Untold Stories, Beyond Methyl Bromide

January 17, 2018

“THE IDEA TO write this book came to me after I retired in 2005 and was cleaning out, re-reading, and reorganizing 40 years of files…in spite of three books and more than 200 journal publications and book chapters, my files filled with history and unpublished data were headed for the trash bin…the greater my urge to somehow pull the stories together into a single read-through description of my career…unique, it is the approach I took and the philosophy behind my approach to do hypothesis-driven research starting in the field, followed by the laboratory,” writes R. James Cook in the “Preface” to his book, Untold Stories (APS Press, 2017).

In 1974, Cook and Kenneth F. Baker co-authored a landmark book, Biological Control of Plant Pathogens. That book, which in some ways is a precursor to Untold Stories, summarized scientific evidence relevant to creating ecological balances favoring beneficial organisms (e.g. biocontrol agents, antagonists, competitors) as pesticide alternatives to control pathogens capable of weakening and destroying plants, including major food crops such as potato and wheat. Human medicine has at various times in various places employed a similar biological approach, such as using bacteriophages to fight diseases such as cholera, but for an array of reasons biological control has found more fertile ground in agriculture. Ecological balances can be tilted or nudged from pathogens to beneficial organisms in various ways, including via soil pH adjustments, tillage systems, cropping sequences, fallows, composts, amendments, nutrients, etc. The specifics can vary widely among crops, individual fields, regions, soil types, etc. Dr. Cook, as the Untold Stories subtitle, “Forty Years of Field Research on Root Diseases of Wheat,” hints, found wheat a fertile microcosm for exploring the phenomena of naturally disease suppressive soils for producing healthy crops.

Cook’s job when he joined the USDA Agricultural Research Service included soil diseases afflicting wheat, one of humanity’s most ancient crops and a worldwide dietary staple. The USA grew 45.7 million acres of wheat in 2017, most of it winter planted varieties, the lowest acreage since record keeping began in 1919. USA farmers grow twice as much corn and soybean, roughly 90 million acres of each. Wheat exports earn the USA roughly $6 billion a year, out of $140 billion in total agricultural exports. Though wheat helps the USA balance of trade, family farms growing wheat are not sustainable or economically viable if soil pesticides are used. Dr. Cook’s challenge was curing wheat soil diseases without costly pesticides. In the 1970s, the mainstream view was that solving pest problems without pesticides was drug-induced organic hippie crazy talk, a near impossible task with low probability of success.

Fortunately Dr. Cook possessed sound inner instincts complemented by scientific understanding of ecology and microbiology, with an emphasis on biological control of plant diseases absorbed working alongside Kenneth Baker and others at the University of California, Berkeley where biological control was still honored and respected despite falling from its early 20th century heights during the synthetic pesticide era. Cook briefly acknowledges Louis Pasteur, the famous French freelance microbiologist, chemist and entomologist who developed modern medical germ theory and laid the foundations for modern epidemiology while alleviating a mysterious silkworm colony collapse (disease epidemic) depressing the mid-19th century French economy.

On page 236 of Untold Stories, Cook quotes Pasteur: “In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.” I would go back one step more to Pasteur’s mentor, chemist Jean Baptiste Dumas, who according to French-borne microbiologist René Dubos, persuaded a reluctant Pasteur to tackle the silkworm problem despite an insect ignorance for which he was widely ridiculed: “To Pasteur’s remark that he was totally unfamiliar with the subject, Dumas had replied one day: ‘So much the better! For ideas, you will have only those which shall come to you as a result of your observations!’” Microbiologist Alexander Fleming, famous for the fungal antibiotic penicillin, noted another important factor: “Louis Pasteur in his youth and throughout his life believed in hard work. He lived for his work and put his whole heart and soul into it. His was not a 40-hour week. He worked so constantly in his laboratory that it was inevitable that he became a beautiful technician…”

Another message embedded in Cook’s Untold Stories: Successfully tackle hard problems that appear insoluble to everyone else, and the probability of job security and life success increase. Cook developed an expertise in finding cooperative wheat farmers and locating fields where natural biological controls seemed to be working on their own. Then did a laboratory form of reverse ecological process engineering to find out why these fields developed a disease immunity or natural suppression of wheat soil pathogens. When you can replicate or duplicate the phenomena experimentally, then a degree of understanding can be claimed.


Untold Stories feels like the real nitty-gritty, with behind-the-scenes stories about how research projects are accomplished. The type of details typically omitted from science journals, by design. If anyone dared put into their journal article the details of how they obtained funding, navigated the bureaucracy to win support, or cleverly acquired a piece of new equipment, it would no doubt get edited out. This is a reason Roald Hoffmann in his book, The Philosophy, Art, and Science of Chemistry (Oxford University Press, 2012), suggested a new kind of science journal allowing first person “voice” and personal experience. Actually, it would only be “new” in the “retro” sense that “everything old is new again.” In the early days of modern science, personal autobiographical expression, musings and miscellany were common. These early science articles could be confusingly messy and hard to decipher, perhaps harking back to the deliberately obscure days of alchemy. However, personal observation and experience was handled well by agricultural researchers in the early 20th century. Which is not meant to denigrate the utility and immense value of standardized journal formats with introduction, methodology, results, discussion, etc. There is room in the world for both.

Untold Stories embeds science in a wider human context, beyond what is possible in the modern journal format, which necessarily excludes the human dimension, but leaves behind an unintended residue, a subjective impression of a science rendered lifeless by the invisibility of its practitioners. Cook family members pitched in to write the forward, edit, design and deliver their father’s book ready for printing by the American Phytopathological Society (APS) Press. Cook’s attitude towards public service is refreshing, and clearly extended into his so-called retirement. Judging from the 2005 start date and the 2017 book publication date, Dr. Cook put over a decade into this “Magnum Opus” book project. Wife and family were promised this would absolutely be his last book. One might lament, but I have to believe Dr. Cook mined his past experiences so thoroughly as to be able to rest on his laurels and not feel that much was left out that could not be remedied in a few journal articles.

A mathematical ratio of untold stories to published stories would be interesting, and Dr. Cook is in a position to be the expert. Let’s say the Untold Stories:Published Stories ratio was 1:1 and had a certain “volume.” Then the “volume” (e.g. measured in pages, articles/books, person-years of work, or whatever) of untold stories could be multiplied by the number of scientists or the amount published in a given time period to yield an estimate of how much scientific research ends up in the proverbial trash bin.

The Untold Stories photo caption on page 52 brought to mind a much maligned molecule, methyl bromide, a research tool and experimental control integral to scientific investigation of naturally disease suppressive wheat soils. Salt marsh microbes naturally produce methyl bromide as an antibiotic type weapon in waging ecological warfare for survival against competitors and antagonists. The caption: “A discussion session in progress at a Pacific Coast Research Conference on Soil Fungi with Professor S.D. Garrett, Cambridge University, as the discussion leader…Steve Wilhelm from UC Berkeley, credited with the introduction of soil fumigation to the California strawberry industry, is in the front row…”

Dr. Wilhelm, who I knew to also be interested in promising methyl bromide alternatives such as steam, marigold cover crops and green manures, crops up again on page 186 of Cook’s book: “it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that soil fumigation was used on a large scale…Steve Wilhelm at UC Berkeley…together with Albert Paulus at UC Riverside, did the pioneering work on the use of mixtures of chloropicrin and methyl bromide to control soil-borne pathogens and weeds before planting strawberries in California starting in the late 1950s. Strawberry yields were roughly 5 tons per acre in fields not fumigated and up to 25 tons per acre in fields that were fumigated.”

Soil fumigation with methyl bromide and chloropicrin worked so well that California had near zero untreated strawberry fields available to investigate for naturally suppressive soils, which is unfortunate, as methyl bromide use is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol as an ozone depleting substance. Something I learned about in more depth working with the late Jamie Liebman, a plant pathologist at BIRC (Bio-Integral Research Center), where as subcontractors we helped develop a Montreal Protocol methyl bromide alternative research agenda for funding by the U.S. EPA and United Nations. I wrote a short chapter on this period in history titled “Rowland’s Recipe for Climate Treaty Success” in an ABC-CLIO book titled Science and Political Controversy, edited by David E. Newton in 2014. In 2015, attending agricultural, soil and entomological science meetings in Minneapolis, not far from APS headquarters, I was pleased to find that research agenda still extant and going deeper. Funny what a mere photo caption can trigger in human memory. No doubt Untold Stories will have similar effects on readers whose interests and paths intersected with those of Dr. Cook.

California’s $2 billion strawberry industry, which produces about 90% of the USA crop, an awesome 1.7 billion pounds on about 40,000 acres (43,000 pounds of strawberries per acre), was for all practical purposes birthed into existence by injecting chloropicrin and methyl bromide into soils under plastic tarps. California’s hyper-productive strawberry growers, like Florida tomato and inland Pacific Northwest potato growers, can earn back methyl bromide soil fumigation costs. Family wheat farms would be bankrupted and abandoned to tumbleweed and erosion by soil fumigation costs. Scientifically, the less prosperous economics of wheat growing were fortuitous, as Dr. Cook was precluded from earning a living testing and recommending soil pesticides. Instead, as Dr. Cook’s book rigorously details, applied science became indistinguishable from pure science (much as it did for Pasteur) as it delved into the microbiology, ecology and non-chemical remedies for soil pathogens causing unhealthy plants and crop failures.

A key scientific discovery was that growing wheat in the same field again and again, year after year without interruption or rotation, can result in soils becoming naturally suppressive or functionally immune to disease pathogens. But this goes against centuries of accumulated wisdom arguing that toxic root secretions (allelopathy) poison the soil, and are best alleviated by crop rotations. Cook’s objection on page 227: “this makes no mention of a role for root diseases and ignores one of the most fundamental principles of plant pathology taught to beginning students in plant pathology, that growing the same crop in the same soil increases the populations of pathogens of the roots of that crop…It takes a long time to replace the first explanation with the correct explanation for almost any phenomenon in nature.” It also takes time, as those who have studied ecology know, for pathogen, prey or pest populations to build up to peaks before predator and natural enemy populations reduce or crash them down to low levels. Dr. Cook’s mission was to shorten that time.

One set of wheat experiments described in the “Take-All Decline” chapter 7, owed inspiration to 1950s’ potato scab disease research in Washington State, where small amounts (10%) of suppressive soil (presumably containing beneficial microbes) were added to disease-susceptible soils. Within 2-3 years, wheat soils were growing healthy plants. “Although I never repeated this experiment (nor did it need to be repeated), it would turn out to be the most influential experiment of my career,” wrote Dr. Cook on page 144. “It led to my award of a Guggenheim Fellowship…to my first competitive grant awarded by the USDA Competitive Grants Research Office (CARGO) in 1978…to the USDA ARS approving the formation of the Root Disease and Biological Control Research Unit in 1984; and to the USDA ARS providing permanent funds for me to hire…”

This only scratches the surface of a truly remarkable book likely to become a classic of science.

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


Cholera Biocontrol (vaccines & antibiotics are insufficient)

October 22, 2015

CHOLERA, a VIRULENT, SOMETIMES lethal version of Montezuma’s Revenge, the diarrheal gut scourge bane of travelers, is commonly associated with pesky Vibrio bacteria; though similar symptoms are associated with the sometimes disease-causing and sometimes beneficial E. coli gut bacterium and many other intestinal tract microbes. Cholera is commonly controlled by an integrated management approach, often including proper sewage sanitation, water filtration, antibiotics, vaccines, rehydration therapy and the fortuitous presence of natural enemies known as phages.

