It’s A Bug’s Life: Super Strength, Solving Crimes… And Mighty Good Eatin’ Too

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Photo: AC Bugged Live Event
In the pursuit of all things "Bugged," David MacNeal allowed bed bugs to feast on his arm.

Denver science writer David MacNeal argues they rule the world. For his new book “Bugged,” he fed his blood to bed bugs, helped tarantulas get it on, and ate a gourmet meal that included caterpillar and ant-ohol. Yeah, that’s alcohol made from ants.

Despite their sizable numeric dominance, insects, bugs and the like, MacNeal says, have a lot in common with their two-legged counterparts.

“If you look at ants, they're some of the most bizarre, strange creatures...and so are humans,” MacNeal told an invited audience at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. “They have this whole colony; they have workers, they have soldiers, you have this whole thing of working together. We could learn a lot from just studying them. It's pretty remarkable what observing ants — looking down at the sidewalk — can do.”

As it turns out, bugs have long played an important role in human society: recycling waste, pollinating crops, helping wounds heal faster -- even solving murders.

Ten Fun Facts From "Bugged"

Bombardier beetles shoot a jet of boiling chemicals at predators.

  1. In 1947, the U-S shot the first animals into space -- they were fruit flies.
  2. Dung beetles base their navigation on The Milky Way.
  3. By setting up a camera running at 3500 frames per second, scientists discovered that when fleas jump they can hit 400 g’s… twenty times the acceleration of a moon rocket re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
  4. The United States Government used to have a Bureau of Entomology.
  5. An ant’s nest excavated in 1960 spanned nearly two football fields.
  6. Dung beetles can carry more than a thousand times their body weight.
  7. Bombardier beetles shoot a jet of boiling chemicals at predators.
  8. Some assassin bugs wear the bodies of their kill to blend in among their next victims.
  9. Dr. Seuss, before he wrote “Green Eggs And Ham,” created cartoons for an insecticide that oddly resembled the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
  10. People once thought that yellow fever was not spread by mosquitos, but via “air electricity” from telegraph transmissions.

Read an excerpt:

Cast ye fears aside, GMO watchdogs. Not only has the National Biosafety Committee in Brazil approved the use of OX513A, but the UK’s House of Lords has reported GM mosquitoes could “save countless lives worldwide.” What’s unique about the trial is that Oxitec is working directly with the Piracicaba municipality rather than third parties. This makes fine-tuning processes in treating the tiny Piracicaban neighborhood of 5,000 residents more concise. (The residents all receive door-to-door counseling on the mosquito do bem. In Portuguese, that translates to “the good mosquito.”) Later Oxitec will expand to producing hundreds of millions of OX513A to combat dengue fever, which endangers 40 percent of the world, as well as the explosive outbreak of Zika virus.

OX513A is the brainchild of chief scientist Luke Alphey. What sets it apart are two altered genes in A. aegypti males. Remember, they don’t bite. Rather than hitting these delicate, mustachioed bugs with radiation via the decades-old sterilized-insect technique, Alphey needed to keep their physical endurance intact enough to compete with wild males while breeding. So he developed a “lethal system” specific to males. One autocidal gene ensures the progeny have a decreased life span. To keep the lab-bred males alive long enough to mate with females, this gene is subdued by an antibiotic.

“When we add tetracycline, it turns the gene off,” Karla Tepedino tells me. As Oxitec’s Brazil production and field trial supervisor, she oversees the factory line here from egg to promiscuous adulthood. She’s in her mid-twenties and wears stylish earlobe plugs, and the job has fortified her patience. “Someone always brings up Jurassic Park,” she says, hands in the air, dumbfounded. Campfire theorists argue that Oxitec mosquitoes—despite being largely unchanged for millions of years—could rapidly evolve to carry the most potent strain of the dengue virus. “Why do you think we’re going to be capable of such a thing?” Karla asks. This is frustratingly accompanied by GMO jabs and people accusing her and Oxitec of “playing god.”

Reprinted from Bugged The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them by David MacNeal. With permission of the author.