,” wrote Robert Dudley in an article titled Ethanol, Fruit Ripening, and the Historical Origins of Human Alcoholism in Primate Frugivores in a 2004 issue of Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Ripening involves production of a number of fruit volatiles, but ethanol is perhaps the only olfactory commonality to an otherwise bewildering taxonomic array of angiosperm fruits.”

“As with longevity and fitness benefits of ethanol exposure in fruit flies, epidemiological studies in modern humans demonstrate a reduction in cardiovascular risk and overall mortality at low levels of ethanol consumption relative either to abstinence or to higher intake levels,” writes Dudley. “If natural selection has acted on human ancestors to associate ethanol with nutritional reward, then excessive consumption by modern humans may be viewed as such a disease of nutritional excess. Availability of ethanol at concentrations higher than those attainable by yeast fermentation alone (i.e., 10–12%) is a very recent event in human history.”

Underscoring the importance of ethanol in ecosystems, yeast fungi survive up to 15% (v/v) ethanol concentrations that are lethal to most microbes. Distillation, a technique known to ancient alchemists that survived the transition from magical potions to modern chemical science, of course boosts ethanol concentrations to much higher and more lethal/toxic levels than those found in natural ecosystems.

Ethanol is also an ecological feedstock. Yeasts and certain bacteria further transform (oxidize) ethanol into acetic acid or vinegar, which besides being culinary is toxic to many microbes. In India and elsewhere, anti-microbial solutions of vinegar and baking soda commonly replace harsh commercial chemicals for floor and surface cleaning.

Ethanol’s role as an animal attractant can be turned to human advantage: for example, in ecological pest control as part of traps or trap crops. Christopher Ranger and Michael Reding of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio, and Peter Schultz, Director of Virginia Beach’s Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center told the Entomological Society of America (ESA): Ethanol released by stressed (e.g. lack of water) or doped (injected with ethanol) forest or nursery trees (e.g. magnolias) attracts ambrosia beetles (Xylosandrus species). “A successful trap crop strategy might include 75ml (2.5 fl oz) of 90% ethanol injection of cull or park grade trees of an attractive species within the field production block or along the border between a woodlot and the high value nursery crop species,” said Schultz.&&

In the USA, where the federal government controversially subsidizes corn ethanol and mandates its use as a fuel, Douglas Landis and University of Illinois-Urbana colleagues Mary Gardinera, Wopke van der Werf and Scott Swinton wrote of the deleterious ecological consequences of growing too much corn in a 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In contrast to intercropping strategies promoting landscape diversity and biocontrol of pests by natural enemies, increasingly large almost monoculture acreages of corn create a less diverse landscape with less biocontrol in other regional crops like soybeans. Too much corn in the landscape costs soybean producers in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin an estimated $239 million in reduced yields and increased pest control costs.

Not that planting corn need be bad. Indeed, the Native Americans traditionally interplanted corn with squash, beans, strawberries, sunflowers, and diverse weedy species that promoted ecological balance between pests and natural enemies. “Biological control of insects is an ecosystem service that is strongly influenced by local landscape structure,” wrote Landis et al. “Altering the supply of aphid natural enemies to soybean fields and reducing biocontrol services by 24%” from planting too much corn cost an estimated $58 million in soybean crop loss and control costs for just one pest, the soybean aphid.

Distiller’s dried grains (DDGs) leftover from ethanol production could potentially be utilized in innovative ways. Though with billions of gallons of corn ethanol being distilled, the emphasis is understandably on utilizing big tonnages of DDGs for animal feed, mulches, etc., rather than really innovative research that could yield niche corn-based products for medical use. Yiqi Yang, a Professor of Biological Systems Engineering and Charles Bessey Professor in the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience and the Departments of Biological Systems Engineering and Textiles, Clothing and Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes that small research investments could yield niche innovations like medicines (e.g. corn-derived cancer-fighting molecules small enough to enter the brain) and biodegradable filters that can be left in the human body.


