Pets, Pests, and Pestilence Perpetrators

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-qzwbv-90068c

In todays episode of random thoughts of entomo-interest, I was philosophical about the implications of the arthropod pet trade, whether the beetle will win or my cats, and what that might mean for the smaller infestations that crop up along the way.

Stay tuned to the very end for a brief snippet of what is to come in future episodes!

Please check out the Underscore Orkestra, an amazing group deserving of all of our praise.

New Jersey Dept. of Ag Info on H. longicornis

NYT Article Mentioned That Python in the Pet Store May Have Been Snatched From The Wild

Wildlife Laundering Through Breeding Farms

More on the Tick

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A Brief History of Entomophagy

**Originally published several years ago as part of my project Arthropodology**

A recent YouTube video about seemingly arbitrary things mentioned how, though we here in the West consider the voluntary consumption of insects to be bizarre and taboo, we are in fact the minority.  The reality is that over 80% of the surveyed cultures on the planet consume insects on a regular basis.  It’s an odd thing when you really think about it.  Why don’t we consume bugs more often than we do?  Why do we have this seeming “natural” aversion to eating bugs whereas other cultures do it readily?  Indeed, many cultures look at our consumption of cow or pig to be bizarre.  Most North American and European cultures will gladly eat lobster, crab, or shrimp, but will run for the high hills if you pull out a deep fried cricket.  Or, Ceiling Cat forbid, a deep fried tarantula!  Why is that?  When did it start?  In a coming YouTube video I touch on these questions and go a bit further.  **Will link when this damned cold goes away and I can finish it**

Let’s start with the assumption that our species is an insectivorious one.  Why would I think that?  Evidence indicates that our closest non-human primate relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees, regularly consume insects.  This is not incidental consumption, but regular and deliberate.  Gorillas and other primates are known to do this as well.  But that’s not necessarily enough; what about our ancestors?  Cave paintings in Spain dated 30,000 – 9000 BCE depict bee nest harvesting.  This could be indicative of honey or even larval harvesting.  Analysis of coprolites (fossilized poo) found in the Ozark mountains showed the remnants of ants, beetle larvae, ticks, and mites present.     I’ll break that down for you…scientists sorted through fossilized human poop and found leftover bits of insects inside.  Yup.  Cool huh?  😉

Pliny the Elder wrote of the Roman aristocracy’s love of beetle larvae reared on a diet of flour and wine.  Aristotle also got in on the action many years later writing about the best methods for procuring the tastiest cicada “larvae” (modern entomologists would refer to that stage as nymphs).  Silkworm pupae appear to have been consumed in parts of ancient Shanxi, China (~2500 – 2000BCE).

Ancient Romans, Greeks, many Native America tribes, Chinese, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and pretty much every other culture.  Because the West is largely influenced by the Judeo-Christian-Islam sphere of history you might be thinking that somewhere along that history rose a moratorium on the consumption of bugs.  Well, yes, and no.  All three of those religious rely on aspects of the Old Testament.  In those pages are rules stating the acceptability (kosher law) of some foods.  Guess what?  Crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts (winged grasshoppers) are A-Okay by OT terms.  There’s also reference in Exodus of this thing called Manna from Heaven.  Can you guess what that is? That’s actually the honeydew secreted by aphids!  Later on, in the New Testament, the travels of John the Baptist are powered only by the consumption of locusts and honey.  Scrumptious!  But bees, wasps, beetle larvae, and flies are definitely not kosher.

There it is.  Plain as day throughout the history of our species, all across the globe.  So why are we in the West so opposed to it?  To be honest, we’re not sure.  The prevailing hypothesis has more to do with a cultural shift in food acquisition rather than religious taboos.  Approximately 10,000 years ago many cultures made the life altering shift from hunting and gathering to plant and animal based agriculture.  Some cultures became reliant upon the growth and storage of grains while a few became dependent upon cattle and a pastoral lifestyle.  Though this intensive lifestyle allowed for more awareness and control over food production it also have the unfortunate side effect of making our previously mobile societies stuck in one location and thus more susceptible to disease and other previously unknown hardships.  Not only were disease epidemics more likely among human populations, they now would impact our cattle and flocks.  When locusts could once be used as a comfortable source of food, now they were a threat to our crops with the potential to devastate entire fields in days.

