Insect Perceptions, Irrelevant or Important

February 23, 2016

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

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

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

One insect
asleep on a leaf
can save your life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Food Sweetener Safely Slays Insects

August 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silicon Bed Bug Weaponry

May 4, 2015

BED BUGS CAN be spiked and trapped by tiny spears like leaf hairs, and can become dehydrated or dessicated and rendered harmless by certain forms of silicon, the second most abundant element in planet Earth’s crust (28%) after oxygen (47%). That silicon can be the bane of bed bugs is indeed odd when one considers that silicon permeates our world from beach sands, opals, agates and quartz crystals to sandpaper, semiconductors, glasses, ceramics, optical fibers and cosmetic products. Indeed, the famous French scientist and silkworm entomologist, Louis Pasteur, whose name has become synonymous with the germ theory of medicine, predicted silicon’s eventual service in human medicine; though Pasteur was probably not thinking along the lines of silica gels and desiccant diatomaceous earth dusts as remedies for the 21st century’s worldwide medical plague of bed bugs.

Despite its commonness in nature and the human environment and potential uses in human medicine, the use of silicon products comes with caveats to users, who might want to wear sufficient protective clothing and respirators to avoid inhaling the products. Strangely enough, that much maligned metabolic waste product, carbon dioxide, which along with sunlight is essential to photosynthesis and life on planet Earth, is perhaps a safer component (e.g. as a lure or attractant) when integrated into bed bug traps. Food grade diatomaceous earth made from freshwater diatoms is considered relatively nontoxic; whereas filtering grade diatomaceous earth (e.g. the type used for swimming pool filters) is a crystalline form with inhalation toxicity.

“Louis Pasteur (1822-95) said that silicon would prove to be a treatment for many diseases and in the first quarter of the twentieth century there were numerous reports by French and German doctors of sodium silicate being used successfully to treat conditions such as high blood pressure and dermatitis,” wrote British chemist John Emsley in his superb compendium, Nature’s Building Blocks (An A-Z Guide to the Elements). “By 1930, such treatments were seen to have been in vain and the medication fell out of favor. So things rested, until the discovery that silicon might have a role to play in human metabolism, and then followed suggestions that it could have a role in conditions such as arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, but no new treatment based on these suggestions has yet emerged. Meanwhile, silicon continues to be linked with a disease of its own: silicosis. Miners, stone-cutters, sand-blasters and metal-grinders develop this lung condition which is a recognized occupational disorder caused by the inhalation of minute particles of silica…” Symptoms include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath; a more aggressive form of silicosis associated with certain types of asbestos can develop into lung cancer and has been a rich source of litigation for occupational exposure in the USA.

While silica products should be used sparingly (a caution that should also apply to most sprays) or not at all by some people (e.g. existing respiratory problems; perhaps seek a medical opinion before using), they might prove for many others the tipping point for winning the bed bug war as part of an integrated approach that controls bed bugs (many of which are pesticide resistant) using a multiple arsenal of weapons including herbal oils, clutter reduction, heat, sealing crack and crevice harborages, traps, pheromones, carbon dioxide, vacuuming under baseboards, etc.

At the 2014 Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, Kyeong-Yeoll Lee of South Korea’s Kyungpook National University (Daegu) reported that silica in the form of diatomaceous earth (Perma-Guard(TM) or Fossil-Shell(R)) acted as a synergist when heat (hot air) fumigations substituted for chemical fumigants such as methyl bromide. Though the test insect was Indian meal moth, a worldwide pest of stored grain and many other packaged agricultural products, it would not be surprising to find that heat treatments combined with silica products like diatomaceous earth will also prove efficacious and perhaps also synergistic against bed bugs. Indeed, heat treatments may induce bed bugs to move around more, which could hasten contacting diatomaceous earth and water loss.

At the same 2014 ESA meeting, Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA) researcher Molly Stedfast provided some impressive results via the time-consuming process of first educating apartment residents about bed bugs and then painstakingly vacuuming along baseboards to suck up as many bed bugs as possible before applying the silica products under the baseboards to further reduce bed bug populations. This integrated (IPM; integrated pest management) approach required quite a bit of manual labor, as furniture had to be moved to gain access to the baseboards before vacuuming and then applying silica gel or dust products.

