Stories tagged insects


Tasha the boxer: Tasha, the boxer whose DNA was sequenced. Photo courtsey of the National Institute of Health

A few days ago scientists from MIT and Harvard released the genomic sequence for the dog.

Previously, genomic sequences for mice, rats, bees, cows, mosquitos, fruit flies, sea urchins, humans, and chimpanzees, as well as several viruses and bacteria have been completed.

Studying genome sequences helps scientists understand how genes work together to direct the growth and health of an organism. Considering the cost and time involved - the dog sequencing took over two years and over $30 million to complete - making the right choices about what species to sequence is an important question. Researchers at the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute are proposing a system to determine what organisms should be sequenced next.


It seems like science fiction, or some bizarre insect zombie movie, but...

Hairworm: A hairworm swims away from its drowned grasshopper host. Image by VB Films

Scientists have been researching the parasitic relationship between grasshoppers and the nematomorph hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii). The hairworm lives and breeds in fresh water, but spends a part of its life eating the insides of live grasshoppers and then brainwashing the grasshopper into committing suicide by hopping into a pool of water and drowning. The hairworms, several times the length of the grasshopper at the time of the unfortunate incident, then emerge and continue their lifecycle in water. A team of researchers at the French National Center for Scientific Research is studying just how the hairworm manages to take over the body of the grasshopper.

This is just one example of a parasite seemingly taking over its host to produce specific results. In Costa Rica, there is a wasp whose larva lives inside the body of an orb-weaving spider. The evening before the larva kills the spider, the larva somehow manages to reprogram the web building activity of the spider so that it creates a durable platform for the larva to pupate on, instead of its usual temporary web. Studies show that if the larva is removed from the spider before the larva kills the spider, the spider will return to its usual web building activities within a couple of days.

And, if you think about it, the rabies virus makes animals so rabid that they want to bite others — which transmits the virus.

Creepy, huh?


I was once working on an exhibit about insects, and someone joked "You know what no museum has ever done? A fully-immersive, interactive mosquito exhibit!" To which I replied, "I've seen one. It's called July in Minnesota."

But as much as we pride ourselves on the Minnesota State Bird, the common mosquito, it appears Alaska has got it worse this year.

A winter of decent insulating snow, followed by early spring with no late frosts, basically created bug paradise. The jump start has put 2005 about three weeks ahead of schedule

Colder winters than Minnesota. Buggier summers than Minnesota. Who do these Alaskans think they are, anyway?


Biotherapy is the use of animals to diagnose or treat diseases or to assist the ill or impaired.

A leech: it does a body good?
A leech: it does a body good?Courtesy Michael Jefferies

One biotherapy that many of us are familiar with is seeing eye dogs. A less common biotherapy is the use of household pets, such as dogs or cats, in long term care facilities to improve the mood of and provide companionship for the people living there.

But other, less familiar animals have been put to medicinal purposes, too. Leeches have been used for thousands of years for various "medical" uses, and have recently been approved as a medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Doctors use leeches to restore blood circulation after cosmetic or reconstructive surgery.

Maggot therapy has also staged a comeback. Doctors use maggots to treat and clean problematic wounds.

Honey bee therapy (or apitherapy), is the use of honey bee venom—which contains anti-inflammatory substances—to relieve pain in patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Apitherapy can also help treat some neurological syndromes, such as multiple sclerosis.

What do you think of biotherapy? How would you react if a doctor told you that they were going to treat you with leeches or maggots?

Want to learn more about biotherapy? The BTER Foundation is an organization dedicated to supporting patient care, education, and research in biotherapy and symbiotic medicine. The International Biotherapy Society is another organization devoted to supporting the use and understanding of living organisms in the treatment of human illnesses.


University of Minnesota professor Marla Spivak studies honeybees. She's fighting a parasite that has killed up to half of all North American bees in the last year.

Spivak leads a bee-breeding program that produces queen bees that remove larvae infested with Varroa sp. mites from their hives. (The mites suck blood from the bees, especially developing ones, weakening them and shortening their lifespan. Infested emerging bees may be missing wings and legs. And an untreated infestation can kill an entire honeybee colony.)

Humans used two chemicals against the mites for years, but the mites have recently become resistant to both and have made a big comeback, destroying honeybee colonies across the country. But beekeepers using Spivak's queen bees have experienced only minor losses.

Don't think humans depend on bees? Think again. Honeybees pollinate about a third of our diet and dozens of agricultural crops. The mite problem affects even the dairy industry, since the cattle feed crops alfalfa and clover are honeybee pollinated, not wind pollinated like most grasses.

Many, many "pest" species are developing resistance to the chemicals we use to control them. Do you worry about this trend? Do you see alternatives to chemical pest control? Would you be willing to pay more for food products that are chemical free?