Phages, short for bacteriophages, are ‘bacteria-eating’ viruses; the name phage is from the Greek word ‘phagein’, which means ‘to eat’. One might think of cholera as being like the black plague, a no longer relevant disease of the past. But a recent Google News search indicates lethal cholera outbreaks worldwide: From 54 dead in one month in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Rwanda and Nigeria in Africa to Iraq in the Middle East and Haiti in the Americas; with worries about outbreaks in refugee camps worldwide where wars rage and after natural disasters such as earthquakes destroy sanitary infrastructure. In Iraq, “The epidemic is concentrated in the town of Abu Ghraib, situated about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of the capital, Baghdad, where cholera has claimed at least 10 lives,” according to Iran’s Press TV. “Health Ministry spokesman Rifaq al-Araji has blamed the cholera epidemic in Iraq on low water levels in the Euphrates, noting that simmering temperatures during summer months may have activated the bacterium that causes the deadly disease…Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It is a fast-developing infection that causes diarrhea, which can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if treatment is not promptly provided.”

According to a “Major Article” in THE JOURNAL OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES: “Vibrio cholerae serogroup O1 and O139 organisms cause acute, watery diarrhea, with an estimated 100, 000–150, 000 deaths annually…Despite global efforts to improve drinking water quality and sanitation in developing countries, there has been little evidence of a decline in the global burden of cholera in recent years. Interest has therefore increased in the use of cholera vaccines as adjuncts to other preventive and therapeutic measures…Live oral cholera vaccines have the theoretical advantage of simulating infection by natural cholera. Experimental infection of North American volunteers has been shown to protect against cholera upon rechallenge…However, to date no live oral vaccine has conferred protection to cholera-endemic populations when tested in a randomized trial, suggesting that the predictions from studies of volunteers lacking preexisting immunity to cholera may not be readily generalizable to cholera-endemic populations.”

According to the United Nations News Centre: “A global stockpile of vaccines, funded by a number of international organizations and foundations, initially made 2 million doses of the vaccine available. In 2015, with additional funding from the GAVI Alliance, the number of doses available for use in both endemic hotspots and emergency situations is expected to rise to around 3 million. There are several examples in which the vaccine has stopped cholera outbreaks in their tracks, such as in South Sudan in 2014…But new outbreaks are ongoing in South Sudan and Tanzania” in 2015, indicating vaccines to produce natural immunity in conjunction with the best that can be done in the way of sanitation and clean water supplies is not enough. Using phages to produce natural biological control of the cholera bacterium, as part of a low-cost, integrated pest management approach, seems to have been totally and completely neglected, almost as if the successes of natural biocontrol of disease bacteria with phages from the years 1917 into the 1930s and continuing into the present in some parts of the world have been totally purged from the Western medical and public health history books. A costly neglect, in terms of human lives.

“Cholera generated as much horror and revulsion among Europeans as bubonic plague had before it, in part because of the blue-black shriveled appearance of its victims and in part because it could strike anyone without warning and kill in 4 to 6 hours,” according to an overview in Microbiological Reviews which implicated “sailors and colonists” in cholera’s global spread, not just poor sanitation (mixing sewage into drinking water supplies). “Although cholera is treatable with antibiotics and oral rehydration therapy (fluid and electrolyte replacement), it is nevertheless an extremely debilitating and sometimes fatal disease. The severe dehydration and cramps symptomatic of the disease are a consequence of the rapid, extreme loss of fluid and electrolytes during the course of the infection. The diarrhea is caused by the action of cholera toxin (CT), secreted by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, although in some cases it may be caused by the related Escherichia coli heat-labile enterotoxin (LT).”

Historically, as mentioned in a previous blog post titled “Compost for Sustainable Soil Fertility & Disease Suppression,” Japanese cities adopted a more sustainable approach and thereby escaped the cholera epidemics afflicting London, Paris, India, the rest of Asia and the Americas: “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…Farmers in old Japan spent their own money to build toilets and urinals along well-traveled roads for public use…” No doubt phages were also part of the integrated mix of methods providing natural biological control of cholera in old Japan, even if the invisibly small phages went unrecognized.

The 20th century use of phages for biological control of cholera and other disease bacteria was pioneered by the self-taught, French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d’Herelle, whose phage work was said by many to also be the foundation for modern molecular biology. An itinerant or journeyman scientist, who spent his life much like the modern-day post-doc, migrating from job to job around the world as he promoted phage therapy, d’Herelle was working with the Pasteur Institute in Paris while French and German troops were lining up against each other on the Western Front in World War I. In North Africa, as early as 1910, d’Herelle was pioneering the use of microbes to control biblical style locust plagues in North Africa, when he first noticed something killing the microbes used to kill the locusts; in other words, a complex ecosystem in which a higher level of natural enemies killed the lower-level natural enemies providing biological locust control.

During a World War I Paris dysentery outbreak, d’Herelle deduced that some patients were benefiting from phages invisibly providing biological control of the disease microbes. D’Herelle’s 1917 article on the subject for the French Academie des Sciences was titled “Sur un microbe invisible antagonistic des bacilles dysenterique” (“On an Invisible Microbe Antagonistic to Dysentery Bacteria”). “D’Herelle claimed that the antagonistic principle was filterable, living and organized, and hence a microbe,” wrote medical historian Ton Van Helvoort. D’Herelle “thought the living nature of the principle was proved by the possibility of transmitting it in a series of cultures of dysentery bacilli.”

Albert Einstein, who won a Nobel Prize for proving unseen forces and counter-intuitive phenomena based on mathematical constructs, agreed with d’Herelle. “The statistical explanation, which d’Herelle argued intuitively, is based on the properties of sampling that can be described by the mathematical expression known as the Poisson distribution,” wrote William Summers in his book, Felix d’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology. “D’Herelle bolstered not only this argument but his own status with his well-known footnote giving Einstein’s opinion of this experiment: ‘In discussing this question with my colleague, Professor Einstein, he told me, as a physicist, he would consider this experiment as demonstrating the discontinuity of the bacteriophage. I was very glad to see how this deservedly-famous mathematician evaluated my experimental demonstration, for I do not believe that there are a great many biological experiments whose nature satisfies a physicist’…Since we have now presented the evidence proving the corpuscular nature of the bacteriophage we will no longer make use of such vague expressions as bacteriophage ‘liquid,’ ‘Fluid,’ or ‘filtrate,’ but will employ instead the more precise term’…The validity of the plaque counting assay and corpuscular nature of phage, however, would remain controversial and divide phage workers into two camps until the early 1940s.”

“The bacteriophage phenomenon was the observation that an abundant and therefore cloudy bacterial culture lysed within a short time to a clear solution under the influence of a filterable lytic ‘principle’,” wrote medical historian Ton van Helvoort. “The interpretation of this phenomenon gave rise to two main opposing positions, represented by Felix d’Herelle and Jules Bordet, who clashed heavily. In 1917, d’Herelle proposed the term “bacteriophage” for the lytic principle and was convinced it was to be characterized as a filterable virus which could lyse the bacterial culture. Therefore, this lysis was a virus disease of the bacteria which he named bacteriophagy. In the 1920s this interpretation was severely criticized by, among others, the bacteriologist and serologist Jules Bordet, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1919. Bordet’s view was that bacteriophagy was linked with the metabolism of the bacterium, while the involvement of a virus was rejected.” The dispute morphed into a personal vendetta against d’Herelle, whose strong personality was perhaps hated as much as his phage theories and his views on the dangers of vaccination that were considered heretical by the era’s Nobel Prize-winning immunologists.

According to medical historian Dottore Emiliano Fruciano: “In presenting his concepts to the scientific and world community, d’Herelle connected his phage interventions to a theoretical system that clashed with those held by institutional medical science. d’Herelle thought that the reason for natural recovery was not the humoral and cellular mechanisms activated by the immune system, but rather the presence of a virulent phage for the pathogenic bacterium in the host. His observations led him to believe that phage was a common guest of every organism from man to silkworm…d’Herelle concluded that phage was the exogenous agent of natural recovery, leading to ‘spontaneous recovery’…

“Recovery was a case of the prevalence of phage over the bacterium, and death was a case of the prevalence of bacterium over phage,” wrote Fruciano. “Furthermore, d’Herelle hypothesized that phage was able to spread among ill people, mainly via stool; thus, a lack of hygiene, while contributing to infection, would also lead to recovery; phage would have been the reason for the end of epidemics. This characteristic made phage, the recovery agent, transmissible between individuals, just like the agent of disease…

“In support of his theory of natural recovery, d’Herelle cited exemplary phenomena, including recovery following exposure to cholera. In cholera, patients generally convalesced after two or three days (sometimes within 12 hours) of initial symptoms; even ‘artificial’ recoveries through phage therapy often occurred after 24 hours. However, according to d’Herelle, observations from many animal diseases had demonstrated that it took many more days for immunity to become effective in the fight against infection. To explain natural recovery through the mechanisms of immunity was not possible because of the timing.

“Moreover, in diseases such as typhus and plague, which are characterized by strong immunity, relapses were possible during convalescence. This would mean that the patient, although convalescing, was still not immune. In these kinds of pathologies, typically typhus and plague, immunity usually lasts forever, yet immunity only comes into play 20 days following convalescence. According to d’Herelle, ‘Immunity, far from being the cause of recovery, is a consequence of recovery’. Further confirmation of d’Herelle’s theory was given by the statistics of the three hospitals in Calcutta, India. Paradoxically, the lowest rate of mortality for cholera (27%) was recorded at the hospital for poor people, the Campbell Hospital, while the highest rate of mortality (86%) was recorded at a hospital for rich people, the European Hospital – a hospital recognized in 1926 for its wealthy patients and hygienic conditions. There were fewer deaths at the hospital where care and hygiene were poor, that is, where the possibility for the development and dissemination of virulent phage or the recovery agent were best.”

The cholera and phage biocontrol case in general became intolerably heretical to many in the scientific medical establishment, what with d’Herelle’s warnings against the dangers of conventional vaccinations and the radical challenge to conventional consensus medical theories supported by immunologists who had won Nobel Prizes in medicine, said Fruciano: “According to d’Herelle, immunity and recovery were two different processes; only after the bacteriolytic action of phage could immunity be developed. Furthermore, there were two kinds of immunity: heterologous immunity, linked to the presence of phage activity against the pathogen, and homologous immunity, linked to immune system activity.

“…man contracts cholera because his immune system is not able to neutralize the bacterium. In d’Herelle’s opinion, in the case of patients with cholera, recovery occurs because of the presence of a virulent phage for Vibrio cholerae as a result of heterologous immunity, not because of natural or homologous immunity. d’Herelle found that the administration of phage resulted not only in a quick recovery, but also lasting immunity. He also asserted that a suspension of phage had strong immunizing power (here in the traditional sense) because the bacterial substances dissolved by phage action induced immune system reactions… d’Herelle’s findings were contrary to the conclusions of Metchnikoff, Bordet and Ehrlich, the founders of immunology…phage therapy efficacy would have required a revision of the current explanation of natural recovery…In other words, the proof of efficacy of phage therapy was equivalent to the proof of the truthfulness of d’Herelle’s heretical theories. Thus, to verify the efficacy of phage therapy and prevention measures, the principles of modern medicine were at stake; this was a paradigm shift for the scientific community.”

