Recycling With Insects

Wax Moth

Wax Moth Caterpillars

I recently posted about the ability of some beetles to grow and develop on polystyrene. A report from Pune, India adds wax moths to the list of plastic consuming insects.

Humans produce much plastic waste that contains useful nutrients and energy but must be landfilled as waste.  Some waste problems could be solved by finding uses for the waste plastic or inexpensive methods to reduce the plastic into biowaste that could reenter the ecosystem.

Wax moths are probably not the answer because they are pests of honey bees. Wax moths enter bee nests and feed on the beeswax comb. A large population of plastic-munching wax moths would also be a source of honey bee pests. Other moth species may be capable of consuming plastic and those non-pest species might be better options. One potential stumbling block: What would confine a plastic-eating insect to waste plastic only and prevent consumption of plastic that is in use?

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The 2017 Cicada Mystery

Periodic Cicadas

Periodic Cicadas

This year periodic cicadas are emerging across Maryland and Washington, DC. The last large emergence in Maryland was Brood X in 2004. Brood X is expected to emerge in 2021. Brood VI emerged in NC, TN and GA earlier this year. Brood VI in the past has had heavy emergence in IL, MI and WI. The question cicada sleuths are asking: “Is the current emergence in MD Brood part of Brood X that is emerging 4 years early? Or could the emergence be part of Brood VI. If it is Brood VI, are there factors that cause it to increase its range or cause populations to fluctuate over time? If it is Brood X, what is causing large numbers to emerge early. Many studies and tests will be needed to arrive at a conclusion.

Posted in by jjneal, Environment | 1 Comment

Biking With Shellac


Brake levers wrapped with twine and coated with shellac

Shellac is made from the waxy secretions of the lac insect, Kerria lacca. Shellac was widely used as a finish and waterproofing agent for many purposes. The original bicycles had wood or metal handle bars with no additions.  Bicycle riders found that wrapping the metal of the handlebars with cloth tape gave a better grip and increased the comfort of the ride. However, moisture can seep into the cloth causing it to rot. The cloth will fray from the friction with the hands and must be periodically replaced. What is a bicyclist to do?

Coating the tape with shellac solved several problems. A shellac coating greatly extends the lifetime of the cloth tape.  The shellac penetrates the cloth making it waterproof and sealing it from moisture and road dust. This discourages odor-producing microbes from colonizing the cloth.  After it dries, the shellac solidifies and forms a matrix that holds the cloth in place and prevents fraying. The thickness of the shellac coating affects the quality of the grip. Less shellac leaves a rougher surface. More shellac can make the grip smoother.

Today, there are many more options from handlebar coatings including many synthetics. Traditionalists still prefer the shellac look and feel.
Today is bike to work day in Tippecanoe County, Indiana.

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Picture on the Wing

Black Onion Fly

Black Onion Fly

The Black Onion Fly, aka the Onion bulb maggot, Tritoxa flexa, has been reported in North American entomological publications dating to the 1865. The black onion fly is mentioned as an occasional pest of onions that can cause some damage to the bulbs, but has never been elevated to “serious” pest status.

The flies are known as “picture wing flies” of the family Ulidiidae (formerly placed in Otitidae and Ortalidae). The wings have interesting patterns which possibly have a role in mating and mate recognition. These flies are not uncommon in gardens of the Midwest where onions are grown. They will land on flat surfaces holding their wings like oars to display the charming patterns.

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Cleaning Bees

From the NYTimes:

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Spinning Silk

Spider web

Web of Stegodyphus Social Spiders
Photo: Dr VB Whitehead

Major ampullate silk is secreted by the major ampullate gland of spiders. In the best studied systems two silk proteins differing in amino acid sequence and structure are secreted by the gland. The ratio of the two proteins is thought to affect the silk properties.

MA silk is produced in the MA gland which has a distal tail, a storage reservoir, and a duct to the outside that ends at a spigot to control release.  Silk proteins are secreted by cells lining the narrow tail of the MA gland. The proteins are stored in the reservoir at a pH between 6.8 and 7.0. pH affects the folding and structure of proteins. When a silk strand is released, protein from the reservoir travels down the duct to the spigot.  Within the duct the  pH of the silk solution acidifies from a neutral pH at the reservoir end to an acidic pH of about 5 near the spigot. The change in pH helps the silk to assemble into strands when they are released from the spigot.

Vollrath F, Knight DP. 2001. Liquid crystalline spinning of spider silk. Nature 410:541–48

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Celebrating Insects and Culture

Mealworm Stir-fry

Mealworm Stir-fry

In mid April, Mexico City has the Festín de Insectos Comestibles. Over 5 thousand people visit to taste the roasted maguey worms, crispy beetle bonbons and mosquito-egg tacos. The festival offers a chance to recognize the folk wisdom of women from the campo, whose gastronomical knowledge was passed down generationally.  More than 500 species of insects were eaten as part of the Meso-American diet.  Many visitors tasted insects as cuisine for the first time.

People from a Meso American culture tradition observe a change in attitude. Their cuisine is not new, but it is new to modern Mexican culture.  During the 50s and 60s, the dominant culture frowned upon entomophagy and traditional Meso American foods. Many look back at those efforts as a racist campaign to scorn the traditional foods and culture and impose commercial foods. Times change and so do attitudes. Far from the disparagement of the past, in our current era many people are reacting positively, curious about how the bugs are foraged and prepared, and ready to pay for the privilege of eating them.

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