Fruit Flies, Ethanol, Good Health & Biocontrol

March 19, 2012

SEXUAL DEPRIVATION INCREASES Ethanol Intake in Drosophilia” was the semi-tabloid headline in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) journal Science (16 March 2012; v. 1355, p. 1351). No fools, the AAAS knows a scientific title readily translatable into good headlines and writerly fun; parental Internet filters be damned. I was particularly impressed by Scientific American Science Sushi blog writer Christie Wilcox’s entertainingly deft mix of science, human implications and fun stuff on fruit flies with quotes from lead scientist Gilat Shohat-Ophir.

You Tube has an entertaining mix of titles on the subject, such as: 1) Flies turn to drinking after sexual refusal; 2) Study: Rejected Male Flies Turn to Alcohol; 3) Scientists Find Fruit Flies Self Medicate With Booze; and from Emory University, 4) ‘Drunken’ fruit flies use alcohol as a drug. The underlying science has a certain fascination, as there are similar neural (molecular) pathways for rewards and addiction (and their interaction with social experiences) in the two species: neuropeptide F (NPF) in fruit flies and neuropeptide Y (NPY) in humans. “Flies exhibit complex addiction-like behaviors,” write Shohat Ophir and colleagues K.R. Kaun, A. Azanchi and U. Heberlein, including “a preference for consuming ethanol-containing food, even if made unpalatable.”

In primitive natural settings, ethanol from fermentation of overripe fruit functions as a cue or lure for humans, fruit flies and other animals to locate fruit crops. Indeed, there is evidence that fruit fly larvae “have evolved resistance to fermentation products” from millennia of eating “yeasts growing on rotting fruit.” But fruit flies are not immune to alcohol-related mortality; the dose of the poison (alcohol) determining whether it is medicinal.

“The high resistance of Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) may make it uniquely suited to exploit curative properties of alcohol,” wrote Emory University’s Neil Milan, Balint Kacsoh, and Todd Schlenke in an article titled “Alcohol Consumption as Self-Medication against Blood-Borne Parasites in the Fruit Fly” in Current Biology (2012). “Ethanol levels found in natural D. melanogaster habitats range up to 6% ethanol by volume in rotting fruits, and 11% in wine seepages found at wineries. Fly consumption of food with moderate levels of ethanol (i.e., less than 4% by volume) results in increased fitness, but consumption of higher ethanol concentrations (i.e., greater than 4%) causes increasing fly mortality.”

One of the hazards of life for fruit flies is parasitic wasps, which sting the flies and lay eggs hatching into parasitoid larvae living inside and eventually killing the fruit fly. From the fruit fly’s perspective, biological control by natural enemies is deleterious and best prevented or overcome. “We have shown here that ethanol provides novel benefits to flies by reducing wasp infection, by increasing infection survival, and by allowing for a behavioral immune response against wasps based on consumption of it in toxic amounts,” wrote Milan and his colleagues. “To our knowledge, these data are the first to show that alcohol consumption can have a protective effect against infectious disease and in particular against blood-borne parasites. Given that alcohols are relatively ubiquitous compounds consumed by a number of organisms, protective effects of alcohol consumption may extend beyond fruit flies. Although many studies in humans have documented decreased immune function in chronic consumers of alcohol, little attempt has been made to assay any beneficial effect of acute or moderate alcohol use on parasite mortality or overall host fitness following infection.”

Scientists and students with science projects have been rearing fruit flies for over a century, and unraveling many of the mysteries of biological life. Indeed, the common fruit fly, “Drosophila melanogaster is emerging as one of the most effective tools for analyzing the function of human disease genes, including those responsible for developmental and neurological disorders, cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic and storage diseases, and genes required for the function of the visual, auditory and immune systems,” wrote Ethan Bier of the University of California, San Diego, in Nature Reviews Genetics (v.6, Jan. 2005). Depending on the matching criteria, anywhere from 33% to “75% of all human disease genes have related sequences” in fruit flies. Thus, “D. melanogaster can serve as a complex multicellular assay system for analysing the function of a wide array of gene functions involved in human disease.”

Something to think about next time you see those tiny (1/8 inch; 3 mm) golden or brownish fruit flies flitting around your overripe bananas, vegetable-laden bins and garbage cans.


Moth-Eye Reflections

September 8, 2011

“ANTI-REFLECTION MOTH-EYE ARRAYS are now widely applied in panels of instruments, like cellphones and in window panes,” wrote Doekele G. Stavenga of the Department of Neurobiophysics at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) in Functional Surfaces in Biology -Little Structures With Big Effects, Volume 1. The editor, Stanislav Gorb of the University of Kiel (Germany), thanked senior publishing editor Zuzana Bernhart (Plant Pathology and Entomology; Springer, Holland) for her “belief in this topic and her personal help.” Bernhart said that a big dose of the inspiration for the two book volumes came from what have become regular symposia on insect-inspired innovations at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annnual meetings.

At nanotechnology events, insects and entomology are acknowledged frequently as inspiration. For example, at the California NanoSystems Institute on UCLA’s campus, Tomohide Takami, a researcher visiting from the Division of Quantum Phases and Devices at Konkuk University (South Korea), said “we have fabricated a bio-mimetic probe called ‘nano-mosquito’…to explore nano-world.” In a prior lecture Xiaodong Chen visiting from Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) noted: 1) energy storage devices, lightweight aerospace materials, and self-assembly inspired by diatoms and honey bee honeycombs; 2) Singapore’s waterfront Esplanade Theatres on the Bay is an architectural shape perhaps inspired by fly eyes and tropical fruit (durian); 3) moth eyes that are anti-reflective (so enemies do not see the glint of their eyes) and provide better vision at night and in fogs inspire solar cells that harvest more light.

“Anti-reflective moth-eye arrays could produce up to 12% more energy than those employing single layer anti-reflective coatings,” via “a reduction of up to 70% of the light reflected from the surface,” said Stuart Boden and Darren Bagnall of the University of South Hampton (UK) in their poster display (“Bio-mimetic nanostructured surfaces for near zero reflection from sunrise to sunset”). Via electron beam lithography and dry etching (subwavelength): “We have fabricated a range of moth-eye arrays in silicon. Reflectance measurements confirm the low reflectivity of these arrays over the visible and near infra-red wavelengths, making them excellent candidates for reducing reflection on solar cells.”

“Insects have facetted, compound eyes, consisting of numerous anatomically identical units, the ommatidia,” wrote Doekele Stavenga and his colleagues in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (22 March 2006. 273(1587):661-667), a journal whose roots date back over 200 years to London in 1800. Back in the 1960s, researchers discovered that the outer surfaces of moth eyes had “an array of cuticular protuberances termed corneal nipples” which reduce light reflection to 1%. Thus, moth night vision is improved by allowing 99% of light to enter moth eyes. Fewer reflections or less glint from the eyes makes moths harder for predators to detect. [Moth defenses against bat echo-location is another story, for another time]

“Moths thus realize a much higher light sensitivity than butterflies, allowing a nocturnal instead of diurnal (daylight) lifestyle,” wrote Stavenga et al. “A moth with large, glittering eyes will be quite conspicuous, and therefore its visibility is reduced by the eye reflectance decreasing… The insight that nipple arrays can strongly reduce surface reflectance has been widely technically applied, e.g. in window panes, cell phone displays and camera lenses.”

Moth-eye antireflection coatings (ARCs), “which are inspired by the grainy microstructures on the corneas of moths consisting of a non-close-packed hexagonal array of conical nipples, can suppress reflection over a broader range of wavelengths and wider angles of incidence than traditional multilayer dielectric ARCs,” wrote Chih-Hung Sun and other chemical engineering colleagues at the University of Florida, Gainesville, in an article titled “Large-scale assembly of periodic nanostructures with metastable square lattices.”

Moth-eye ARCs, reported Sun et al., “are widely utilized in eliminating the “ghost images” for flat-panel displays, increasing the transmittance for optical lenses, improving the out-coupling efficiency of semiconductor light emitting diodes, and enhancing the conversion efficiency of solar cells.”