From there we see some critters making their way into western diets over the years but mostly they fall by the wayside until now.  There is a push to bring back the bugs.  Some think it’s just a novelty and will never get any full traction among westerners.  But I am hopeful.  With global food, especially protein shortages, projected in our not-so-distant future it is important we explore all avenues of making food readily available.  We need to get over our fear and irrational cultural perception that crickets are the enemy.  They may in fact, be one of the best chances we have at a sustainable and healthy future.

To learn more about the history of entomophagy, current and future prospects check out this FREE book:

Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security

Published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – Rome 2013

Decomposition. What’s Not to Love?

Latest episode of the Bugs Blood and Bones podcast has been released. Check it out on iTunes or Google Play or on Podbean where it lives.

The Underscore Orkestra as always has excellent music and you should go check them out.

If you could be so kind as to leave a rating or review on your favorite podcasting service I’d greatly appreciate it.

Episode 4: Millipede Mania

Bugs Blood and Bones

Available on iTunes, Google Play, and on its hosting site Podbean.

Today’s episode features my interview with Derek Hennen and where we talk about millions of things…or not quite that manny. Much like millipede legs. And I decide it’s time to get a Nintendo Switch. For perfectly well thought out reasons.

Forensic Entomology: Spring 2015

The pigs are out!

Two stillborn pigs were placed this morning at approximately 9:30am.

Nearby Weather Conditions:

High: 64 F

Low: TBD

5cm Soil Temp: 58.54 F

Wind: Breezy, avg 5mph

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Very few eggs found. Ant activity may be obscuring actual numbers due to predation.

The Black Death: Do Fleas Really Deserve All the Blame?

The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in history.   Originating from central Asia, it is believed to have traveled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea around the mid-1340’s.  From there it spread to become a pandemic in the truest sense of the word.  The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30-60% of the European population, and as many as 100 million deaths worldwide.   You all probably know this much already.  You also probably know that this was vectored via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) living on black rats that made their way on merchant ships in the Mediterranean initially and then ventured north.  The Oriental rat flea is a nasty bugger, vectoring not just the plague (Yersinia pestis) but also Rickettsia typhi, and tapeworms.  But what if we can scratch one of those off that list?

Oriental Rat Flea

Skeletons unearthed a year ago during a work on a new rail line in London are shedding new light on some of our well established ideas regarding our not-too-distant past.  The bones were believed to be from a cemetery of plague victims.  Molars were removed from the skeletons and DNA then extracted from the teeth.  The plague bacterium was found in several of the teeth, indicating these individuals were exposed to and most likely died from the Black Death.  These results are not unexpected, of course so researchers continued to “dig”.  Archaeologists, geologists, historians, physicists, and microbiologists worked to better understand the circumstances surrounding these individuals lives and deaths.

They were generally poor people showing clear signs of malnutrition, and a history of hard labor.  One may have even been a vegetarian later in their life, possibly indicating a shift to monastic life at some point.  Not completely surprising considering the land was at one time part of a monastery.  These plague victims didn’t come from the same time period either.  With radiocarbon dating indicated the graveyard was used multiple times between the earliest outbreaks (1348-1350) and later ones in 1361 and the early 15th century.  Archaeologists are planning on more digs as they estimate the total number of bodies may number anywhere in the “low thousands”.

Black death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls found in east London. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot.  I may be an history buff but I’m also a buggy person right?  So why would I be blogging about this if there were not some new interesting entomological tidbits to be shared?  Because I’m bored, yeah….fascinated with dead things, yeah…but there is buggy stuff to share!  Traditionally the belief has been that the Black Death was spread via the Oriental rat flea, as stated earlier.  But evidence derived from those teeth suggest that this may not be the case; or at least not always the case.

When researchers compared the genome from the molar-derived bacterium with that of more recent plague victims they found the genome largely unchanged.  The recent outbreaks of the plague such as in Madagascar last year saw the majority of deaths from a pneumonic or pulmonary plague.  This new information suggests that the transmission of the plague was likely not just via the rat flea but also likely the pneumonic strain.  This is a more virulent strain of the bubonic plague.  Exposure to the plague from the rat-borne fleas is treated with antibiotics and has a higher survival rate than its cousin.  The pneumonic form, acquired via inhalation and human-human contact, is very highly fatal with death typically resulting within 24 hours of exposure if not treated.  The 60 deaths attributed to the pneumonic plague (84 deaths in total) were believed to be spread in part because of increasing political turmoil in the area resulting in poor hygiene and a decline in living conditions.

