DECEMBER
2003

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

12-11-03

Humans Use Insects to Do Some Dirty Little Jobs

Over the years, humans have discovered how to benefit directly from the activity of some insects: silkworms, for example. These well-known insects have been kept in captivity for eons. So long, in fact, that the silkworm can no longer get along on its own. It is a totally domesticated insect that is dependent on humans for everything it needs.

We fuss over silkworms because these insects produce something that we want. Silk. When it comes to fabric, science and technology haven't quite matched the product of a lowly caterpillar. So, sericulture, the production of silk, has been a major industry for thousands of years. An industry that is based entirely on raising an insect.

We also keep honey bees. To be sure, honey bees can get along just fine without assistance from humans. That is the reason that honey bees exist in what are called wild colonies. We build houses for bees, plant nectar plants for them, cover them or move them in winter, and even give them a dose of medicine if they get sick. All because these bees produce a product that we relish. That, of course, is honey. Honey bees also produce wax, which is prized by humans for candles, furniture polish and even makeup.

We also employ honey bees to pollinate our crops. Many honey bee colonies are maintained primarily for this purpose. But other small, non-social bees also are good pollinators. Leaf cutter bees are used to pollinate alfalfa for seed production. Growers provide nests to encourage populations of these insects.

Humans also use insects for a number of other jobs. We use maggots to clean wounds. Historically, maggots were used to clean wounds suffered by soldiers on the battlefield. Known as maggot therapy, the process involved placing maggots on the wound to consume the rotting and decaying flesh. The maggots also produce waste that contains allantoin, a chemical that promotes healing. Today, several hospitals around the country maintain cultures of maggots just to be used in difficult-to-treat wounds, such as those that might result from a puncture.

Maggots also are used to remove the flesh from carcasses in order to expose the bones. The goal of this activity is to produce a skeleton for use in teaching or for a museum display. As some sport hunters know, that is one process that can be used to ready a set of antlers for a wall mount. As part of this process, dermestid beetles do the final bit of cleaning, removing skin and connective tissue. These beetles are appropriately called museum beetles.

Humans also have discovered that the acute sense of smell developed by insects can be useful. For instance, honey bees are very good at detecting the odor of flowers. This is one of the tools the bees use to find nectar sources. British scientists recently put that sense of smell to work in determining if strawberries are ripe. Yes, the bees can be trained to detect the ripeness and flavor of the berries. No more guessing about whether that nice red berry is as flavorful as it looks. The bee will tell us by sticking its tongue out at the good ones!

The U.S. military is investigating using the bee's sense of smell to detect biological or chemical weapons. The bee can be used in one of two ways. The first is as a flying dust mop. Bees flying through an area will collect dust on their bodies, which could be used to determine the presence of explosive devices. The other way would be to train the bees to cluster at places that contain certain odors, such as from explosives.

What a great idea -- sending insects to do our dirty work. And what's even better is that these creatures will work for food!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox