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These Caterpillars Chow Down on Plastic Bags

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Remember The Very Hungry Caterpillar? He may have some serious real-life competition because scientists have discovered that a common caterpillar can eat and digest plastic. They published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The wax worm is the larval form of the parasitic wax moth (Galleria mellonella), also known as the honeycomb moth. Adult moths chew their way into beehives, then lay their eggs, which will gorge themselves on honeycomb once they hatch. Because bees didn’t already have enough to deal with.

César Hernández/CSIC

Federica Bertocchini is a research fellow at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain. In her free time, she’s an amateur beekeeper. One day, she picked handfuls of yellow wax worms out of her hives and tossed them into plastic bags, destined for the trash. But a few hours later, the bags were riddled with holes. The prisoners had made a wiggly break for it.

Bertocchini was intrigued. She and her colleagues rounded up hundreds of wax worms and a bunch of shopping bags and put them all together. The larvae did not disappoint; one 100-worm test group perforated a plastic bag in 40 minutes. Left to their own bitey devices, the caterpillars ate through 92 milligrams of plastic, or three percent of a bag, in a half-day. At that rate, it would take them 17 days to make one bag disappear, which is substantially better than the 100 years it would take otherwise.

Anybody can eat plastic, but whether the worms were actually digesting it is another story. To find out, the researchers killed the larva, mashed them up into a paste, and smeared it on plastic film. Just 14 hours later, the caterpillar jam had eaten through 13 percent of the plastic.

Many questions remain. For starters, what exactly is digesting the shopping bags? It’s not clear if the ability to break down the plastic is inherent to the caterpillars, like a digestive enzyme, or if their guts are home to plastic-eating bacteria.

"If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process,” first author Paolo Bombelli of Cambridge said in a statement, “its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable. This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.”

The researchers also noted that the caterpillars cannot live on shopping bags alone. “These animals don’t live on plastic,” Bertocchini told New Scientist. “They eat it to get out of it, or get to the food behind it. If in the future something evolves to exclusively eat plastic, I don’t know. So far it hasn’t happened.”

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Which Rooms In Your Home Have the Most Types of Bugs, According to Entomologists 
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Insects can make any home their own, so long as it contains cracks, doors, and windows for them to fly, wriggle, or hitchhike their way in. And it turns out that the creepy crawlers prefer your living room over your kitchen, according to a new study that was recently highlighted by The Verge.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study looked at 50 homes in Raleigh, North Carolina, to measure their insect populations. Entomologists from both North Carolina State University and the California Academy of Sciences ultimately discovered more than 10,000 bugs, both alive and dead, and a diverse array of species to boot.

The most commonly observed bugs were harmless, and included ladybugs, silverfish, fruit flies, and book lice. (Luckily for homeowners, pests like bedbugs, termites, and fleas were scarcer.) Not all rooms, though, contained the same distribution of many-legged residents.

Ground-floor living rooms with carpets and windows tended to have the most diverse bug populations, as the critters had easy access inside, lots of space to live in, and a fibrous floor habitat that could be either a cozy homestead or a death trap for bugs, depending on whether they got stuck in it. The higher the floor level, the less diverse the bug population was, a fact that could be attributed to the lack of doors and outside openings.

Types of bugs that were thought to be specific to some types of rooms were actually common across the board. Ants and cockroaches didn’t limit themselves to the kitchen, while cellar spiders were present in all types of rooms. As for moths and drain flies, they were found in both common rooms and bathrooms.

Researchers also found that “resident behavior such as house tidiness, pesticide usage, and pet ownership showed no significant influence on arthropod community composition.”

The study isn’t representative of all households, since entomologists studied only 50 homes within the same geographical area. But one main takeaway could be that cohabiting bugs “are an inevitable part of life on Earth and more reflective of the conditions outside homes than the decisions made inside,” the researchers concluded. In short, it might finally be time to make peace with your itty-bitty housemates.

[h/t The Verge]

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UK Agrees to Ban Pesticides That Destroy Bee Populations
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As bee populations around the globe continue to dwindle, more countries are stepping up to save them. The latest nation taking action against the threat of pollinator decline is Britain. The UK’s environment secretary Michael Gove recently announced that the country will join the European Union in restricting a type of pesticide harming bees.

The decision was made in light of a German study reporting that the number of flying insects in some areas have declined by 75 percent in just a quarter of a decade. Of the species dying off en masse, bees are the most concerning: The insects pollinate a significant portion of our crops, and without them humans could face an agricultural crisis. “These particular flying insects are absolutely critical to the health of the natural world,” Gove wrote for The Guardian. “Without a healthy pollinator population we put the whole ecological balance of our world in danger.”

The alarming state of bee populations is likely a mix of several factors, but human-made insecticides are one of the biggest contributors. Neonicotinoids, the chemical compounds covered by the proposed ban, are the most commonly used insecticides on Earth, and they’ve also been shown to have devastating effects on bee colonies. Getting rid of them completely was first proposed by the European Union in 2013, and after initially opposing the move, the UK is finally getting on board.

Neonicotinoids are slowly being phased out in the U.S., where beekeepers have been reporting bees disappearing from their hives for the last decade or so. If you want to make your backyard a more hospitable place for your tiny, flower-loving neighbors, here are some ways you can help right now.

[h/t The Guardian]

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