Stedfast tested two silica products, Mother Earth(TM) D, a highly-absorptive desiccant dust made from 100% freshwater diatomaceous earth, and CimeXa(TM) Insecticide Dust, a 100% amorphous silica gel. The silica dust or gel injures the insect cuticle (outer protective “skin”), letting water leak out and leading to dehydration (providing relative humidity is not extremely high, above 81%; and free water is unavailable). Both the diatomaceous earth and silica gel products were “very effective at killing bed bugs even at 10% of the label rate.” Going above the label rate was a waste of resources, as only so much product can contaminate the bed bugs. Bed bugs can die within 24 hours of contacting the silica products, but air currents that blow the dusts around can be a problem; also the products need to stay moist and not dry out to be effective. Among Stedfast’s biggest headaches is the application equipment, which was not very robust.

The patent literature reveals that inventors such as Roderick William Phillips in Vancouver are working on improved spray apparatuses for applying diatomaceous earth: “There is disclosed a spray apparatus for holding contents comprising diatomaceous earth and a compressed propellant for propelling the diatomaceous earth. There is also disclosed use of diatomaceous earth to control a population of bedbugs…diatomaceous earth, a naturally occurring siliceous sedimentary rock that includes fossilized remains of diatoms. However, known methods of applying diatomaceous earth can be cumbersome. For example, known methods of applying diatomaceous earth may undesirably require handling the diatomaceous earth, for example to transfer the diatomaceous earth from a container not having an applicator to a separate applicator apparatus. Also, known applicator apparatuses may apply diatomaceous earth unevenly, which may be wasteful or ineffective. In general, known methods of applying diatomaceous earth may be sufficiently complex so as to require professional involvement, which may undesirably add to cost and delay of bedbug treatment. Also, numerous types of diatomaceous earth are available, and different types of diatomaceous earth vary widely and significantly from each other. It has been estimated that there are approximately 100,000 extant diatom species…and may vary widely and significantly in size and shape across a very large number of diatom species…”

At the University of British Columbia (Vancouver), Yasmin Akhtar and Murray Isman demonstrated that both diatomaceous earth and herbal or botanical compounds such as neem, ryania and rotenone are to varying degrees transported by adult bed bugs and contaminate other adults and younger bed bug nymphs. “Our data clearly demonstrate horizontal transfer of diatomaceous earth and botanical insecticides in the common bed bug,” said Akhtar and Isman. “Use of a fluorescent dust provided visual confirmation that contaminated bed bugs transfer dust to untreated bed bugs in harborage. This result is important because bedbugs live in hard-to-reach places and interaction between conspecifics can be exploited for delivery and dissemination of management products directed at this public health pest…This result is important because bedbugs live in hard-to-reach places (cracks, crevices, picture frames, books, furniture) and as such interaction between the members of the colony can be exploited for delivery and dissemination of control products.”

At the 2014 ESA annual meeting, Akhtar suggested protecting travelers and suppressing bed bug transit by building diatomaceous earth into luggage, mattresses and fabrics. Diatomaceous earth provided 96% repellence; bed bug mortality was zero at 24 hours, but 93% after 120 hours. Diatomaceous earth could also be applied to box springs, dressers and headboards, and under carpets and inside drywall. A diatomaceous earth aerosol provided 81% bed bug mortality at 30 days, and was still active and being transferred from dead bed bugs to live bed bugs.

Diatom species mined for diatomaceous earth are stunning in their architectural variety and beauty. Ultimately, the silicon secrets of living diatoms has the potential to transform “the manufacture of siloxane-based semiconductors, glasses, ceramics, plastics, elastomers, resins, mesoporous molecular sieves and catalysts, optical fibers and coatings, insulators, moisture shields, photoluminescent polymers, and cosmetics,” wrote UCSB marine scientist Daniel E. Morse. “The manufacture of these materials typically requires high temperatures, high pressures or the use of caustic chemicals. By contrast, the biological production of amorphous silica, the simplest siloxane [(SiO2)n], is accomplished under mild physiological conditions, producing a remarkable diversity of exquisitely structured shells, spines, fibers and granules in many protists, diatoms, sponges, molluscs and higher plants. These biologically produced silicas exhibit a genetically controlled precision of nanoscale architecture that, in many cases, exceeds the capabilities of present-day human engineering. Furthermore, the biological productivity of siloxanes occurs on an enormous scale globally, yielding gigatons per year of silica deposits on the floor of the ocean. Diatomaceous earth (composed of the nanoporous skeletons of diatoms) is mined in great quantities from vast primordial deposits of this biogenic silica.”