Of course, in the early years of the 20th century, prior to the invention of the electron microscope to provide visual evidence, the immunologists could plausibly argue against the existence of phages (despite Einstein’s endorsement); and in the absence of modern genomics, indeed before DNA and RNA were implicated in heredity, matching the right mixture of phages with a particular disease bacterium was perhaps more art than science, an art in continuous successful practice in just a few places such as the ex-Soviet Republics of Georgia and Russia, and Poland. Also, early 20th century medical experiments are not considered rigorous by current standards. All of which makes the several hundred successful phage experiments and interventions against cholera, plague, typhus and other diseases subject to blanket dismissal; and, hence, the absence of natural biological control from Western medical practices, medical schools, and institutional research agendas.

“The following details some of the most sensational results in phage prophylaxis that would seem to contradict the eventual dismissal of d’Herelle’s works,” stated Fruciano. “In 1927, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera was halted at its start in several villages with 2000 to 3000 Punjabi inhabitants via two methods of phage prophylaxis delivery: the first was the addition of potent, individually dosed phage preparations, and the second was the administration of phage prophylaxis to local water supplies. In both scenarios, the epidemic was terminated within 48 hours; in the past, the same result was achieved through traditional interventions within a 26-day time period.

“…at the St Mary Hospital in London, England, where penicillin was first discovered, Himmelweit developed a cross-therapy involving a combination of phage and penicillin to reduce the possibility of penicillin-resistant bacteria. This solution was very promising…Above all, the conjoined administration of phage and penicillin gave positive outcomes in clinical trials. It is likely that this experimental solution worked well because, as it is known today, the mechanisms by which phage and penicillin kill bacteria are different. Unfortunately, this alternative use of phage, in combination with penicillin, has been abandoned. Why has this possibility been forgotten despite the fact that antibiotic-resistant bacteria appeared as soon as penicillin was introduced into medical practice?

“…Summers, a historian of medicine who delved deeply into d’Herelle’s scientific works, speaks of the “Soviet Taint” as a plausible reason for the lack of interest in phage as an antimicrobial agent. Following World War II, phage therapy research continued only in eastern European countries, and “d’Herelle’s Cure” became “Stalin’s Cure”. According to Summers, phage therapy and prophylactic measures became ideological symbols of divisions and disagreements between western and eastern countries, partially explaining the lack of interest in phage as an antibacterial agent in Western medical science.”

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.

Grapes Love Tobacco & Sage

June 13, 2015

GRAPE VINES GAIN and pests suffer when TOBACCO and SAGEBRUSH grow in the same neighborhood. For example, Chinese experiments show that when tobacco roots intermingle with grape roots, vineyards soils are progressively cleansed of the dreaded soil-dwelling phylloxera aphid; the same phylloxera aphid that almost completely destroyed French grape growing in the 1800s, before resistant rootstocks were discovered. In recent decades, the phylloxera aphid has evolved new forms that destroy formerly-resistant rootstocks. But on the positive side, the phylloxera plague in nineteenth century French vineyards was a major catalyst for innovations such as the development of modern scientific agriculture and modern methods for fumigating or disinfesting sick soils.

Tobacco plants get a bad rap today, as the source of abused and addictive products with adverse health effects. But it was not always so, and need not be so today, write David A. Danehower and colleagues in the book, Biologically Active Natural Products: Agrochemicals: “When Columbus first arrived on the shores of North America, he found Native Americans growing and using a plant unknown to Europeans. This plant held great spiritual significance to Native Americans. Scientists who followed in the footsteps of the early North American explorers would later name this plant tobacco. Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) farming began in the early 1600s near the Jamestown colony in Virginia. As the use of tobacco products for smoking, chewing, and snuff was promoted in Europe, tobacco became a leading item of commerce between the colonies and England. Notably, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both farmed tobacco. Thus, the history of America is inextricably linked with the history of tobacco production.”

The specific idea of interplanting tobacco with grapevines to control soil pests like phylloxera aphids is apparently a recent Chinese agricultural innovation. Why no one thought of it before is a mystery, as nicotine from tobacco plants has a long history as a fumigant and sprayed insecticide; and more recently sweet “sugar esters” (fructose, glucose, fatty acids) have been singled out from among the several thousand chemical compounds in tobacco as “new” natural insecticides (some fungi and other microbes are also killed). Perhaps agricultural tradition plays a role, as the Chinese have an ancient agricultural heritage that includes pioneering biological pest control (e.g. predatory ants to control citrus orchard pests) and routinely interplanting compatible plants for their pest-fighting and mutually beneficial effects. Of course, growing cover crops and beneficial insect plants like sweet alyssum in grape rows is becoming more common. And since ancient times, the Mediterranean areas of Europe and the Middle East have had grape vineyards interspersed with oaks (corks, barrels for wine grapes), olive trees and crops such as wheat. But never before has tobacco been grown among grape vines to control soil pests. Indeed, modern farmers seem to favor pumping liquid chemicals and volatile gases into the soil to combat soil pests.

Perhaps as close as a nineteenth century French grape grower came was Bernardin Casanova of Corsica, France, who in 1881 patented a liquid mixture of grape distillates, Corsican tobacco, spurge, laurel, grain straw, burnt cork and soap that was rubbed and poured on the base of grapevines to kill phylloxera. In California, which has native plants that are every bit as insecticidal as nicotine from tobacco, the only anti-phylloxera interplanting seems to have been new resistant rootstocks to eventually take the place of the old. In essence, a concession of failure and a starting over with new rootstock (and pulling out the old phylloxera-infested vines).

Like Mr. Casanova in nineteenth century France, the modern Chinese researchers started out with a watery solution containing tobacco; but in a bit more scientific fashion with controlled tests of the tobacco solution on young greenhouse-grown grape vines. “The results showed that aqueous extracts of tobacco had certain alleviating effects on phylloxera infection,” according to a 2014 abstract from the journal Acta Entomologica Sinica. “Both the aqueous extracts of tobacco at the concentration of 20 mg/mL and 50 mg/mL had an inhibition to phylloxera infection,” with a 50% reduction in phylloxera infection within 3 weeks (along with a reduction of fungal invaders that kill injured grape roots).

Chinese tobacco-grape laboratory and field studies were also reported in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture in 2014. The lab studies indicated that tobacco extracts in water were indeed a valid herbal (botanical) remedy against phylloxera aphids. In three years of field tests with tobacco interplanted in infested grape vineyards, phylloxera infestations of grape roots steadily decreased each year. “Tobacco was used as the intercropping crop because it includes nicotine, which is a source of bio-insecticides,” said the researchers. “The production of new grape roots was significantly higher in the intercropping patterns than in the grape monoculture in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and the vines gradually renewed due to the continuous intercropping with tobacco over three years…The results indicated that the secondary metabolites of tobacco roots had released to soil and got to the target pest.” Tobacco intercropping effects on grape plants was also measurable in terms of “cluster number per plant, cluster weight, cluster length, cluster width, berry number per cluster, mean berry diameter in the mid portions of the cluster, carbohydrate content, fruit color index, leaf width and branch diameter.” The researchers expect that this “Successful intercropping with tobacco” will stimulate more research with other insecticidal plants to disinfest vineyard soils.

We could probably end the blog item here, or have a second article as part II, but we have some interesting interactions among sagebrush and tobacco plants that can spillover to grape vineyards. Oddly enough, sagebrush and tobacco seem to get along very well. According to M.E. Maffei, writing in the South African Journal of Botany: “Aerial interaction of the wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) and sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp.) is the best-documented example of between-plant signaling via above-ground VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in nature.” Wounded or “Clipped sagebrush emits many volatiles, including methyl jasmonate, methacrolein, terpenoids, and green leaf volatiles.” These sagebrush volatiles (VOCs) stimulate nearby tobacco plants to become less hospitable to caterpillar pests (fewer in number). The process is called priming and results in plants producing more chemicals deleterious to pests. For readers desiring all the details and more theory: In 2006, Kessler et al. published in a journal called Oecologia under the title “Priming of plant defense responses in nature by airborne signaling between Artemisia tridentata and Nicotiana attenuata.”

Big Sagebrush, known scientifically as Artemisia tridentata, is a native North American plant that can reach 4 meters in height and live from 30 to over 200 years in arid desert environments by using hydraulic lift to pump water from deep soil layers. The plants are a rich and underutilized source of medicinal compounds, insecticides, fungicides, natural preservatives, etc. Worldwide there are at least 500 Artemisia sagebrush species, many used in traditional medicines (e.g. China), cosmetics, insect repellents, and as spices and flavorings in foods. For example, Artemisia annua has attracted attention to combat malaria. Readers desiring a crash course in Artemisia species and their bio-active essential oils will find it online in an excellent 24-page review article in a journal called Molecules.

Big Sagebrush is “found in arid regions of North America from steppe to subalpine zones, dry shrub lands, foothills, rocky outcrops, scablands, and valleys,” wrote Christina Turi and colleagues in 2014 in the journal Plant Signaling & Behavior. “Traditionally, species of Big Sagebrush have been used as a ceremonial medicine to treat headaches or protect individuals from metaphysical forces. A total of 220 phytochemicals have been described in A. tridentata and related species in the Tridentatae. Recently, the neurologically active compounds melatonin (MEL), serotonin (5HT), and acetylcholine (Ach) were identified and quantified.” In other words, sagebrush plants and human brains and nervous systems have a lot in common.

Indeed, galanthamine, a botanical drug treatment for mild to moderate Alzheimer disease, can also be used to “treat” sagebrush. Galanthamine, which is named after the snowdrop plants (Galanthus species) where it was discovered, is also found in Narcissus and other common bulbs. Galanthamine is, according to researchers Turi et al., “a naturally occurring acetylcholinesterase (AchE) inhibitor that has been well established as a drug for treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer disease.” Why bulb plants produce chemicals affecting both Alzheimer disease (human nervous systems) and sagebrush plants is a good question. One theory is that plants release these chemicals into the environment to communicate with and influence the behavior of other plants, and also perhaps deter or otherwise influence herbivorous animals. Environmentalists, overly preoccupied with worries about carbon dioxide and GMOs, might ponder the fact that human chemicals with medicinal effects released into the environment might be the bigger threat, affecting plants and ecosystems in ways not yet fully appreciated that may comeback to bite us.

The Western USA is known for its vast expanses, perhaps 50 million acres with Big Sagebrush, some of which is being displaced for vineyards in isolated valleys in the Pacific Northwest. I particularly like the description of the Big Sagebrush ecosystem at the Sage Grouse Initiative: “To many of us, sagebrush country symbolizes the wild, wide-open spaces of the West, populated by scattered herds of cattle and sheep, a few pronghorn antelope, and a loose-knit community of rugged ranchers. When you stand in the midst of the arid western range, dusty gray-green sagebrush stretches to the horizon in a boundless, tranquil sea. Your first impression may be of sameness and lifelessness—a monotony of low shrubs, the over-reaching sky, a scattering of little brown birds darting away through the brush, and that heady, ever-present sage perfume.”

