Insects & Medicine

Pests, Plagues & Politics
Lecture 11
Insects & Medicine
• Medicine
– Etymology {the study of word origins}
• derived from the same Greek word as “mead”
which was/has been reported to have remarkable
curative properties.
Key Points
Wound Debridement
Medicinal properties of honey
Insect Sutures
Historic use of insects as medicine
Insects as healing agents
• Maggot Debridement Therapy
Fly larvae as agents of antisepsis
– Sepsis (Gr. ‘sepsis’ = putrefaction)
– “poisoning caused by the absorption into the
blood of pathogenic micro-organisms”
• Discovered in the U.S. Civil War that flyblown wounds healed faster & cleaner.
• Caused the surgeons to investigate this
• Wound Myiasis
– “an infection of the organs or tissues of
man or animals by fly larvae that, for at
least a period of time, feed upon the
living or dead tissues.”
Flies Responsible
• Diptera
– family Calliphoridae - the BLOW FLIES
– family Sarcophagidae - the FLESH FLIES
– in their larval stage they feed on “meat”
• the buzzards of the insect world
– some species feed on living tissue
• be careful in your selection of species.
– The commonly found/used species
• Phormia regina - P. terraenovae & Lucillia
Flesh Fly
Blow Flies
• Surgeons began intentionally infesting wounds
with fly larvae.
• Today:
– eggs are surface sterilized and placed on a
food source (horse meat normally)
– 2 day old larvae inoculated into wound
– larvae flushed out with saline
in 3 or 4 days and younger
larvae added as necessary.
Phormia regina
Eats only dead tissue
“And the gilded little fly
does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive!!”
Shakespeare - King Lear
Calliphoria vomitoria
Bad choice.
This species will eat
living tissue.
The working end of a
blow fly larva.
You may wish to avert your eyes
Blow Flies
• Maggot debridement therapy
– especially helpful in cases of bone infections
– discovered that not only did the larvae assist
in cleanup of dead tissue, but they also
produced an endogenous antibiotic
– plus they secrete ammonia & calcium
carbonate which promote healing
– A resurgent technology
• see:
HONEY as medicine
• A long history as a mendicant
– ancient Egyptians used it as a wound
– practiced to this day.
• Is is wise to do so??
– and here’s why:
Honey in medicine
• Three mechanisms that account for the
medicinal properties of honey
– pH
• average of 3.9 - an acid medium
– Hyperosmotic
• low moisture content dehydrates (via osmosis)
microbial life that enters honey
– Inhibine
• a term coined in the mid-1930ties to describe an
“unknown” antibiotic property of honey
Honey In Medicine
• A host of testimonial claims for the
efficacy of honey
bed wetting
ad nauseum
She almost had it right!!!
Insect Sutures
Soldier ants
A nice example of polymorphic caste extremism.
Major and minor worker of E. burchelli
Army ant soldier
Ant Stitches
• An ancient practice
– India; 3,000 yrs. BP
– Known also from the mid-East & So.
• Commonly used ant genera
– Camponotus - carpenter ants
– Atta - leaf-cutter ants
– Eciton - army ants
Insects AS Medicine
• Blister Beetles
– source of CANTHARIDIN
• a blistering agent
• hexahydro-3,7-dimethyl-4, 4epoxyisobenzofuran-1, 3-dione
• (just in case you wanted to know)
• the infamous SPANISH FLY
– a putative aphrodisiac
A bit of mythology
• A defensive chemical produced by beetles
to ward off predator attacks
– reflex bleeding (autohemorrhization)
– dried beetles contain up to 1% cantharidin by
– toxic, blistering agent
• 30 mg a fatal dose for humans
– Recommended by such worthies as
• Hippocrates & Galen ‘…to stimulate
certain internal organs.’
The real Spanish Fly
Order Coleoptera
Family Meloidae
G.& s. Lytta vesicatoria
2,000 species of blister beetles
– 68 species in the genus Lytta
– Many are native to the countries surrounding the
Mediterranean Sea.