Silkworms for Medicine & Good Health

August 17, 2014

A SILKWORM A DAY may not keep the doctor away, but for some in South Korea silkworm proteins are the pathway towards reduced Alzheimer’s disease, less diabetes, less fatigue, stronger muscles and perhaps eventually gold and silver Olympic swimming medals; much the way ghost moth caterpillars naturally infected with cordyceps fungi are used by Chinese athletes and herbal medicine practitioners. Silkworm production dates back several thousand years, and likely came to the Korean Peninsula via China, where over a thousand years ago bolts of silk (30 ft/bolt; one day’s production by a skilled weaver) were equal to silver and gold as hard currencies. A director of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) investigating ancient Silk Road links between Asia, the Middle East and Europe, Susan Whitfield, wrote in her book, Life Along the Silk Road, that distrust of promissory notes led to demands that horse buyers pay with bolts of silk. According to A Guide to Korean Cultural Heritage (Korean Information Service, 2001): “In Korea, ma (hemp) and ppong (mulberry) trees were cultivated; myeonpo (cotton cloth) and mapo (hemp cloth), as well as hapsa (twisted thread)” and jasu (embroidery) on silk date back well over a thousand years to a time when China imported fine silks from Korea.

Medically, biodegradable silkworm fibers are highly valued for their biocompatiblity (i.e. minimal immune response) when sewn with human tissues as sutures or stitches. Various formulations of silk are also useful in surgical or bioengineering operations such as growing new bones, nerves or blood vessels. “As has been documented over decades, silk protein exhibits high mechanical strength and flexibility, permeability to water and oxygen and can be made into nets, sponges or membranes, being easily handled, manipulated and sterilized…especially in tissue engineering for the generation of artificial bones or ligaments,” write researchers at China’s Nantong University investigating “silk-based or silk-coated materials for peripheral nerve repair.” The idea being to use silk “as scaffold material to prepare the tissue engineered nerve grafts for promoting peripheral nerve regeneration.” Silk scaffolds or blood vessels can also be designed to release various drugs (e.g. anti-coagulants, antimicrobials, anti-inflammatory agents).

Silks can also be naturally colored or made luminescent (fluorescent) by incorporating coloring agents into silkworm mulberry leaf diets: Hence, “novel silk-based material (that) not only maintains the superior properties of natural silk but can also be imbued with additional properties to perform sensing and monitoring functions” such as measuring changes in wound or tissue pH (i.e. acidity, alkalinity), says Dr. Han Mingyong, Senior Scientist at Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). “The novel silk material can be used as fabrics in apparel, and furnishing. In biomaterials, it can add function to sutures, wound dressings, and tissue engineering scaffolds.” All this at “minimal cost and with little modification” of centuries-old standard silkworm production practices, but with real environmental benefits because: “The lengthy dyeing process and post-processing steps in conventional silk making are completely removed.”

Silkworm silk production involves getting the adult female silkworm moths, which are flightless and can no longer live in the wild after centuries of domestication, to lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars living on mulberry (some species prefer oak) leaves. When the silkworms pupate, they spin a silken cocoon which is dropped in boiling water so that the outer silk threads unravel and can be spun into the fibers of commerce. “According to legend, 5,000 years ago Chinese Empress Xi Ling-Shi discovered silk when a silkworm cocoon fell into her hot cup of tea,” says “She unraveled the strange cocoon and, wrapping the thread around her finger, soon realized what an exquisite cloth it would make…If this is true, the silkworm that haplessly fell into the empress’ cup on that fateful day met a fate very similar to that of modern day silkworms.” Being insects, which are animals, they are not vegetarian fare; those concerned with animal cruelty and animal rights activists need to consider that these silkworms are in essence a human-created species (almost a symbiosis) and unable to survive in the wild.