About 90% of the native sagebrush steppe habitat in the eastern Washington grape growing area was removed to make way for the vineyards. But the 10% remaining sagebrush habitat may have important ecological benefits, such as improved natural or biological pest control in the vineyards. One suggestion is to leave some of the native Big Sagebrush around vineyards, for its beneficial ecological effects. “Perennial crop systems such as wine grapes have begun using cover crops and hedgerows to increase beneficial insects and promote sustainable vineyard management in areas like New Zealand and California,” Washington State University researcher Katherine Buckley told the 2014 Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Portland, Oregon. “However, in arid wine growing regions such as eastern Washington, cover crops are often prohibitively expensive due to water costs. We wanted to determine if native plants, which require little or no irrigation, could be used to increase beneficial insects and enhance conservation biological control of vineyard pests in eastern Washington.”

The native sagebrush steppe ecosystem has a wide range of plants, but is characterized by species such as big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), rabbitbrush (e.g. Chrysothamnus, Ericameria spp.), bitterbrush (Purshia spp.) and perennial bunchgrasses (e.g. Agropyron, Stipa, Festuca, Koeleria, Poa spp.). The Big Sagebrush ecosystem is richer in species than meets the eye at first glance. Over 100 species of birds (e.g. sage grouse, sage thrasher, sage sparrow and Brewer’s sparrow) forage and nest in sagebrush communities, and they could provide a lot of insect biocontrol at less cost and with less environmental impact than chemical sprays.

A U.S. Forest Service report called Big Sagebrush a keystone species and “a nursing mother” to “31 species of fungi, 52 species of aphids, 10 species of insects that feed on aphids, 42 species of midges and fruit flies that induce galls, 20 species of insects that parasitize the gall inducers, 6 species of insects that hibernate in big sagebrush galls, 18 species of beetles, 13 species of grasshoppers, 13 species of shield-back katydids, 16 species of thrips, 74 species of spiders, 24 species of lichens, 16 species of paintbrushes, 7 species of owl-clovers, 5 species of bird’s beaks, 3 species of broom rapes, and a host of large and small mammals, birds, and reptiles.”

“After locating vineyards with some form of native habitat restoration in four different growing regions of eastern Washington, yellow sticky traps and leaf samples were used to monitor beneficial and pest insect numbers in the habitat restored vineyards and nearby conventional vineyards over a three year period,” said Buckley. The native plants, which are adapted to the region’s hot summers and cold winters, are home to at least 133 insect species. Native habitat vineyards had fewer pest insect species; and higher populations and a higher diversity of beneficial insects. Anagrus wasps, which are known to parasitize pesky grape leafhoppers, were most abundant in Big Sagebrush. More amazingly, this leafhopper biocontrol wasp was found year-round in Big Sagebrush, even when the plant was not flowering. No other plant, not even the photogenic wild roses planted at the end of vineyard rows and admired by tourists, hosted the tiny leafhopper biocontrol wasp year-round.

Garden herbs such as thyme (Thymus ssp.), mugwort (Artemisia ssp.) and fennel (Foeniculum ssp.) have all been tested in vineyard interrows because they are fungicidal against Botrytis cinerea, a fungus attacking grape clusters, and boost soil micro-nutrients like copper, manganese and zinc. Maybe at some point in time, the Chinese interplantings of tobacco and alternating strips of Big Sagebrush (or other Artemisia species) and garden herbs will all get integrated together with other cover crops and native hedgerows into grape vineyards for a more biological or natural approach to agriculture. With sagebrush and tobacco, we have only scratched the surface of vineyard possibilities.

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.”

Organic Dairies Suck Flies (CowVac)

December 5, 2014

Rest assured, a CowVac is not a veterinary vaccine of some sort that magically provides insect control or renders cows autistic. Rather, it is about producing organic milk and organic milk products like butter and yogurt. A CowVac is a suction or vacuum device incorporated into a larger trapping apparatus that removes blood-sucking flies that can be an even worse livestock plague than mosquitoes or ticks. Besides being bad economics (too expensive), pesticides repeatedly applied at ever higher doses quickly select for pesticide-resistant biting flies; i.e the flies become immune. Which is not to say that insects will not develop some ingenious solution, like holding on tighter, to avoid being sucked up by strong suction. But at least development of stronger suction devices and better ways to knock insects off animals would not add pesticide residues to the environment, food chain and human diets. A human equivalent, awaiting invention, would be an enclosure of some sort designed to knockoff and suck up (vacuum off) bed bugs before they bite (see previous blog, on bed bug desperation time innovative research).

“Seven years in the making: The Cow-Vac removes horn flies from dairy cattle” was the title of a special display at a members symposium “Honoring the Career and Contributions of Veterinary Entomologist Donald A. Rutz” at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in the beer brewing capital of the world, Portland, Oregon. On its web site, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh reports: “This innovative solution is now part of routine cattle management at the CEFS Dairy Unit and has allowed the herd to be insecticide-free for 5 years.” In other words, this “alternative fly management system” designed by Steve Denning and D. Wes Watson demonstrated “the feasibility of producing organic milk.”

“The trap removed between 1.3 and 2.5 million flies annually from the research station cattle,” Denning and Watson reported to the ESA in Portland. “Prior to the installation of the trap in 2007, the cattle routinely had horn fly populations above 1000 flies per animal and would require insecticide applications for horn fly control. With a vacuum trap in place, dairy cattle at CEFS have not required or have been treated with an insecticide.” With each of the thousand horn flies sucking blood 10-12 times per day, the blood loss and associated problems were huge (USA estimated losses are over $2.26 billion per year), and organic animal agriculture was considered questionable.

“The first walk-through pasture fly trap consisted of a covered structure designed to brush flies from the animals as they passed through, with the fleeing flies captured in the screened hollow walls,” reported Denning and Watson at the ESA meeting in Portland. “Modifications to the Bruce trap have been introduced over the years. These modified traps employ the same basic mode of action; curtains to dislodge flies and light, either natural or fluorescent, to attract flies to a cage, or bug zapper. In addition to curtains, the CowVac uses air pressure to dislodge flies, and vacuum to capture flies, trapping them in a chamber until death.” So far, the Animal Rights movement has yet to recognize a right to food (animal blood, in this case) for biting flies (also animals); and the flies die a natural death from lack of animal blood as a food source. Cruelty to animals (flies), perhaps; and fodder for an ethics debate. But if you want organic milk, butter, meat, yogurt, etc…

There are YouTube videos on the vacuum trap, and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance has an in-depth article on the CowVac and its development by fly biocontrol specialist Tom Spalding of Spalding Labs: “…the Horn Fly is very tough to control. It’s resistant to most every chemical control. It only reproduces in cow pastures, which means there is always productive breeding material available as no one cleans up pasture pats…For the past 16 years, North Carolina State University entomologists, Dr. Wes Watson and Steve Denning, have been researching IPM practices for pest fly control for commercial livestock and poultry operations…They have seen it all, testing at least 100’s of products…repellent on most and only a few animals with pesticide, to using electric traps, light traps, walk thru traps, feed thru products, ear tags, oilers, you name it…in 2006 as Steve was watching flies get scrapped off cows going thru a walk in trap, and then following the cow out the exit and getting right back on, he had an AH HA moment of “let’s see if we could vacuum up those little buggers”…Organic Valley heard about this unit and they sponsored a test, placing 6 units on North Carolina dairies in 2012…we made a trip to Raleigh, NC to see it. I knew from our efforts using Fly Predators to control Horn Flies that this little insect was a big deal. It took a lot of work as you had to put the Fly Predators in the pastures where the cows has just been and that only worked for those doing intensive grazing. Harrowing or running a screen drag over the pastures made a big difference too, but all those things took more time than most dairymen had. If this vac thing worked it would solve a horrible problem every grazier has…We agreed to license the technology from NC State and so began the redesign for production and optimization. This is the second unlikely alignment of the stars. I run a beneficial insect company, but I’m a mechanical engineer (ME) by schooling and in the 30 years prior had started a number of high tech companies…we refined the airflow on real animals. While the simulated cow got us very close to optimized performance, we actually were blowing too much air…”

Impaling Bed Bugs on Tiny Spikes (Leaf Hairs)

October 21, 2014

KIDNEY BEAN LEAF hairs, an ancient Balkan folk remedy to ameliorate bed bugs biting like vampires in the nighttime and wee morning hours, are in essence medieval warfare pikes barbarically impaling bed bugs resistant to 20th and 21st century synthetic pesticides. The resurrection of kidney bean leaves from Balkan folklore is a measure of human desperation, and an example of an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) strategy combining multiple weapons and tactics to fight this modern-day plague. According to The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, a modern offshoot of the one of the earliest medieval gatherings (mid-1600s) of natural philosophers, scientists and scientific craftsmen (instrument makers) into an official organization, those Balkan peasants knew a thing or two about fighting pestilence with “primitive” botanical remedies. Ultimately, bed bug-impaling bean hair “swords” or fabricated replicas will be combined in IPM strategies with other tactics, including ancient Ayurvedic Asian herbal remedies like neem tree oils (see previous blog).

You are not alone in being plagued by bed bugs: According to the journal Medical and Veterinary Entomology (Davies et al., 2012) there are “over 4 millennia of recorded narratives dating back to medieval European texts, classical Greek writings and the Jewish Talmud” and “archaeologists excavating a 3550-year-old workmen’s village at el-Amarna in Egypt found fossilized bed bug remains.” Plus bed bug “Females lay one or two eggs every day, and each female may lay 200–500 eggs in her lifetime, which may be 6 months or longer.” Modern heated buildings with lots of cracks, crevices and hiding places are even more comfortable for bed bugs than the ancient unheated buildings and caves of our ancestors.

The search for botanical remedies is perhaps equally ancient. Sir Francis Avery Jones, writing in the Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine (v. 89, Dec. 1996): “In the Stone Age the hunter-gatherers have learnt by hard experience…Over the eons they could have recognized plants which dulled pain, induced sleep, healed wounds, or poisoned animals or their enemies like wolfsbane…In Iraq there is a well-preserved grave of Neanderthal man, dated to some 60,000 years ago, with grains of flower pollen thickly scattered around the bones. The pollen came from eight different species still grown in Iraq today, some having recognized medicinal uses…Very early documents from China, Egypt, Sumaria and India describe the uses of anise, mustard, caraway, mint, saffron, thyme, cardamom, turmeric, cloves and pepper. The herbals reached their peak in the first century AD when the Greek physician Dioscorides assembled his vast De Materia Medica, recording the name, description, habit and medical use of some 600 plants.”

Bean leaves in comparison are a relatively modern bed bug botanical, a variant on the Tudor England practice of covering floors with pest-repellent (e.g. versus fleas, flies, plague, gaol fever/typhus) strewing herbs for their uplifting aromatic properties (e.g. rosemary, woodruff, various mints, box, lavender, santolina, hyssop, balm, cleavers, costmary, marjoram, meadowsweet, tansy). Queen Elizabeth’s use of meadowsweet leaves and flowers was described in The Herbal or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) by John Gerard: “leaves and floures of meadowsweet farre excell all other strewing herbs for to deck up houses, for the smell makes the heart merrie and joyful and delights the senses.”

The Balkan remedy of bed bugs becoming entangled in hooked bean leaf hairs was written about by someone named Bogdandy in 1927 in the journal Naturwissenschaften and then again in 1943 by the USDA’s Henry Richardson in the Journal of Economic Entomology. According to a 2013 issue of The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, whose authors included Catherine Loudon of the University of California Irvine, who talked about the subject at the Entomological Society of America (ESA): “Historical reports describe the trapping of bed bugs in Balkan countries by leaves from bean plants strewn on the floor next to beds. During the night, bed bugs walking on the floor would accumulate on these bean leaves, which were collected and burned the following morning to exterminate the bed bugs.”

