The folks who write my favourite business magazine, Economist, have a freebie on their website. They are giving away a 50-page book, Ten Things We Learned in 2017. You’ll like the second story in their feature: “How plastic-eating caterpillars could save the planet” – a story about wax worms, of course. In April, I blogged about the accidental discovery that wax worms are willing to eat some types of plastics. Now you can see more of the background to the story in the little PDF-booklet.
If you keep bees in a warm climate, you probably already know too much about wax worms. They will wreck improperly stored equipment and they will eat your weak hives’ combs if they get established. Maybe that would be OK if everything simply vanished, but the worms leave behind a despicable mess. It looks like this:
A study was just published about plastic-eating wax worms. This is among the first positive press the hungry worm has ever had. To be fair, the wax worm has always played an important role: If a hive dies from foulbrood, the equipment is sometimes eaten by the caterpillars, reducing the chances that the diseased equipment spreads foulbrood spores. The worms have been cleaning up such garbage for a long time. But just recently, a biologist/beekeeper accidentally found that wax worms can eat plastic. She published her paper in Current Biology. Here’s some of what Economist wrote:
The experiment behind the paper was inspired when Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper who is also a biologist at Cantabria University, in Spain, noticed caterpillars chewing holes through the wax in some of her hives and lapping up the honey. To identify them, she took some home in a plastic shopping bag. But when, a few hours later, she got around to looking at her captives she found the bag was full of holes and the caterpillars were roaming around her house.
This might turn out to be a big deal. Certain types of plastics have complicated molecules which could last millions of years before biodegrading. But enzymes produced by wax worms speed up the process. In fact, 100 worms can eat an empty sandwich bag in less than an hour. That’s impressive. You can get your copy of the free Economist booklet here, and read the whole story.