Beondegi (번데기), the boiled or steamed silkworm chrysalis, are served as a snack food on the streets in Korea, and University of Florida, Gainesville, entomology professor Nan-Yao Su, who donated termite trap (Sentricon) royalties to establish the Entomological Society of America’s (ESA) “Nan-Yao Su Award for Innovation and Creativity in Entomology,” told me of eating silkworm snacks as a student in Japan. Dr. Su was not that impressed, an opinion shared by a South Korean and her Brazilian guest’s “gag me with a spoon response” on Izumislife vlog on YouTube; though an older Korean lady in the background, presumably more well-versed in beondegi’s medicinal properties was gulping down the boiled insects sold by the street vendor like there was no tomorrow (increased longevity may indeed be a beondegi benefit). Evidently, silkworms or beondegi (번데기) are a cultivated taste. But Dr. Su, with Professor Marjorie Hoy as my witness, professed not to be a Trader Joe’s fan either. So, I kept to my plan to attend the Tuesday night ESA Annual Meeting Korean Young Entomologists networking meeting, which led off with drones for delivering biocontrol insects and concluded with a trio of researchers fresh off the plane from South Korea to talk (in Korean; with slides in English) about their impressive latest research on the medical benefits of eating silkworm proteins. I was impressed with the research, and spent the last few months reading the English language scientific literature on silkworms for medicine and good health. The result is an overly long blog, like those 3-hour articles I used to read in the New Yorker instead of going to sleep at night; but since the blog readers mainly come here via search engines looking for information on a topic, I figure overly long is okay.

The Korean Young Entomologists (KYE) Member Symposium led off with Yong-Lak Park’s “Shooting insects from the sky: Aerial delivery of natural enemies using aerospace engineering,” and finally sometime between 9 and 10 at night (some time changes from ESA Internet site) came the silkworm presentations by Eunyoung Ahn, Hyobin Seo, and Yiseol Kim from South Korea’s Kyungpook National University. Researchers Sungpil Ryu, Taedong Kwon, Yunghi Yeo, and Mihee Cho contributed to the work, but were not present. The researchers made the point that silkworm pupae had a higher protein and amino acid content than soybeans, and were high in desirable unsaturated fatty acids that lowered blood lipid levels (anti-obesity). In rat feeding trials, powdered, freeze-dried silkworm proteins increased skeletal muscle volume when swimming was the exercise. This has obvious appeal to body builders and others involved in exercise and training seeking to increase muscle mass, strength and energy. Specific amino acids (glutamine, branched-chain amino acids, cysteine) were singled out as most important to the immune systems of athletes. A combination of silkworm proteins and exercise had multiple beneficial effects: increased antioxidants; decreased MDA and inflammatory cytokines. Swimming plus silkworm pupae also improved fat metabolism, leading to lower blood lipid levels; so a combination of silkworm protein and exercise was deemed good for promoting weight loss or combating the worldwide epidemic of obesity caused by “excess nutrition” (e.g. the trend towards super-sized portions). Other research indicated benefits involving blood cholesterol, reduced fat synthesis and accumulation, and preventing liver cirrhosis in high-fat diets. Thus, silkworm pupae are potential weight-loss foods or food supplements.

The 25-volume Dong-eui-bo-gam (동의보감) (Mirror of Eastern Medicine), published in 1613 by the legendary Korean royal physician Heo Jun (허준), called silkworm pupa a natural healthy food and nontoxic remedy for diabetes, ischemic disease and “thinning.” Modern medical research indicates Heo Jun knew what he was talking about, and was actually a couple of centuries ahead of modern Western medicine. Our knowledge of the potential medical benefits of silkworms is rapidly expanding, particularly in South Korea, China and Japan; and to a lesser degree in India, where the silkworms are often a different species feeding on oak tree leaves. We have only scratched the surface of the medical benefits of silkworms in this blog.

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.

A Butterfly Ballet (haiku)

July 28, 2013

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