Monthly Archives: February 2013

Insects and People: News Roundup (Feb 15)

Insect outbreaks viewed from space

The Smithsonian has a cool blog post about using satellite images to track insect damage to trees over time.  Increasing temperatures (especially increasing winter temperatures) and drought conditions have led to outbreaks of bark beetles like the mountain pine beetle throughout the western U.S., causing widespread damage to millions of acres of forest.  As large swaths of trees are killed by the beetles, they become a fire hazard.  Scientists are using the satellite images to track patterns of insect outbreaks and correlate them with weather patterns.

Moths drive tiny robots

Robots that can detect and track odors such as gas leaks or environmental spills could become increasingly useful in the future, and insects are a useful model for such robots.   Scientists from the University of Tokyo have built a small moth-driven robot to study how moths detect pheromones (chemical signals).  By understanding the neurological and behavioral processes by which a moth detects and tracks down an odor, their goal is to eventually build a robot “brain” that can track odors as well as the moth.  They have recently published their findings in the Journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

Insect eggs used in production of flu vaccine

The FDA has recently approved a new flu vaccine called Flublok.  This vaccine is unique because it is grown inside insect cells from the fall armyworm moth rather than in chicken eggs.    This vaccine can be produced more quickly than traditional vaccines.  It can be used by people who are allergic to eggs and doesn’t include thimerosal, which contains mercury.

Insects and People: News Roundup (Feb. 6th)

A few news stories about insects from the past week.

More entomophagy: Eating insectsyou do it anyway

There are stories about people eating insects on an almost daily basis. In this one from the BBC, a chef argues that, since you eat insects unknowingly anyway, why not eat them purposefully?

Exploiting insect guts for use in the biofuel sector

Scientists have been looking for enzymes to effectively break down lignin in biofuel facilities in the guts of insects. It turns out the microbes in the guts of grasshoppers may be potential candidates for future use in this manner.

Insects as pets

In a post about singing insects, I talked about how people in China keep crickets and katydids as pets. USA today published an article recently about people in the US keeping insects as pets. Ill admit that I did have hissing cockroaches for a time when I was in high school. But I am glad to see that others in this country do this as well!

CSI insects: Museums highlight using insects to fight crime

Forensic entomology is a branch of science that uses insects to indicate things about crimessuch as how long a body has been dead, or if a corpse may have been moved. A few museums have exhibits about this branch of scienceI wish I were in the area of one, Id definitely check it out.


Las Vegas:

Humans and Insects: The Science Summarized

This will be a regular feature on the blog that summarizes recent scientific papers discussing the role of insects in human society.  Since Chelse and I are ecologists, the papers we review will primarily examine insect effects on people from a biological perspective, but we would love to hear about relevant papers from other disciplines.  Our first entry deals with a recent review of the ways that insects have been used in warfare throughout history.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood (2013).  Insects as weapons of war, terror, and torture.  Annual Review of Entomology.  57: 205-227.

Jeffrey Lockwood, a biologist and philosopher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wyoming has published a review of the many ways that insects have been used in warfare and as instruments of torture throughout history.  The material covered in the review paper is expanded upon in his book Six-Legged Soliders:  Using Insects as Weapons of War.  I have not read the book, but I am planning to read it now.   The paper was really interesting, if at times quite disturbing.

Lockwood gives a chronological overview of the ways that insects were used in warfare from prehistoric to modern times.  The Mayans, ancient Greeks, and Middle Eastern cultures would fling hives at enemies.  The Mayans would even make pottery hives for bees to colonize.  The hives would then be plugged with grass and flung at enemies as “bee grenades”.  Over time, use of insects in warfare has become more technical, with the use of insects in biological warfare.

Use of insects in warfare seems to fall into three categories.  (1) The use of stinging and biting insects to repel attackers.  This usually involved releasing insects into tunnels or flinging hives or clay pots filled with bees at enemies.  In Great Britain, for example, many castles had recesses in the walls to hold bee hives, which were dropped onto attackers.  (2) The passive use of insects, especially disease vectors.  This mainly involved forcing enemies into areas with insects that transmit diseases.  For example, during the U.S. Civil War, Confederate General Johnson managed to trap Union troops along the Chickahominy River outside of Richmond Virginia, an area known for malaria.  Within a few months, more than half of the union forces were too sick to fight or hospitalized.  (3)  Development of insects for biological warfare.  This involves more technical advancement than simply hurling hives at enemies.  During World War II, governments began seriously funding research into the use of insects for biological warfare.  This included using insects to transmit human diseases to opposing troops and the use of insects to compromise enemy food supplies.  Insects could be used to compromise food supplies by developing insects as crop pests and by using insects to transmit livestock diseases.  Use of insects in biological warfare has continued to modern times.

This paper was an interesting read.  I had no idea that insects had been used so extensively in warfare throughout history, but it makes sense.  Lockwood concludes with a warning that modern bioterrorists can cause outbreaks with the use of insect disease vectors or do significant damage to food supplies by reintroducing eradicated insect pests.  Insects have been used in warfare throughout history and this will likely continue.