“Since all biological structures are multifunctional, it makes them even more interesting,” wrote Stanislav Gorb in his introduction to the Springer book, Functional Surfaces in Biology. “Small surface structures at the micrometer and nanometer scales (i.e. very very small) are often vitally important for a particular function or a set of diverse functions…Because of the structural and chemical complexity of biological surfaces, exact working mechanisms have been clarified only for some systems.”

Some other possible innovations from the micro-world described in the Springer book: Protective slime coatings that protect seeds from rotting (e.g. pathogens) and stimulate or inhibit seed germination as needed. Water-repellent hairs have been “invented” by spiders. Water bugs can inspire waterproofing, anti-submersion fabrics, and surfaces promoting water runoff. Self-cleaning plant surfaces that cause water to form spheres and roll off are inspiration for water-repellent surfaces that might also trap air underwater for breathing. The plant world’s system of water transport pipes (xylem) can yield ideas for water transport systems. Feather microstructures could inspire aerodynamic innovations to complement lessons learned from insect flight.

We have barely scratched the surface of the ingenious natural world that we inhabit and share.


The Asian Invasion -Insects in Global Trade

January 8, 2011

NATURAL WOOD PRODUCTS are better than synthetic petrochemical plastics is a common refrain, almost a rallying cry for many who consider themselves “green,” organic, sustainable or environmentally correct. Thus, the fashionable zeal in some sectors of society to ban plastic shopping bags and allow wood-pulp paper bags. But what if being “green” and using natural materials like wood instead of synthetic petrochemical plastics led to deforestation and pestilence? That’s pretty much the world trade situation these days.

At first glance wood pallets, crates, dunnage, and packaging materials seem to be the low-cost, sustainable “green” alternative vis-a-vis more expensive, synthetic petrochemical plastics. But wood packing materials used in global trade have spread a pestilence of native Asian wood-boring beetles to new homes worldwide. The North American invasion by Asian wood-boring species of bark beetles, ambrosia beetles, and long-horned beetles were among the hot topics at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting of Dec. 2010 in San Diego, California.

Since hitchhiking to North America from Asia in solid wood packing materials and being detected near Detroit, Michigan in 2002, the wood-boring emerald ash borer has killed an estimated 30 million ash trees in the northern United States and southern Canada. The remaining North American ash trees are threatened. Though Sara Tanis, whose Michigan State University work is on You Tube, reported at the ESA annual meeting that blue ash (Fraxinus quadrangulata) “can withstand infestation and continue to survive.”

Emerald ash borer control is now multinational, involving the U.S. states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin plus the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The Asian wood-boring beetle invasion is so far along it might make little difference if world trade abandoned wood pallets, crates, dunnage, and packing materials.

“Control strategies are now shifting to how we can manage established populations in the longer term,” Shajahan Johny of the Canadian Forest Service Great Lakes Forestry Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, told the ESA. “One possibility is biological control, which is recognized as the most suitable long-term pest management strategy for invasive species.” Johny is looking at fungi in the genera Isaria and Paecilomyces attacking emerald ash borer in Ontario.

In Michigan and Ontario, Canada, the early emerald ash borer hot spots, woodpeckers can peck out up to half the wood-borers; which is good for the birds, but not stopping beetle movement to new trees. “In their native habitats, Agrilus (sci name of genus of 3,000 wood-boring beetles) populations are generally suppressed by a diverse group of natural enemies and/or host tree resistance, and rarely become serious pests,” said Jian Duan, Lead Scientist of the emerald ash borer biological control team at the USDA-ARS Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Unit in Newark, Delaware. The USDA has searched Russia, Mongolia, China, and South Korea to find specialized parasitoids that can be introduced to North America to hunt wood-boring beetle eggs concealed under loose bark and larvae hidden inside trees. The idea being to restore a natural ecological balance.

