Tiny caterpillars of the greater wax moth are known to eat beeswax from honeycombs, for which they have long been considered a pest in Europe. But recently it was discovered that they also have a liking for Polyethylene. You know that stuff that we have been screaming about for quite some time. It’s what plastic shopping bags are made of. The same shopping bags that float around in our oceans and are death traps for marine mammals and seabirds.
Fortunately for us, Frederica Bertocchini is both a scientist with Spain’s IBBTEC Institute and also an amateur beekeeper. Frederica stumbled upon a very happy discovery when she removed the parasitic caterpillars from her beehives and placed them into plastic bags. When she returned to dispose of the bags, lo and behold, she found them full of holes. The Caterpillars had seemingly eaten their way to freedom. This “aha moment” led Frederica to enlist researchers from Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry to find out how much of an appetite these tiny bugs really had for a plastic that was almost impossible to decompose. (photo – entirelypets.com)
An Eating Addiction to Plastic Bags
Using highly scientific plastic bags from the local supermarket they discovered that the caterpillars starting eating thru the plastic almost immediately. To determine if it was the chewing that made the holes, The team mashed up some of the worms and applied this paste (yuk) to the bag. In another “aha moment” they saw that the bags smeared with the yukky paste also developed holes, with the now very serious implication that there were chemicals in the insect’s body that degraded the plastic.
“The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut,” said Cambridge’s Paolo Bombelli. “The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible.”
“We are planning to implement this finding into a viable way to get rid of plastic waste, working towards a solution to save our oceans, rivers, and all the environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation,” Bertocchini says. “However,” she adds, “we should not feel justified to dump polyethylene deliberately in our environment just because we now know how to bio-degrade it.”
Polyethylene Pollution Is Forever
Polyethylene is the main ingredient in about 40 percent of the world’s plastic product production which includes about one trillion plastic bags manufactured annually. As we have reported recently, plastic products, from flip flops to plastic bags do not naturally degrade, but live forever in landfills and oceans. See EcoWatch and ScienceDaily for more on plastic eating caterpillars. (photo – Getty Images)
Blue Ocean has reported extensively on the plastic waste problem and how plastics eventually break down into micro-plastics that find their way into our seafood. We have also been happy to bring to you reports on the worldwide efforts to address the issue of our ocean’s plastic pollution. See: Flip Flop Facts: Find Out, also: Your Next Pair of Running Shoes can be made of Recycled Ocean Plastics and: In the Swim with Plastics Recovered from the Sea. Also: If You Love Seafood – You Might Not Want To Read This. Plus: Great Pacific Garbage Patch,
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