[note: lytta = rage (Gr.): vesica = blister (L.)]
An African “Spanish” Fly
• In Zimbabwe
– Genus Mayalabris
– Known locally as “vuka-vuka”
•vuka means “wake up”
– Most potent concoction is known as
“Squirrel’s Jump”
• squirrels considered
to be very romantic
SEE, it works!!!!!
Insects as aphrodisiacs
• 2002 Review article by Prischmann & Sheppard
24 insect families with “proven” efficacy by various species
(beetles, bugs, bees, wasps, ants moths, et alia.
• Used as general aphrodisiacs, love potions, E.D.
“stimulants” [entomological Viagra], potency
enhancements & on and on.
• A history as old a Hippocrates [the father of
medicine] and Galen {2nd century Greek}
• It still sells today!
Bee & Wasp Venoms
• Desensitization of humans hypersensitive
to Hymenopteran venoms
• Used in controlled, serial dosages
– 3 to six months
– begins with the injection of 1/200th of the
venom of one bee or wasp
– ends with an injection of equivalent venom
of two bees or wasps
• First licensed by the FDA in 1976
• Fully licensed in 1980
Bee Venom
• Vast anecdotal base for help (or “cure) for:
– Arthritis
– Bursitis
– M.S.
• NIH-OAM funded an M.S.
study in 1998
• BVT very popular in the world of
• alternative medicine.
Insects AS Medicine
• “Mea
culpa est ignorami”
• Insects in pharmacopoeia (drug ref. Books)
– Two basic principles observed
• Ingredients as repulsive as possible
• insect used must bear some resemblance of the
complaint or suffering.
• Insects used in the symbolic transfer of disease
• ancient dogma: “similia smilibus curentur”
• also known as the Doctrine of Signatures or
• Sympathetic Medicines - Law of Similarity
Earwigs for Deafness
• Elizabethan England
• Dried & powdered earwigs mixed with
rabbit urine & poured into the ears twice
• Earwigs
– Order DERMAPTERA (“skin” wing)
– small group of nocturnal scavengers that do
NOT crawl into human ears.
The European Earwig
“Mother & Child(s)”
Post-natal care,
& rather rare in the
insect world.
Cockroach Soup
Jazz great Louie Armstrong related that
his mother would often feed him cockroach
soup at times of childhood illness.
Bed Bug Broth
• Elizabethan England (again)
– as a cure for Malaria
Insects as medicine
• Grasshoppers to stop the fits
– NY-late 19th century
• Cockroaches for measles
– place the insect in a jar or under a thimble
and allow it to die - thereby “transferring”
the disease from human to bug.
• Singing insects for ear & throat problems
– Europe during the Middle Ages
Insects as medicine
• For baldness
– the use of hairy insects
• “The heads of flies, applied fresh to the bald
place is a convenient medicine for the said
infirmity & defect.”
– 1743: English Medical Dictionary
• “Powdered bees contribute to the growth of hair”
Spiders as medicine
• Tarantism
– a nervous disorder characterized by hysteria
& a mania for dancing
– a form of anxiety displacement
– believed to be caused by spider bites
• First observed in the Italian town of
TARANTO in the 16th & 17th centuries
– from which the name Tarantula is derived
– from which the folk dance “Tarantella” is
Recommended cure for Tarantism was to eat live spiders!!!
Watch the Tarantella!
South America
• Theraphosa blondi,
• The Goliath Bird-eater
• the largest spider in the world
• To cook, it must be roasted in fire
to “burn off the toxic hairs”
• Roasted for roughly seven
minutes, and then cracked open
like crabs
• Abdomen has actual “meat” in it
• Supposedly tastes like smoked
Key Points
Wound Debridement
Medicinal properties of honey
Insect Sutures
Historic use of insects as medicine

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