Asia has not been immune to wood-boring beetle outbreaks. “The mass mortality of oak trees (Japanese oak wilt) has recently increased explosively in Japan,” Masahiko Tokoro of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI) in Ibaraki, Japan, told the ESA. The Japanese are using a Decoy Tree Method (patent pending). Trap trees are baited with an aggregation pheromone attracting the wood-boring oak ambrosia beetle (Platypus quercivorus). Ethanol (alcohol) is added to the mix, because it is emitted by unhealthy or stressed trees and attracts beetles.

“Oak trees survive when they have been inoculated with a fungicide against the pathogenic fungus (oak wilt) before being attacked,” said Tokoro. “The decoy trees are lethal to the beetles because the symbiotic fungi (i.e. the ambrosia) that the beetles feed on are killed by the fungicide.” Neighboring trees can be similarly protected.

Variations on this method called push-pull are being developed in the U.S. to protect nursery trees from exotic ambrosia beetles (Xylosandrus spp.), said Christopher Ranger of the USDA-ARS Application Technology Research Unit in Wooster, Ohio. Ethanol is injected into sweetbay magnolia trap trees to stimulate ambrosia beetle attack. Beetles are “pushed” out of trees being protected by application of a repellent compound such as verbenone (dispensers) or via commercial botanical repellents such as Armorex, Veggie Pharm, Cinnacure. Azatin or Eco-Trol.


Compost for Sustainable Soil Fertility & Disease Suppression

July 24, 2010

ABOUT A THIRD of farm energy used for food growing supplies fertility. In Florida alone, the energy used to manufacture the 2 million tons of food crop fertilizer each year equals the energy content of 100 million gallons of diesel fuel. Thus, recycling or composting waste materials into fertilizers and mulches can save energy while reducing pollution and enhancing human and crop health.

In the book Farmers of Forty Centuries; Or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, early-1900s agricultural scientist Franklin Hiram King observed amazing levels of soil productivity where rural and urban human wastes were recycled back to the land and farmers planted legume (e.g. soybean; adzuki bean; clover) and other green manure cover crops and crop rotations.

“Japanese society once faced the prospect of collapse due to environmental degradation, and the fact that it did not is what makes it such an instructive example,” writes Azby Brown in his 2010 book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. “Japan entered the Edo period in 1603 facing extreme difficulties in obtaining building timber, suffering erosion and watershed damage due to having clear-cut so many of its mountains for lumber, and virtually unable to expand agricultural production…All the more remarkable, then, that 200 years later the same land was supporting 30 million people-2.5 times the population…Deforestation had been halted and reversed, farmland improved and made more productive, conservation implemented…Overall living standards had increased, and the people were better fed, housed, and clothed, and they were healthier. By any objective standard, it was a remarkable feat, arguably unequalled anywhere else, before or since.”

Human waste, euphemistically called night soil, became a valuable soil fertility commodity in old Japan. Perhaps not quite worth its weight in gold, but a valuable commodity bought, sold, traded, and transported long distances from cities to farms. Rather than causing cholera and other diseases by entering the water supply as was common in European cities of the same era, sanitation and composting blessed Japan with multiple dividends. Considerable energy was “expended on toilet design to allow these waste products to be easily collected and processed,” writes Brown. This has culminated in modern dry composting toilets that “by allowing natural composting heat to occur inside a well-ventilated compartment…turn human waste into a dry, nearly odorless compound that looks and feels like peat moss.”

Farmers in old Japan spent their own money to “build toilets and urinals along well-traveled roads for public use, in the hopes of increasing their yields of fertilizer.” Contrast this with the modern difficulty of finding a decent, well-maintained public toilet along roadsides or in cities. China, says Brown, “is poised to become the global leader in composting toilets, partly because relatively few communities are served by the sewer infrastructure and the government is promoting these new designs as an attractive alternative that will help mitigate its freshwater problems as well.”