This mirrors much of what is believed to have happened during the Black Death.  Political and social instability, significant decreases in living conditions and healthcare availability created a perfect storm of underlying problems.  Perhaps the rat flea gets a bit of a reprieve.  Initial introduction via the rats is likely to have occurred with the more virulent strain of pneumonic plague taking over and doing the most damage.

Research continues and I look forward to hearing about it.

 

A Very Ukrainian Christmas

As the story goes, many years ago a widow of little means and her children lived in a small, cold hut.  This family did not have much in the way of fancy things or even not-so-fancy things it seems.  One day a tree outside their home dropped a pinecone and it took root in the home.  Excited about having a tree for Christmas the children tended and cared for the tree.  As the holiday approached the family was sad that they had no way to decorate the tree.

Hearing the sobs of the young children the spiders of the household worked together and come morning the children had quite a surprise.

“Mother, mother wake up and see the tree. It is beautiful!” The children exclaimed!

The mother roused herself and saw the shining, gleaming tree before her.  The spiders had spun their intricate webs all over the tree and as the sun rose over the hillside the rays struck the silken strands creating changing them from silk to silver and gold!  From that day on, the widow and her family never wanted for anything.

To this day, in remembrance of this Christmas miracle, Ukrainians decorate their trees with artificial spider webs; welcoming in good luck and fortune for the coming year.

 

To learn more about The Ukraine and Ukrainian traditions check out their webpage.

Scorpion Venom: Let’s Paint Your Brain

Imagine this.  You’re a twenty or thirty-something (or whatever age) parent and an MRI shows your child has a large mass in their brain.  Pretty terrifying right?  Probably beyond terrifying.  Now imagine that the doctors know there’s something there but that MRI can’t find it.  Successful operations depend upon being able to see those cells.  When people talk about finding a cure for cancer what they don’t realize is there is no single “cancer”.  There are many different kinds of cancer with many different potential causes.  I have a grandmother who smoked like a chimney for years and doesn’t have cancer (last I checked) and an aunt (daughter of same grandmother) who has had cancer four times and she never smokes and rarely drinks.  For them, it’s all in their genes.  For others it’s environmental.  The husband of a good friend of mine suffered for quite a long time (I was there helping with care for the last month) as a result of asbestos exposure.  It was long. Painful. And he, his wife, and I desperately wished our state had approved doctor assisted suicide at that time.  Thankfully it since has been legalized.

But I’m getting off track.  My point is this.  Cancer…all of the kinds…F&@king Sucks.  But little by little we are making advancements to help doctors and patients.  Some times from places you wouldn’t expect.

Deathstalker scorpion

Arthropods as a medical boon is nothing new.  But this is quite a doozy.  Scientists in Seattle, WA (home state represent!) have found a way to turn the venom of scorpions – in this instance, the Israeli death stalker scorpion…terrifying name – into a tool with the potential to help save lives.  This story has been floating around for a couple of days and contrary to what some claim or are passing this off as anyway, this technique does NOT cure cancer.  By using molecular techniques to modify the scorpion venom these researchers have been able to illuminate the cancer cells.  Those cells are not always visible on MRI’s and it is imperative that doctors are able to see the correct tissue.  Not only will they be able to remove the affected tissue but they will be able to avoid the normal, healthy tissue.  Not only has this been demonstrated to be useful for brain cancer, but also for breast, colon, prostate, skin, and potentially more.

At about the 8 minute mark (see full 20 min video here) he tells of an instance (in mice) where a location ‘lit up’ but visually appeared to be simply a cluster of fat cells.  Upon removal what was discovered was indeed, it was the fat cells but also a lymph channel ran through that cluster which, inside contained approximately 200 cancer cells.  This detection is about 100,000x’s more sensitive than best MRI’s.  What does this mean?  Surgeons are currently unable to identify all potential locations cancer cells could be present.  By using this fluorescent molecule they could find and remove tissue that would otherwise be missed, thus leaving potentially malignant cells to come back later.

I need to be clear that this is still in the pre-clinical stage but will be progressing to human testing in Australia soon.  This work has been conducted on mice and dogs so far.
Why does this seem to work?  Well, they don’t exactly know.  Something about the paralytic properties of this particular scorpions venom makes it amenable to this process. This question, and discoveries uncovered as a result have led these researchers to look into other products derived from similar sources.  This is of course, not new either.  Aspirin is just willow.  Not the little guy from that awesome 80’s movie.  But actually willow.  Insects and other arthropods have been used before, and will continue to be the source of who knows how many advancements.

