Insect defecation may not seem like one of the pressing scientific inquiries of our time, but in fact the faeces of these wee creatures serves an extraordinary variety of functions in bug and human life.
Unlike most animals, many insect species actuallyusetheir excrement. They utilise it as their home, for feeding, in predator-prey interactions, for hygiene, habitat location, shelter construction, for reproduction and physical or chemical defence against natural enemies. (Kids: dont try this at home.)
For members of our own species, insect faeces may even have important and largely unlocked medicinal properties. Lets take a look.
A home and a soulmate
For some bugs, their exrement provides a home. Larvae ofChelymorpha alternans, commonly known as tortoise beetles,shroud themselvesfor protection withfaecal coveringsin the form of coatings, faecal cases orfaecal shields.
For others, its a deterrent to enemies. The pine weevil (Hylobius abietis) actually deposit faeces adjacent to each of its egg asanti-feedants.
Insect waste also plays an important role in species reproduction, as it may affect mate attraction, parental care and even paternity assurance. For example, virgin boring beetles,Hylotrupes bajulus, usefaecal volatilesto meet their partners, increasing the opportunity to mate.
Cockroaches, a bug notorious for their chutzpah and for thriving in dirty environments, use the personal scent of their faeces tolocate and returnto resting sites.
This is actually useful news for citydwellers trying to keep their houses cockroach free: track down roach droppings (little black or brown specs that look like a pepper flake), and youll find out where the roaches are congregating.
Poop is healthy and nutritious
Just as farmers use cow manure as fertiliser, antsspread their faeces aroundto cultivate a garden of fungi for munching on. Fungi evidently thrive on the chewed-up leaves that ants defecate. Its the circle of life in action.
Insects arent the only ones who use bug excrement we humans do, too. The faeces of silkworm (Bombyx mori) havepharmacological propertiesthat give it analgesic, anti-pyretic, and anti-inflammatory applications in herbal medicine.
Termites,Coptotermes formosanus, employ faeces to build secure homes by mixing poop into the wall of the nest. These wood-eaters harbour a diverse gut microbiome that assists in digestion of cellulose in their diet, and a 2013studyshowed that this bacterial community provides the termites with a natural antimicrobial that averts pathogens.
A priorstudy, from 2000, had previously showed that the bacteria isolated from the termites,Neotermes castaneusandKalotermes flavicollis, producescentrin, a protein linked to cell division. This protein can aid researchers in understanding its role in the runaway cell division that occurs in cancers, leading some scientists to believe the centrin could be atargetfor anticancer drugs.
A number ofstudieshave also observed that the black garden ant,Lasius niger, creates unique defecation zone within their nests. The ants keep most waste such as dead members of the colony, debris from nest material and food scraps outside but defecate inside, usually in the corner of their chamber.
You may prefer a bathroom with a flush toilet, but some insects can thrive in noisome environments where the pathogen load in the surrounding is relatively high.No pathogens can harmthem. Indeed, theindigenous microorganisms associated with insect faecesmay actuallydefend some species againstpotential new pathogens.
Arecent studyshows that the larval faeces of the Mediterranean flour moth,Ephestia kuehniella, for example, exhibits antimicrobial activity against a broad spectrum of bacteria.
Can poop save lives?
This has potentially interesting consequences for medicine. Thelack of new antibioticsandmulti-drug resistant infectionsare making doctors and patients anxious, and theres some fear of anantibiotic apocalypse. The anti-pathogenic properties of insect faeces may prove useful to discover new antimicrobials and probiotics.
But dont start adding bug-poo powder to your morning smoothie just yet. Compounds found in the faeces of some bugs includingroacheslikePeriplaneta americanaandsilverfisheslikeLepisma saccharina can produce allergic reactions in some people, and even cause asthma.
Given that bug faeces can serve as everything from a bug babysitter to a human allergen, the realm ofbacterial community of insectis an important area ofstudyby entomologists, evolutionary and molecular biologists. Their research may even lead to innovations in antimicrobial properties that can succour in the imminent fearsome post-antibiotic era.
Reports sayantimicrobial resistancewill kill 300 million people and cost the global economy of US$100 trillion by 2050. Perhaps a little defecation could help?
This article by Prayan Pokharel, Doctoral Student in Institute for Insect Biotechnology at the University of Giessen, first appeared in The Conversationin August 2017.
Image: A monarchbutterflyis seen at El Rosario sanctuary for monarch butterflies in the western state of Michoacan, near Ocampo, Mexico February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Alan Ortega
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