In the modern Western world, scientists in Germany and the USA have advanced the conversion of animal manures and green plant wastes into composts and tea sprays that boost plant growth and suppress pests. Though long a staple of biodynamics and organic gardening, in the 1980s University of Bonn researchers like Heinrich Weltzien, Andreas Trankner and Ketterer provided experimental proof that watery compost tea sprays high in beneficial microbes reduced powdery mildew on grapes and late blight disease on potatoes. Indeed, in some experiments compost tea sprays formulated from grape marc, earthworm compost, and animal manures equalled synthetic fungicides.

In the USA, in 1969 reports surfaced that some Ohio nursery growers had conquered root rot diseases in rhododendrons, cyclamens, and other ornamentals using pine bark composts and no longer needed methyl bromide soil fumigations. Ohio State University’s Harry Hoitink embarked on scientific studies of this phenomena. To reliably control the plant pathogens causing root rots and other soil diseases, hardwood bark composts were aged like fine wines for 6-12 months or fortified with special biocontrol microbes. In Australia, eucalyptus bark is similarly composted to combat Pythium and Phytophthora root rot pathogens in container or potted plant soils and avocado orchards.

Insect pests can also be controlled with composts. For example, Cornell entomologists like Michael Villani and Roxanne Broadway stopped white grub beetle larvae from attacking turf and lawns using crude proteins extracted from composted leaves and kitchen food wastes. Composted chicken manure and feathers worked best against caterpillars (moth larvae). Cornell University’s Eric Nelson and others have spent years formulating composts to combat root rots on golf greens and maladies like dollar spot and brown patch.

It may take a year or two of aging to brew the right combination of pest-suppressive beneficial microbes in composts. In Japan, composted golf course grass clippings are specially inoculated with a strain of the beneficial bacteria Bacillus subtilis to hasten suppression of the fungus Rhizoctonia solani on golf courses.

However, compost is not always a quick cure. For example, several years of compost applications are needed to control soybean cyst nematodes in agricultural fields or to restore Japanese forest soils. That is because plant ecosystems are complex adapative systems.


Beneficial Termites, An Oil Alternative for the Hydrogen Economy

August 28, 2009

TERMITES AS beneficial insects? Seems preposterous when Formosan subterranean termites (Coptotermes formosanus) cause billions of dollars of structural damage annually in the U.S. And termites are not found in the catalogs of Rincon-Vitova and other insectaries selling beneficial insects that minimize pesticide use by biologically destroying pests. But back in his Nobel Prize-winning days as a University of California, Berkeley, physicist, U.S. Dept. of Energy Secretary Steven Chu looked deeply inside termites and saw microbial biorefineries producing hydrogen gas and a potential solution to America’s almost addictive dependency on foreign oil imports.

Global warming worriers might think this a bit odd, as collectively the world’s termites emit an estimated 15% of global methane, a greenhouse gas and natural gas energy fuel. But, oddly enough, the eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) and Formosan subterranean termites dining on wood structures in the USA are more environmentally correct creatures, eschewing methane and emitting valuable hydrogen gas instead. This hydrogen gas, if produced in bio-refineries powered by termite technologies, could replace traditional carbon-based petroleum fuels and reduce oil dependence.

In chemical terms: For every mole (a chemical unit of measurement) of wood glucose consumed, subterranean termites excrete 2-4 moles of hydrogen gas. Just like cows, termites have an array of gut microbes aiding digestion of plant cellulose. Microbial prospectors searching the termite gut instead of rainforest jungles, have discovered previously unknown gut microbes converting wood products into hydrogen gas. Harnessed in bioreactors, hydrogen gas produced by termites and their gut microbes can be the basis for a new hydrogen economy as the power source for pollution-free vehicles.

Mississippi State University’s Zhong Sun and others reporting at Entomological Society of America annual meetings note that termites and their gut protozoa are the best biological hydrogen production technology known. In part, this is because termites can convert 74-99% of cellulose substrate into fermentable sugars. Thus, one gram (0.035 oz) of wood in a termite biorefinery can generate 10 liters (1 quart) of hydrogen gas.

Onward to the hydrogen economy, with subterranean termite gas in the automobile fuel tank.