So at your family holiday shindig, when your drunk uncle asks you what on earth a degree in Entomology is good for just tell him “curing cancer” and walk away.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

Catching (Fire) Bugs: Cinema & Entomology

Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I paid way to much to see the opening showing of Catching Fire.  It’s been a while since I’ve done such a thing but here I am.  Sitting in the theater.  But, it’s a Double Feature!!!!  Never mind that I can see The Hunger Games on Netflix any time I want….It’s on Imax!!

Lapses in sanity aside I wanted to take this little 30 minute break between HG and CF to write a little note about personal project that I’ve been working on for some time.  It should come as no surprise that I really like bugs.  I really love cats too (remember, I’m *that* person) but I really like insects and other arthropods.  I also happen to love movies and television.  I find movies and television can tell us a lot about ourselves as a culture.  We don’t only look to cinema for escape, we also look to it for clarity in ourselves.  That, and things blow up…which is freaking cool (I can’t even tell you how excited I am for the next Avengers film…but I digress…

So what’s my personal little project?  Glad you asked….It’s a sort of combination of those things, bugs and movies/tv.  And as I wait for Catching Fire to start up I thought I’d point out a few things that you might have missed from The Hunger Games, both the book and the film.  The film is a rather faithful adaptation to the novel and it succeeds where a number of adaptations fall flat (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I’m looking at you).  Like a lot of films that incorporate arthropods into the script, ours appear as a villain.  But contrary to popular portrayals, the Tracker Jackers double as savior too.  Those stung by these four-winged, stinging villains will suffer terrible hallucinations, pain, and possibly death.  Katniss manages to suffer only troubling visions, unlike some of her competitors. – Is this the point where I should say “Spoilers”? – They also saved her from a potentially deadly situation.  These deus ex machina death-wasps also exemplify an all too common phobia among Western audiences.  Admittedly, this phobia is warranted in some cases (if you’re “deathly” allergic to wasps, it’s not a phobia…it’s legit fear)  Death and insects are paired more than once in the filmic adaptation of Hunger Games.

Chopping down a Tracker Jacker nest.

This may be the point where you get confused.  More than one entomological player in The Hunger Games?  Yup.  But you might not have noticed it.  In fact, the entomologists I’ve talked to about this didn’t even notice it.  This tells me that I’m just that nuts and notice useless information.

The book doesn’t feature this other insect but the filmmakers seemed to make a discernable effort to feature it.  Or, as Mr. Plinkett would say, “You might not have noticed it…but your brain did.”  As Katniss takes her first moments to breathe and settle into the trauma of the arena she sits and surveys her bag.  As the absence of a soundtrack fills the theater we are reminded that she is in a place and time that will see no escape for her.  I say no escape because even if she survives, she will forever carry the experience and themes of the arena with her. – A point made clear throughout the rest of the books and hopefully films. – Death is now her only consistent companion and this is where our little friendly insect comes into play.  She sits.  She absorbs.  And then the cannon.  “The familiar sound of the cannon that marks the death of another tribute” we hear the announcer say.  Paired to the sound of the cannon and the announcers’ cheery tone Katniss finds a butterfly.  A simple black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes: Nymphalidae: Lepidoptera)…female at that.  Butterflies and moths have a long history of being harbingers of death and guides for the dead.  Once again, that purpose is being served.

Eastern Black Swallowtail

 

Screen shot from The Hunger Games.

And, now a little quick note post Catching Fire.  If you’re interested in a review I’ll post one here at RottenTomatoes.  I noticed an interesting continuation of the entomological portrays in this film as well.  When in the jungle environment we see and hear the buzzing of anonymous insects.  But what really struck me was again, a butterfly.  Or rather a lot of butterflies.  **Spoilers???**  As Effie begrudgingly, and sorrowfully reaches for the names from the glass bowls her outfit is another stunning portrayal of the excesses of the Capitol…and of that ancient metaphor for the passing of the soul and harbinger of death.  A dress made completely of butterflies.  The butterflies that adorn her, guide shield her as she is soon to adorn and guide her tributes to the coming slaughter.

So there you have it.  My two cent psychological assessment of the bugs in a couple of movies.  If you think I had fun with this, you can’t imagine the field day I’ve had with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

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