César Hernández/CSIC
César Hernández/CSIC

These Caterpillars Chow Down on Plastic Bags

César Hernández/CSIC
César Hernández/CSIC

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.”

This Buzzed-About Modular Hive System Lets You Keep Your Bees Indoors

Have you ever considered beekeeping as a hobby? Would you enjoy the ticking time-bomb sensation that comes with keeping hundreds of bees under glass inside your home, as opposed to in the backyard or at some other safe distance from your living room? If you answered yes to both of these questions, the BEEcosystem might be for you.

Described as an observational honeybee hive, these 21-inch by 18-inch hexagonal displays are intended to be wall-mounted and feature a clear glass front that lets users stare into the bee abyss, as Business Insider reports.

When mounted indoors, the units come with a clear transfer tube that runs outdoors via a window sash so bees can forage for pollen. (If the tube gets dislodged, an auto-closing mechanism ensures that bees don’t invade your home.) The company strongly recommends that the units be mounted on wall studs to accommodate the weight of the bees and their honey.

A dog observes a BEEcosystem panel

The BEEcosystem also has a sliding feed panel so that you can nourish your new colony with water and table sugar, as well as a light-filtering cover so the bees aren’t disturbed by artificial light sources in the evening. The units can also be chain-linked to accommodate growing populations

You might be wondering if—angry bees in your kitchen aside—this is actually a good idea. When the BEEcosystem was beginning to get press during its developmental stages in 2015, some beekeepers voiced concerns about whether the consistently warm temperatures of indoor living might influence a bee’s life cycle, or if they might be more prone to disease. Since there's not yet a surplus of people with bee displays mounted on their dining room walls, no one's quite sure yet, but you can see how the system works in the video below.

You can preorder the hives, which are expected to ship later this year, for $599 each.

[h/t Business Insider]

Live Smarter
The Very Disgusting Reason You Should Always Wash New Clothes Before Wearing Them

It’s sometimes assumed that clothing with a price tag still dangling from the sleeve can skip an initial wash. Someone else may have tried it on, sure, but they didn’t run a marathon in it. Why not just throw it in the closet as soon as you get home?

One big reason: lice. As The Independent reports, Donald Belsito, a professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, told NBC's Today show recently that clothing fresh off store racks can harbor infestations of lice, scabies, or fungus.

You might be familiar with head lice as the dreaded insects that occupy the scalp and give school health monitors cause for concern. Head lice can be transmitted via clothing and other fabrics, and anyone who tried on a shirt or dress before you did can be a carrier. While they only live for one or two days without a blood meal, that’s still enough time to cause problems if something is being tried on frequently.

Scabies is far more insidious. The mites are too small to see, but the allergic reaction they cause by burrowing into your skin to lay eggs will be obvious.

Both scabies and lice can be treated with topical solutions, but it’s better to kill them by washing new clothes in hot water. A good soak can also get rid of formaldehyde, a common chemical used in fabrics to help ward off mold in case stock gets wet in transit. Formaldehyde can cause allergic skin reactions. For all of these reasons, it’s best to hit the washing machine before those new pants ever hit your hanger.

[h/t Independent]


More from mental floss studios