Fire, burning bean leaves that have “hooked” or “trapped” bed bugs, might be considered an extreme and specialized form of pest control heat treatment to be practiced with extreme caution. But compared to combating blood-sucking (vampirism) and werewolfism (Lycanthropy) in Hollywood B-movies, who’s to say. YouTube has videos showing bed bugs getting snagged by bean leaf hairs, and a simulation indicating that real bean leaves are still better than synthetic fabrics fabricated to mimick bean leaves. Kidney bean varieties are best for impaling passing bed bugs, and easy to use around a bed. But some lima bean varieties and small passion flower leaves also work, said Loudon. Interestingly, like computer chips, bean hairs that snag bed bugs best are toughened with silicon, unlike synthetic fabric hairs so far fabricated from substances like dental molding.

But given enough time, I would expect researchers in some dark Transylvanian lab in the Vampire District or in some light-splashed lab with surfboards along Frankenstein Row on the southern California coast to focus their scanning electron microscopes under high and low vacuums and eventually patent and reveal to the world nano-fabric silica hairs of a monstrous nature (to bed bugs) that can protectively surround sleepers and trap bed bugs before they bite. Or perhaps the genetic engineers will get there first with a carnivorous plant (the Venus Bed Bug Trap) for biocontrol. But if you’re keeping score, for most of human history, with some periods of remission, Team Bed Bug is still on top. In the meantime, pleasant dreams; and don’t let the bed bugs bite.

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.”

The Mysteries of Colony Collapse

May 15, 2014

COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER (CCD) of honey bees is one of the lingering mysteries of early 21st Century science in more ways than one: from its microbial, immune system and genetic components to an amorphous almost Orwellian terminology as imprecise and ambiguous as climate change (a slogan wide enough to encompass warming up, cooling down, and even staying the same temperature while the numbers fluctuate around the mean or average). The ambiguous language says both nothing and everything simultaneously, though underlying CCD is a quest for as yet unknown changes in insect rearing circumstances that will produce non-collapsing honey bee colonies. During the 19th century (1800s), a century marked by worldwide famines in the the old colonial empires and phylloxera-ravaged wine-grape vineyards collapsing in France, a revolution in modern medicine was being birthed in the mysteriously collapsing silkworm colonies. Fortunately for lovers of silk fabrics, fashion and textiles, 19th century silkworm farmers had the services of the real-life scientific Sherlock Holmes of the era, the famous French freelance scientist and sometime entomologist, Louis Pasteur.

Pasteur had a knack for solving applied problems like fermentation (beer, wine, vinegar) and silkworm colony collapse, and then using the results to develop broader theories like germ theory, which taught modern doctors to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments so as to stop spreading the germs that commonly killed their patients. How Pasteur almost single-handedly accomplished so much more than whole scientific institutes seemed able to do in the 20th century was the subject of an illuminating mid-20th century book, Louis Pasteur Free Lance of Science, by French-borne microbiologist Rene Dubos. “Toward the middle of the nineteenth century a mysterious disease began to attack the French silkworm nurseries,” wrote Dubos. “In 1853, silkworm eggs could no longer be produced in France, but had to be imported from Lombardy; then the disease spread to Italy, Spain and Austria. Dealers procuring eggs for the silkworm breeders had to go farther and farther east in an attempt to secure healthy products; but the disease followed them, invading in turn Greece, Turkey, the Caucasus–finally China and even Japan. By 1865, the silkworm industry was near ruin in France, and also, to a lesser degree, in the rest of Western Europe.”

“The first triumphs of microbiology in the control of epidemics came out of the genius and labors of two men, Agostino Bassi and Louis Pasteur, both of whom were untrained in medical or veterinary sciences, and both of whom first approached the problems of pathology by studying the diseases of silkworms,” wrote Dubos, who between World Wars I and II worked at the League of Nations’ Bureau of Agricultural Intelligence and Plant Diseases as an editor of the International Review of the Science and Practice of Agriculture. “A disease known as mal del segno was then causing extensive damage to the silkworm industry in Lombardy. Bassi demonstrated that the disease was infectious and could be transmitted by inoculation, by contact, and by infected food. He traced it to a parasitic fungus, called after him Botrytis bassiana (since renamed Beauveria bassiana, a widely used biocontrol agent)…An exact understanding…allowed Bassi to work out methods to prevent its spread through the silkworm nurseries. After twenty years of arduous labor, he published in 1836…Although unable to see the bacterial agents of disease because of blindness, Bassi envisioned from his studies on the mal del segno the bacteriological era which was to revolutionize medicine two decades after his death.”

Chemist Jean Baptiste Dumas, Pasteur’s mentor, prevailed upon the reluctant free lance scientist to head a mission of the French Ministry of Agriculture. “Although Pasteur knew nothing of silkworms or their diseases, he accepted the challenge,” wrote Dubos. “To Pasteur’s remark that he was totally unfamiliar with the subject, Dumas had replied one day: ‘So much the better! For ideas, you will have only those which shall come to you as a result of your observations!’”

A way of life was also at stake. As described in 19th century France by Emile Duclaux, Pasteur’s student and intimate collaborator (in Dubos’ book): “…the cocoons are put into a steam bath, to kill the chrysalids by heat. In this case, scarcely six weeks separate the time of egg-hatching from the time when the cocoons are carried to market, from the time the silk grower sows to the time when he reaps. As, in former times, the harvest was almost certain and quite lucrative, the Time of the Silkworm was a time of festival and of joy, in spite of the fatigues which it imposed, and, in gratitude, the mulberry tree had received the name of arbre d’or, from the populations who derived their livelihood from it.”

“The study of silkworm diseases constituted for Pasteur an initiation into the problem of infectious diseases,” wrote Dubos, who was influenced by the famous Russian soil microbiologist, Serge Winogradsky, who favored studying microbial interactions in natural environments rather than in pure laboratory cultures. “Instead of the accuracy of laboratory procedures he encountered the variability and unpredictability of behavior in animal life, for silkworms differ in their response to disease as do other animals. In the case of flacherie (a disease), for example, the time of death after infection might vary from 12 hours to 3 weeks, and some of the worms invariably escaped death…Time and time again, he discussed the matter of the influence of environmental factors on susceptibility, on the receptivity of the ‘terrain’ for the invading agent of disease. So deep was his concern with the physiological factors that condition infection that he once wrote, ‘If I had to undertake new studies on silkworms, I would investigate conditions for increasing their vigor, a problem of which one knows nothing. This would certainly lead to techniques for protecting them against accidental diseases.’”

“Usually, the public sees only the finished result of the scientific effort, but remains unaware of the atmosphere of confusion, tentative gropings, frustration and heart-breaking discouragement in which the scientist often labors while trying to extract, from the entrails of nature, the products and laws which appear so simple and orderly when they finally reach textbooks and newspapers,” wrote Dubos. “In many circumstances, he developed reproducible and practical techniques that in other hands failed, or gave such erratic results as to be considered worthless. His experimental achievements appear so unusual in their complete success that there has been a tendency to explain them away in the name of luck, but the explanation is in reality quite simple. Pasteur was a master experimenter with an uncanny sense of the details relevant to the success of his tests. It was the exacting conscience with which he respected the most minute details of his operations, and his intense concentration while at work, that gave him an apparently intuitive awareness of all the facts significant for the test, and permitted him always to duplicate his experimental conditions. In many cases, he lacked complete understanding of the reasons for the success of the procedures that he used, but always he knew how to make them work again, if they had once worked in his hands.”

Though famed for disproving the spontaneous generation of life, immunization via attenuated living vaccines and the germ theory of infectious disease: “Pasteur often emphasized the great importance of the environment, of nutrition, and of the physiological and even psychological state of the patient, in deciding the outcome of the infectious process,” wrote Dubos. “Had the opportunity come for him to undertake again the study of silkworm diseases, he once said, he would have liked to investigate the factors which favor the general robustness of the worms, and thereby increase their resistance to infectious disease…A logic of Pasteur’s life centered on physiological problems is just as plausible as that which resulted from the exclusive emphasis on the germ theory of contagious disease.”

The 21st century is riddled with insect colony conundrums and mysteries. For example, why among the social insects are honey bees plagued by Colony Collapse Disorder, while “Colony Expansion Disorder” prevails for other social insects in the USA. Rather than collapsing, USA colonies of Argentine ants are forming “super-colonies,” and red imported fire ant colonies are growing stronger by the day and annually expanding their North American geographic range; this despite being deliberately dosed with pesticides and attacked by biocontrol organisms (perhaps even more so than the beleaguered honey bees). And quite independently of mortgage rates and housing sales, Formosan subterranean termite colonies damaging billions of dollars of USA housing stock are happily munching away at both live trees and “dead-tree” wooden housing assets with little collective danger of colony collapse, though individual colonies come and go.

Perhaps beekeeping and crop pollination would be easier if Colony Collapse Disorder were an actual “disorder” as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and honey bees were endowed with sufficient consciousness and behaviors amenable to bee psychology or psychiatry.

The very real plight of honey bee colonies or hives is still in what Dubos would call the “atmosphere of confusion, tentative gropings, frustration.” At the most recent Entomological Society of America annual meeting, roughly a century and a half after silkworm colony collapse was eliminated by better more sanitary rearing practices, honey bee health was still puzzling. Honey bee colony loss in Virginia increased to 30% from 5-10% in recent years, possibly due to disease pathogens, pesticides and immune system suppression, say Virginia Tech researchers (e.g. Brenna Traver) studying glucose oxidase (GOX), an indicator of immunity in social insects. Honey bee social immunity is complex, involving factors as diverse as pheromones and grooming, and honey bee production of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), which sterilizes food for the colony.

Nosema ceranae, a global gut pathogen, was seen all around the USA in 2007 at the same time as Colony Collapse Disorder. Black queen cell virus is another culprit, along with deformed wing virus, which is spread among honey bees by varroa mites. Then it is hard to overlook that over 120 different pesticides and their metabolites have been found in honey; including common beekeeper-applied pesticides such as coumaphos, fluvalinate, chlorothalonil and the antibiotic fumagillin. At the University of Puerto Rico, Gloria Dominguez-Bello is testing oxytetracycline and other commonly used antibiotics for their effects on honey bee microbes similar to those known to affect everything from obesity and brain function to organ transplants.

Those familiar with Pasteur’s entomological research on silkworm colony collapse in the 1800s would have experienced a sense of deja vu at the most recent Entomological Society of America meetings listening to Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, a research leader at the USDA-ARS Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona. Nutrition, stress and pesticides may indeed be involved, but more focus is warranted for honey bee microbial health and gut microbes. Honey bee nutrition and microbiology is complicated by seasonal variations with changing food sources. According to DeGrandi-Hoffman, a lack of beneficial microbes may set honey bees up for infectious diseases like chalkbrood.

For example, pesticides used for Varroa mite control and potent beekeeping antibiotics like thymol and formic acid can affect the Lactobacillus microbes bees need for digestion and preservation of pollen as beebread, said DeGrandi-Hoffman. When bacterial plasmids found in high numbers in beebread are plated with the pathogen Aspergillus flavus, the pathogen rapidly loses virulence.

It is likely honey bees rely on beneficial microbes to protect from harmful pathogens, as honey bees have among the fewest immune system genes of any insect. Thus, when California almond growers spray fungicides, insecticides and miticides, a side effect could be fewer beneficial microbes in honey bee guts and in beebread. Thus, the honey bees would be less healthy and more susceptible to diseases like chalkbrood. Probiotic supplements designed to add beneficial microbes to honey bee diets are being tested in some California orchards. No doubt a familiar concept to those shopping for probiotic yogurts.

Whole Hog Into Debugging Michigan Apples

April 9, 2014

FROM TIME to TIME over the course of the centuries, agriculture seems to reinvent itself, and if anything modern agriculture based on the industrial model seems to be unconsciously integrating the higher animals back into the fruit tree groves, at least among those Michigan entomologists and farmers who appreciate the overlooked virtues of the hog as a faithful human servant at the beck and command of its handlers for hunting down pests that have become resistant to pesticides and difficult to control even with the latest pheromone mating disruption technologies. To those combating or hunting down feral pigs and wild boar disrupting native ecosystems and rooting up farm crops, turning pigs loose in apple, cherry, pear and other fruit tree orchards is likely to seem a heretical notion belonging to renegade rednecks or radical hippie farmers from the counterculture past stuck in a continuous time-warp loop with Spock and the characters from Star Trek.

One of the advantages of attending Entomological Society of America meetings is being able to follow themes like “livestock-crop reintegration,” which Ceres Trust Research Grants have been funding for Michigan State University entomologists like Krista Buehrer and Matthew Grieshop. Basically, organic hogs provide organic fruit orchards control of weeds and insect pests like plum curculio (Conotrachelus nenuphar), codling moth (Cydia pomonella) and Oriental fruit moth (Grapholita molesta). “The rotation of hogs through different pastures and orchards with supplemental nutrition sources” is also “a method of livestock-crop integration that avoids the problem of adhering to National Organic Policy (NOP) and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) policies restricting the application of manure prior to harvest,” wrote Buehrer in “Graduate Student Final Report – Ceres Trust Research Grant.”

Rotating organic hogs through organic fruit orchards to clean out weeds and insect pests hidden inside fallen fruits, traces its roots to Charles Valentine Riley, who pioneered modern biological control in the orange orchards of Los Angeles, California. In his 1871 “Third Annual Report on the Noxious, Beneficial and other Insects of the State of Missouri,” Riley said that for apple curculio “the only real remedy is the destruction of infested fruit.” In 1890, writing in the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, C.P. Gillette suggested grazing orchards with sheep or hogs to eat the insect-infested “windfallen fruit” on the orchard floor and thereby reduce pest populations.

From the 1800s into the Roaring Twenties, Iowa apple growers could not get rid of apple curculios by shaking the trees, cultivating the soil, pruning, or spraying arsenic pesticides, leading B.B. Fulton in 1925 and 1926 to test hog grazing on the “Apple Grove Orchards south of Mitchellville, Iowa.” Writing in the Journal of Agricultural Research in 1928, Fulton said: “The experiments with pasturing pigs were successful from a business standpoint. A cost account kept for the two years showed that this method of control was more than economical, for it actually netted a profit. In 1925 each pig returned a net profit of $10 above cost and feed and in 1926 a net profit of $7.65…five pigs per acre can, if properly handled, clean up the early dropped apples in an orchard and thus control the apple curculio. The critical time for such control, as shown by the seasonal history data, is from the middle of June until about the middle of July. Pigs weighing about 100 pounds are the best size for this purpose since they do not tramp down the low branches. They do not feed from the trees…”

Krista Buehrer told the 2012 ESA Annual meeting in Austin, Texas that weekly rotations (June-August) of grazing hogs eating dropped fruit (containing pests inside) on the orchard floor produced marketable organic hogs and reduced pests without harming earthworms or beneficial insects (e.g. lady beetles, lacewings, ground beetles, spiders, parasitoid wasps, tachinid flies, syrphid flies, dolichopodid flies, ants). ““There were 3 control plots and 3 hog grazed plots,” said Buehrer. “Grazed plots were bordered by electric fencing to prevent hogs from escaping. Twenty-four Berkshire hogs were rotated through each grazed plot twice. In 2012, they were in each plot for 1.5 weeks per rotation, for a total of 3 weeks per grazed plot. In 2013 they were in each plot for 1 week per rotation, for a total of 2 weeks per grazed plot. Hogs ranged from 50-90 lbs (23-41 kg) each.”

Hog grazing really only scratches the surface of changing fruit orchard floor management, which includes cover crops, living mulches, composts, etc. Perhaps it is more a case of everything old becoming new again, as grazing by cattle, sheep, goats, wild pigs and boar are considered part of traditional European agroforestry systems.

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.

Pollinator-Friendly Lawns: Flowers or No Flowers?

April 28, 2013

TURF is a $25 BILLION USA INDUSTRY, said Nastaran Tofangsazi of the University of Florida (Apopka, FL), a sex pheromone researcher looking to complement biocontrols like beneficial Beauveria bassiana fungi and Steinernema carpocapsae nematodes to control the browning and uneven grass growth caused by tropical sod webworm (Herpetogramma phaeopteralis) in Florida’s $9 billion worth of turfgrass. Also at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, Auburn University’s R. Murphey Coy noted that the USA’s 164,000 km2 (63,320 square miles) of turf is the USA’s most irrigated crop. Turfgrass irrigation consumes 300% more water than corn; plus 4.5 pounds (2 kg) of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet (93 m2).

Alabama is among the top USA turfgrass-producing states, and Auburn University researchers are looking to reduce turfgrass water, nitrogen and iron inputs by colonizing grass seeds and roots with easy to apply sprays of plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR). Blends of PGPR species such as Bacillus firmis, Pseudomonas and Rhizobium in turfgrass and cotton induce systemic resistance to pestiferous Fusarium fungi and triple parasitic wasp biocontrol of the caterpillar larvae of moth pests like fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda).

Not everyone is a fan of turfgrass lawns, and before the modern chemical era lawns were more like fragrant flowery meadows. “Agricultural experts and agribusiness are bound by the idea that even land that has lost its natural vitality can still produce crops with the addition of petroleum energy, agricultural chemicals, and water…considering this form of agriculture to be advanced,” wrote Japanese agriculturist and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka in the book, Sowing Seeds in the Desert (edited by Larry Korn).

“When I suggested that it would be a good idea to plant fruit trees to line the streets in towns and cities and to grow vegetables instead of lawns and annual flowers, so that when the townspeople were taking a walk, they could pick and eat the fruit from the roadside, people were surprisingly enthusiastic,” said Fukuoka. “When I suggested that it would be good to scatter the seeds of clover and daikon on the existing lawns so that in two or three years the clover would overcome the lawn and the daikon would take root amid the ground cover, interestingly, it was the Asian people and Asian-Americans who said they would try it right away. Most Americans would just laugh and agree with the theory, but they were cautious about putting it into practice. The reason, I believe, is that it would challenge their adherence to ‘lawn’ culture. If they cannot overcome this prejudice, there will be a limit to the growth of family gardens in the United States.”

“It seems that the main goal in the life of the average American is to save money, live in the country in a big house surrounded by large trees, and enjoy a carefully manicured lawn,” wrote Fukuoka. “It would be a further source of pride to raise a few horses. Everywhere I went I preached the abolition of lawn culture, saying that it was an imitation green created for human beings at the expense of nature and was nothing more than a remnant of the arrogant aristocratic culture of Europe…Because residential lots are large in the United States, a family vegetable garden can provide for all the food needs of a typical family, if they are willing to do the work. In Japan, a residential lot about a quarter acre would be enough to allow near self-sufficiency and provide a healthy living environment, but I learned—to my envy—that in many suburban and rural areas of the United States, people are not allowed to build houses on small lots.”

On closer inspection, modern American lawns are more often a biodiverse mixture of turfgrass and flowering plants like clover and dandelions. Kentucky bluegrass lawns may be 30% white clover, which favors native pollinators like bumblebees. Clover and dandelion flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees, parasitic wasps that kill pests, hover flies (syrphids) that eat aphids, and carnivorous rove and ground beetles eating snails, slugs, caterpillars and other pests. Nonetheless, tons of herbicides go onto USA lawns to eradicate clover and dandelions as weeds, often as part of fertilizer and insecticide mixtures.

Turf biodiversity is all well and good, but only as long as the clover and dandelion flower nectar is pure and uncontaminated by pesticide cocktails. Lawns laden with clover and dandelion flowers provide bees and beneficial insects with “a big gulp of nectar,” the University of Kentucky’s Jonathan Larson told the ESA annual meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. When those “big gulps of nectar” are laced with certain neonicotinoid pesticides, the effects can ripple through the ecological food chain.

When turfgrass pesticide labels say, ‘Don’t treat flower heads,’ “Follow the label to the letter of the law” to avoid poisoning pollinators, said Larson. Or get rid of the flowering plants in the lawn by mowing the turf before spraying. Or delay pesticide sprays until after clovers, dandelions and other lawn flowers have finished flowering. Clover control in lawns using herbicides is difficult, and usually not feasible, Larson told the ESA. Hence, mowing is the preferred strategy for removing flowering lawn weeds before spraying pesticides.

In enclosure experiments with tents confining bees in the turf, mowing the turf before pesticide treatment mitigated the problem, resulting in more bees and more honey. In 2012, bees were tented on clothianidin-treated turf for 6 days and then moved for 6 weeks to a Lexington, Kentucky, horse ranch with unsprayed turf. Clothianidin reduced the rate of bumble bee weight gain, but at the end of 6 weeks the bees were starting to catch-up. But overall, the 6-day pesticide exposure still resulted in reduced bumble bee weight gain, less foraging and reduced queen and hive reproduction several weeks later. Chlorantraniliprole, which has a different mode of action (muscular), did not produce these adverse effects. Larson also told the ESA that clothianidin, a widely used neonicotinoid turf pesticide, also reduces decomposers (detritivores) like soil-dwelling earthworms and springtails more than chlorantraniliprole.

Besides supporting more soil life, more biocontrol organisms, and healthier crops of pollinating bees, you get a healthier turfgrass lawn if you do not need pesticides and do not have to mow so often. “Mowing height is an easily manipulated cultural practice that can have an impact on ecological conditions,” Samantha Marksbury from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, told the ESA. “Taller grass usually supports a more diverse ecosystem and increases natural enemies. Increasing cutting height stimulated deeper roots, yielding a healthier turf with less need for insecticide. Higher mowing height decreases need for irrigation and the canopy prevents water loss.”

Taller turf (raised mowing height) also tends to be more robust and more tolerant of white grubs. Nevertheless, about 75% of turf is lush residential monocultures (mostly one grass species) that is heavily fertilized, dosed with chemical herbicides and frequently mowed, Emily Dobbs of the University of Kentucky, Lexington, told the ESA. However, the ecology of grass cutting or mowing gets quite complex and has seasonal variations. In May, turf with a low mowing height (2.5 inches; 6.4 cm) was hotter, drier, and had the most predatory ground beetles, rove beetles and spiders. Later in the season and Sept/Oct, turf with a higher mowing height (4 inches; 10.2 cm) was cooler, wetter, and had the most predators.

Historically, in the Middle Ages in England, going back many centuries (even before Chaucer) before the age of chemical farming and gardening, lawns were “flowery meads” with roses, violets, periwinkles, primroses, daisies, gillyflowers and other colorful, fragrant flowers interplanted right into the turf. The idea of planting a lawn with one species of grass made no sense, though a camomile lawn or plot came into being for infirmary gardens in England after 1265, as this medicinal aromatic plant helped other plants growing nearby in poor soils and grew faster the more it was trodden.

“There were no flower-beds of the sort familiar to us,” wrote Teresa McLean in her 1981 book, Medieval English Gardens. “The simplest type of flower garden was the flowery mead, wherein low-growing flowers were planted in turf lawns, sometimes walled, sometimes left open, to make a beautiful domestic meadow. The flowery mead was the locus amoenus of God’s beautiful world.”

“Trees were often planted in raised turf mounds, surrounded by wattle fences, which doubled as seats,” wrote McLean. “Medieval lawns, unlike modern ones, were luxuriously long, and full of flowers and herbs; they were fragrant carpets to be walked, danced, sat and lain upon. What modern lawn could find a poet to write about it as Chaucer wrote about the one in the Legend of Good Women?

Upon the small, soft, sweet grass,
That was with flowers sweet embroidered all,
Of such sweetness, and such odour overall…”

Medicinal Caterpillar Fungus High in Nepal’s Himalayan Mountains

December 27, 2012

CATERPILLAR FUNGI ARE not everybody’s finger food, though their beautifully-sculpted medicinal mushrooms are rich in fiber, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. The caterpillar fungus of commerce, Cordyceps sinensis, grows high in the Himalayan Mountains in the larvae (caterpillars) of equally high-altitude Asian ghost moths (genus Hepialus). An ancient medicine or tonic, caterpillar fungus is in reality part insect (mummified caterpillar) and part fungus; and perhaps a conundrum for vegetarians, who might have to take a pass on its medical benefits because of its animal kingdom (insect) component.

Cordyceps is an abundant resource of useful natural products with various biological activity, and it has been used extensively as a tonic and health supplement for subhealth patients, especially seniors, in China and other Asian countries,” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University in an article pre-published online in October 2012 in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology.

For perhaps thousands of years (at least several hundred) in China and other Asian countries, “Cordyceps sinensis (Caterpillar fungus) has been used as a tonic for longevity, endurance, and vitality,” write Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers Zhenquan Liu et al. in an Open Access journal, Behavioral and Brain Functions. “Many studies have shown that Cordyceps sinensis modulates immune responses, inhibits tumor cell proliferation, enhances hepatic function, regulates insulin sensitivity” and modulates steroid production.

“Although Cordyceps sinensis is extensively used in Chinese medicine, it lacks scientific grounds for its efficacy,” write Liu et al. In other words, it has worked like magic for centuries; providing practical benefits, though the exact mechanisms of how it works are unknown or speculative. The Chinese researchers argue that even proponents of modern medicine objecting to traditional natural or folkloric medical treatments could benefit from studying the caterpillar fungus. Their argument is that the research results from studying the mechanisms of how the caterpillar fungus works to heal or prevent disease could also be used to develop more conventional medical or drug treatments.

Caterpillar fungus could be particularly useful for certain brain strokes, where modern medicine lacks effective drugs and treatments. ”The lack of effective and widely applicable pharmacological treatments for ischemic stroke patients may explain a growing interest in traditional medicines,” wrote Liu et al. An example is “self-medication or preventive medicine” to prevent cerebral ischemia. In this type of stroke, brain oxygen levels are too low; which can trigger a cascade of biological events leading to brain damage and death. Caterpillar fungus prevents or protects against this type of brain stroke (“ischemia-induced brain infarction”), presumably by inducing or modulating production of a steroid, 17beta-estradiol.

Cordyceps sinensis mushrooms growing out of golden caterpillar bodies are sometimes artfully and decoratively displayed in high-end Chinese herbal shops. Caterpillar fungus achieved some notoriety when it was revealed to be a dietary supplement for Chinese athletes bringing home gold and silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“In China, this fungus is usually called ‘Dong Chong Xia Cao,’ which means ‘Worm in winter and grass in summer,’” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University. “This insect parasitizing fungus lives primarily on the head of the larva of one particular species of moth, Hepialus armoricanus Oberthur (Lepidoptera), but is occasionally found growing on other moth species. Cordyceps was first introduced to Western society during the 17th century. In 1878 Saccardo, an Italian scholar, named Cordyceps derived from China officially as Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc., and this nomenclature has been adopted up to the present day.”

At a Nepal Overseas Entomologists members symposium at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Nov. 2012, at the Convention Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, Bhishma Subedi of the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) screened a 20-30 minute documentary film as part of a talk titled, “Cordyceps sinensis a natural viagara(sic) from the mountains of Nepal.” Even the other Nepali entomologists in attendance learned something new, as the caterpillar fungus is found only in remote Himalayan Mountain locales; and it is not common knowledge, even in Nepal.

Known in Nepal by its Tibetan name, yarsagumba, caterpillar fungus is well-hidden; blending like a camouflaged black joss stick into black soils and grasses on slightly north-facing (5-10 degrees) Himalayan slopes 3,200 to 4,500 meters (10,500 to 14,800 ft) high. Yarsagumba lands are several days trek from anyplace where people normally live, and the ground is covered in snow 6 months of the year. But this is where temporary high-mountain camps must be set up for hunting the difficult-to-find caterpillar fungus.

Searching for the camouflaged black and debris-covered yarsagumba means crawling on hands and knees or bending over among short grasses and melted snow. Men search for yarsagumba and other medicinal herbs in the vicinity, while women stay behind and maintain the base camps. A certain Buddhist purity is maintained in yarsagumba lands; there is no alcohol, no tobacco and no shouting, loud voices or arguing. People pray, and the first yarsagumba found is offered to the Gods.

The beauty of the mountains belie the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of the life in search of yarsagumba; it’s a tough way to earn money in these remote mountains where economic opportunities are few. Storms can come at any time, and it is easy to fall down a steep cliff when climbing in the snow. A fall near a cliff edge can mean loss of limbs and frequently death. There are no second chances, no safety nets to catch you up here. Medical treatment is do-it-yourself, by necessity. Conventional medicine and doctors are many days distant. Widows are commonplace at all ages; and many subsistence families in Nepal have lost husbands, fathers, brothers and sons during the search for yarsagumba and medicinal herbs that may help others prevail against brain strokes and other maladies.

It takes seven cleanings with a toothbrush to remove all the debris and black soil, and make the black yarsagumba look like a proper insect, namely a golden caterpillar. The going price from the middlemen is 80,000 rupees per kilo; with 3,500 to 4,000 pieces of clean golden caterpillars per kilo. It takes five people a month to find a kilo. People are doing well to come out of the season with 60,000 rupees, before the expenses of the trek and weeks or months of camp costs. Recently, the Nepal government imposed a 20,000 rupee per kilo tax or royalty on the trade.

After being steamed and packaged, most of the yarsagumba eventually is exported and finds its way to the Chinese market. The yarsagumba trade is estimated at 2 tons annually. But in Nepal, since the government-imposed 20,000 rupee/kilo royalty or tax went into effect, it was like the yarsagumba harvest had become illegal for Nepal’s subsistence mountain people. Royalties were paid on only 3 kilos in a recent year. Perhaps there is a free market and tax lesson in all this. Or perhaps it is just part of the great wheel of life.

Doggone Birds (Fruit Protection)

September 13, 2012

Many bird species provide biocontrol by eating a wide range of insect pests, and are worth encouraging for controlling flies, mosquitoes, locusts, caterpillars, ticks, rodents and other pests around homes, forests, farms and gardens. Other bird species are considered pestiferous when feeding on our food plants, and can be repelled in various ways, including by loud noises, eyespot balloons, reflecting tape, scarecrows and scare devices, sensor networks and dogs.

Among the beneficial birds when they are not causing damage to utility poles or annoying people with their racket are woodpeckers. Personally, I like hearing woodpeckers working urban and forest trees, and was heartened to learn from Michigan State University’s Andrew Tluczek’s presentation to the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting that: “Woodpecker predation has caused up to 90% mortality of emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) larvae in some sites.”

A 2006 tick control article in BioScience magazine devoted considerable discussion to birds for tick biocontrol. In Africa, birds known as oxpeckers (Buphagus spp.) provide biocontrol of ticks on mammals by consuming hundreds of adult ticks or thousands of nymphal ticks per day. Free-ranging guinea fowl experimentally tested around New York (USA) lawns reduced adult blacklegged tick numbers; but unfortunately the smaller nymph stage blacklegged ticks transmitting Lyme disease apparently were missed and not stopped very well.

The list of bird benefits for biocontrol, like barn owls for rodent biocontrol in Israel, Palestine, Malaysia and elsewhere could go on and on.

“Bird damage situations throughout the world are similar, involving many of the same crops and genera of birds,” wrote John W. De Grazio a few decades ago in the <em>Proceedings of the 8th Vertebrate Pest Conference. Seed-eating red-winged blackbirds, ring-necked pheasants, sparrows, crows, doves, parrots, munias, queleas, weavers and waterfowl are sometimes pests of corn, rice, wheat, sorghum, sunflowers, almonds, pecans, peanuts, etc. Starlings, sparrows, finches, grackles, robins, parakeets, etc. consume grapes, blueberries, and other fruit in yards, vineyards and orchards.

Dogs are used in pest control for sniffing out termites and bed bugs, and the natural proclivity of some dog breeds to chase birds can be harnessed to keep birds from destroying fruit in orchards and vineyards. In researching a grant proposal to travel to and write about Japan, which I failed miserably to qualify for, my Internet research for the proposal took me to the Japanese Journal of Farm Work Research. Being one of a select 4% of the USA population to have worked in agriculture, the journal title intrigued me enough to browse through several years of tables of contents, where I came across an intriguing article title: “Protection of Citrus From Bird Damage by a Dog.”

Not reading Japanese, I had to rely on the visual diagrams and English summary by researchers Hiromichi Ichinokiyama and Masami Takeuchi at the Kinan Fruits Tree Laboratory and Mie Prefectural Science and Technology Promotion Center:

“Effectiveness of a dog (Canus lupus familiaris) for protecting citrus fruits from bird damage was investigated using a citrus orchard (5.8 a in area) in the harvest season. In Experiment 1, a Border collie shepherd (male) was tied to a wire extended along one side of the square orchard to allow him to run along the inner side of the orchard. This watchdog system was effective in reducing fruit damage by birds (mainly brown-eared bulbul) only in the citrus tree row nearest to the dog runway.”

However, the researchers had better success letting the dog run free in the orchard:

“In Experiment 2, the orchard was enclosed with a tall chain-link fence and the same dog was allowed to move freely in the orchard. In this case, he persevered in chasing birds until they flew away from the orchard. This watchdog system effectively reduced bird damage to citrus fruits all over the orchard, resulting in an increase in crop yield…Further study is needed on the optimum number of dogs released per unit orchard area and the effectiveness of the watchdog system in case when this bird control system is spread to all orchards in the citrus-growing area.”

Like Richard Feynman’s Nontoxic Ant Ferry, dogs chasing birds away from trees laden with fruit or nuts is more a proof-of-concept awaiting further development than a fully developed technology you can order on the Internet.

Thank you to the organizations and people who created and are advancing the Internet, as even finding this sort of information would have been nearly impossible a few decades ago. Amazing how this high-tech infrastructure can advance low-tech solutions like the old-fashioned four-legged, tail-wagging dog as a bird-chaser in service of better fruit harvests.

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.

Native Bees Pick Up Pollination Slack (Combating Colony Collapse)

May 3, 2012

HONEY BEE COLONY COLLAPSE Disorder (CCD) is a murky headline catch phrase, a scientific-sounding term that is almost a euphemism, to describe a population decline. In other words, there are fewer honey bees than there used to be, which is bad for agricultural crops dependent upon these domesticated insects for pollination.

Why a population decline is called a “disorder” is a bit beyond me, though it sounds almost clinical or medical. Perhaps that is the point; and calling it a disorder makes it a more respectable object of study and aids in obtaining funding and public support for research and finding a remedy. The declining human populations in Russia, Italy, Germany, Japan and other developed countries are not called a disorder; which perhaps implies an underlying value judgment. Might be nice to discover a Bed Bug Colony Collapse Disorder (BBCCD) to give cause for celebration. Though the acronym BBCCD in the Google search engine would confusingly yield CDs from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Wikipedia makes it sounds like honey bees are being kidnapped: “Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. While such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, the term colony collapse disorder was first applied to a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of Western honey bee colonies in North America in late 2006…” If such occurrences have been happening throughout history, then the “disorder” sounds more like normality. In any case, times are tougher for those relying upon domesticated honey bees for crop pollination.

The interesting flip side of honey bee colony collapse disorder is the almost metaphorical return of the natives: Really a rediscovery and new appreciation of overlooked native pollinators like North American squash bees, digger bees, miner bees, sweat bees, bumble bees, and syrphid flies.

Whether you call it a disorder or a population decline: Nature abhors a vacuum or an empty ecological niche, like an absence or paucity of pollinating honey bees in a flowering agricultural ecosystem. Niches tend to get filled in nature, though the process may take years. With fewer honey bees (Apis mellifera is an introduced species in the Americas) in the fields, native bees hitherto ignored or overlooked are taking over the pollination chores on certain crops, according to research presented at Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings.

“Nearly 4,000 species of native bees are found in North America,” said the University of Kentucky’s Amanda Skidmore. Integrated Pollination Management (IPM) or Integrated Crop Pollination, jargon phrases that sometimes popup at meetings, refers to managing crop ecosystems as habitats for native pollinators.

“In order to best utilize bees as pollination service providers, agro-ecosystems must be managed to attract and sustain them based on their natural history biological requirements,” Skidmore told the ESA. These habitat requirements include “energy (nectar), larval food proteins (pollen), and protected nesting sites (i.e. untilled earth, nesting boxes, dead plant matter).”

Native long-horned bees (Melissodes bimaculata) take up some of the slack from depleted honey bee populations in Kentucky by pollinating squash, melon and vegetable crops. Sweet alyssum (white-flowered variety), a flower interplanted in agricultural crops to promote biological control of pests by natural enemies, was heavily favored by the native pollinators; along with bee balm (Monarda didyma) and wood sage (Teucrium canadense). The idea is to plant a succession of flowering resources, including native wildflowers, shrubs and trees, to sustain native pollinators from very early season to late season. Research on habitat plantings is on-going.

Native North American sweat bees (Halictidae) and digger or mining bees (Andrenidae) are abundant pollinators of Michigan’s important blueberry crop in some locales, Michigan State University researcher Rufus Isaacs told the ESA. Nearby meadows “grow” sweat bee populations that move into blueberries to provide pollination services. Well-drained soils mean more nesting habitat for digger or mining bees that also pollinate blueberries. Several dozen wild native annual and perennial plants with varied bloom periods are being test-grown near Michigan blueberries to determine which best boost native bee populations and reduce the need for honey bee pollination.

Similar strategies for adding habitat for native pollinators are also being researched in crops as diverse as apples, cherries, squash and watermelons in regions as far-flung as Florida and California.

Earthworm Compost, Medicinal Honey & Fewer Hive Sprays Avert Bee Collapse

April 4, 2012

HONEY BEE COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER and subtle learning and memory pesticide effects were among Biocontrol Beat topics detailed in Feb. 2011 (Honey Bees, 24-Hour Surveillance Cameras & Pesticides). For many attendees of Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meetings, the two reports on pesticide effects on honey bees and bumble bees in the 30 March 2012 issue of Science magazine were just two more data bits, nothing particularly surprising; albeit good headline news fodder and a bit troubling. Perhaps a slight feeling of déjà vu for those familiar with Rachel Carson and her book of more than half a century ago, Silent Spring.

To imbibers of energy-boosting, nervous system stimulants like coffee, tea, and the many other caffeinated beverages flooding the marketplace, the idea that a common natural (e.g. botanical) or synthetic chemical might affect behavior is almost a no-brainer, though not necessarily self-evident. Caffeine has gone from fruit fly studies to mosquito control remedy recently. Natural nicotine from tobacco family plants has had almost an opposite trajectory, having once been widely used (e.g. burned as a fumigant) and recommended (e.g. soaking cigarette butts in water) for pest control in agriculture, greenhouses, and organic gardens; and now shunned because of its toxicity to humans and beneficial insects.

Neonicotinoid pesticides, like the widely used imidacloprid, had their design inspiration in natural nicotine molecules; but are safer to humans and other animals. But perhaps not totally without adverse effects, if indeed it is possible to have a substance that is toxic and yet totally safe. The Science reports associate neonicotinoid chemicals like imidacloprid with reduced bumble bee colony size and queen production, as well as lower honey bee survival and foraging success.

Though the scientific data will be subjected to further debate and future studies may confirm or refute the results, Science magazine writer Erik Stokstad, in an accompanying news and analysis, marshaled a stunning statistic to go with the reports: “In the United States alone, 59 million hectares of crops are protected by systemic pesticides. Seeds are treated with these neurotoxins before planting, and the poison suffuses the tissues, pollen, and nectar…”

Nonetheless, as ESA annual meeting habitués may know: genetics, pathogens, parasites, and beekeeper practices apparently also figure into the still mysterious honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Perhaps aptly for a confusingly mysterious disorder, CCD, the acronym for Colony Collapse Disorder, is confusingly the same as the Community College of Denver, charged-coupled devices (like those capturing images in digital cameras), Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and The Convention Centre Dublin, to mention but a few highly-ranked “CCD” terms in Google.

Those who put their faith in scientific panels, better testing, and more government regulation will be heartened to know that Stokstad says more is on the way in Europe and the USA. Those wanting to do something practical right now to help the honey bees and native bumble bees pollinating their backyards and fields might find more encouragement in some of the presentations coming out of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meetings.

For example, North Carolina State University soil ecologist Yasmin Cardoza, who has shown that earthworm compost produces plants more resistant to caterpillar pests and aphids, more recently told the ESA that amending a cucumber soil (model system) with earthworm compost (vermicompost) helped bumble bees and other native pollinators become heavier, healthier, and more fecund.

Cucumber plants grown in soils amended with earthworm compost had flowers (pollen, nectar) with significantly more protein and a bit more sugar. These more nutritious flowers grown with earthworm compost attracted more bumble bees and native pollinators. Plus the bumble bees had more and larger ovary cells and egg tubes (i.e. an indication of enhanced reproduction), weighed more, and had fewer disease pathogens. Whether earthworm compost can reverse or prevent Colony Collapse or create Colony Expansion would make for an interesting study.

Beekeeping methods also take a hit for exacerbating honey bee problems; and are illustrative of how mites, insect pests and pesticides make for the type of challenging problem that in previous centuries were solved by privately-funded freelance scientists like Louis Pasteur. Pasteur’s freelance entomological endeavors included almost single-handedly rescuing the nineteenth-century silk industry from a similar mysterious collapse of silkworm colonies (insect colonies seem particularly prone to epidemic collapse when you want them; but resistant to collapse when you would rather be rid of them, like termite and fire ant pests). Rene Dubos’ account in his 1950 book, Louis Pasteur Free Lance Of Science, is well worth reading for free on the Internet (pdf, Kindle versions). By early twenty-first century standards, Pasteur seems almost like a Rambo of science, accomplishing with a few assistants what would seem impossible today.

Even if the cause of honey bee colony collapse is still mysterious, like silkworm colony collapse was prior to Pasteur, there is no doubting the reality of the problem.

“In Virginia, the number of managed honey bee colonies have declined by about 50% since the late 1980s due to the introduction of parasitic mites,” Virginia Techie (Blacksburg, VA) Jennifer Williams told the ESA. “Excessive reliance” on fluvalinate (a pyrethroid miticide) and coumaphos (an organophosphate miticide) have “been implicated in numerous problems to honey bees, including impaired reproductive physiology, reduced ability of colonies to raise queens, reduced sperm viability in drones (males), and increased queen failure and loss.” Often these miticides are found in combination with imidacloprid (systemic insecticide), chlorothalonil (broad-spectrum fungicide), and the broad-spectrum antibiotics oxytetracyline and streptomycin used by beekeepers to combat American foulbrood disease in honey bee hives.

Fluvalinate, coumaphos, coumaphos-oxon, and chlorothalonil are found in almost half of North American honey bee colonies at ppb (parts per billion) levels that can be acutely toxic. Combining miticides, pesticides, and antibiotics is a toxic cocktail recipe boosting honey bee mortality 27-50%, according to Williams. In other words, it is a vicious circle in which beekeeping practices (e.g. miticides, antibiotics, substituting sugar water for honey) may have deleterious effects offsetting curative effects on already weakened and mentally confused bees feeding on plants treated with pesticides rather than healthy composts like those being studied by Cardoza.

As if honey bees did not have enough health problems, the small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) is now part of the mix. “In their native range in South Africa, these beetles cause relatively little damage,” Natasha Wright of the University of Arkansas told the ESA. “However, they can be destructive to honey bee colonies in the United States and Australia. The adults and larvae feed on bee brood and bee products. They also cause honey to ferment, which results in unsellable honey. Little is known about the biological control agents.”

“Identifying new mechanisms that support honey bee health will be pivotal to the long-term security and productivity of American agriculture,” Emory University’s Lydia McCormick told the ESA. “Hydrogen peroxide is a potential natural defense/stress response to small hive beetle,” a pest which can devastate a honey bee colony in weeks or months. Not to knock beekeepers, who have enough problems already, but their practice of feeding bees sugar water rather than honey laced with hydrogen peroxide may be part of the problem. Honey bees produce more hydrogen peroxide in their honey to combat stressors like the hive beetle.

“Extremely low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide in sugar-water fed samples may represent a problem in this common method of hive management,” said McCormick. “Honey bees may selectively regulate higher brood honey hydrogen peroxide as a strategic oxidant defense. Given that brood cells contain honey bee larvae, high honey hydrogen peroxide may help protect against pests.” Indeed, small hive beetle survival is lower with hydrogen peroxide in the honey.

Honey containing hydrogen peroxide has been marketed for its antibacterial, wound healing, and skin care potential; and prescriptions for medical-grade honey are a possibility. New Zealand professor Peter Charles Molan published an interesting historical review on honey for wound healing in 2001. Besides hydrogen peroxide, honey may have healing botanical compounds (phytochemicals). Perhaps the bee’s loss is humankind’s medical gain. Though if the bees are lost as pollinators in the process, it is not a sustainable practice in the longer-term.

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.