No pests in nature: Insects killed by pesticides have far more medicinal value than humans realise

  • In various cultures throughout the world insects have been used for medicinal purposes

  • The rise of antibiotic resistant infections has forced pharmaceutical research to look for new resources to treat diseases

  • Many insects, used in alternative medicine, are now being tested for mainstream medical products

There are no pests or weeds in nature. These are beings who get in the way of humans growing food, destroying the habitat in order to take up residence and making service centres for people. Billions of insects are killed by pesticides alone for this purpose.

 No pests in nature: Insects killed by pesticides have far more medicinal value than humans realise

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

In various cultures throughout the world insects have been used for medicinal purposes but very little research has been done to convert these local usages into proven, standardised medicines. Entomotherapy is a branch of science that uses insects for medicinal purpose. The rise of antibiotic resistant infections has forced pharmaceutical research to look for new resources to treat diseases. Many insects, used in alternative medicine, are now being tested for mainstream medical products. FDA, for instance, recently approved the flu vaccine – Flublok – which is derived from cells taken from the ovaries of the fall armyworm moth.

The honey bee, for example, provides honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis and an anti-inflammatory peptide melittin. Honey is applied on the skin to treat scar tissue, rashes and burns, as an eye poultice, for digestive problems and as a general health restorative. Warm honey is used to treat colds, coughs, laryngitis, tuberculosis, throat infections and other lung diseases.

Apitoxin (honey bee venom) is given as a shot to relieve arthritis, rheumatism, polyneuritis and asthma. Propolis, used by bees as a hive insulator and sealant, is said to have antibiotic, anaesthetic and anti-inflammatory properties. Royal jelly is used to treat anaemia, ulcers, arteriosclerosis and hypertension. Bee pollen is eaten as a health restorative.

Over a thousand protein families have been identified in the saliva of blood-feeding insects and these may provide useful drugs such as anticoagulants, vasodilators, antihistamines and anaesthetics.

Here are some lesser known insects used for medicinal purposes:

1. The University of Miami has been researching on uses of the venom of the south american devil tree ant to treat rheumatoid arthritis. One half of the patients were injected with this venom extract and the other half with placebos. Those who received the venom derivative showed dramatic reduction in the number and intensity of inflamed joints and revealed a marked increase in free movement. Patients who received the placebo showed no improvement. A US patent has been pending on the chemical.

Many native healers use ants. Black mountain ant extracts dilate blood vessels which supply blood to the penis. The venom of the red harvester ant has been used to cure rheumatism, arthritis and poliomyelitis. Venom of the south american tree ant, Pseudomyrmex sp., commonly called as the samsum ant, can reduce inflammation, inhibit tumour growth and treat liver ailments.

Even 3,000 years ago the mandibles of soldier ants were used for stitching purposes. As it opened its jaws, an ant would be placed around a wound that was to be stitched and then its mouth closed. The ant's body was torn off, leaving the head holding the wound together.

2. Several African cultures use poultices made from ground grasshoppers as pain relievers for migraines. Neurologists hypothesise that grasshopper toxins stimulate the human central nervous system and dilate blood vessels, increasing circulation. Powdered, sun-dried, grasshopper is turned into a tea for the treatment of asthma and hepatitis.

3. Across Southeast Asia, healers have capitalised on blister beetles’ healing powers since ancient times. Also known as “spanish fly,” the beetles were one of the first remedies for humankind to treat erectile dysfunction. Blister beetle secretions reduce burning pain sensations commonly associated with urinary tract infections, insect bites, kidney problems and burns.

Blister beetles secrete cantharidin which is effective in treating severe viral infections because it prevents viral cell reproduction. It may also be useful in the treatment of cancerous tumours resistant to radiation and chemotherapy. A number of research papers have been published confirming that cantharidin has multiple effects on cancer cells.

4. Emerging science suggests that silkworm extracts may have benefits, as dietary supplements, for patients with heart disease and circulatory disorders. Preliminary studies indicate that they reduce serum cholesterol and dissolve vascular plaque. Boiled silkworm pupae have been used in Chinese medicine to treat apoplexy, bronchitis, convulsions and frequent urination. A bacteria that lives in the digestive system of silkworms contains a substance known as serrapeptase. This substance appears to offer pain relief for people with back injuries. There are studies underway to see if they can also help with sports injuries.

5. Traditional Asian practitioners use centipedes to treat tetanus, seizures, and convulsions. Centipedes are dried, ground into a paste and applied topically to sores and carbuncles.

6. Ayurveda uses termites and their mounds for ulcers, rheumatic diseases, anaemia and pain. In Africa, termites are used to treat asthma, bronchitis, influenza and whooping cough.

7. Spider silk is an ideal material to use for skin grafts or ligament implants because it is one of the strongest known natural fibres and triggers little immune response. Spider silk may also be used to make fine sutures for stitching nerves or to mend delicate structures of our eyes in order to help patients heal with little scarring.

8. The jatropha leaf miner, a moth that feeds on the jatropha plant, is another example of an insect that is considered a pest but which has medicinal value. The larvae of this insect is harvested, boiled and mashed into a paste to be administered topically to induce lactation, reduce fever and soothe gastrointestinal tracts.

9. In southwestern Nigeria, an infected foot is treated by smearing and rubbing mashed mole crickets on it.

10. Locusts are eaten to cure post-childbirth anaemia, lung diseases, asthma and chronic cough.

11. The may beetle is used as a remedy for anaemia and rheumatism. The peanut beetle to treat asthma, arthritis, tuberculosis and the palm beetle for ear ache.

12. Cicadas are crushed and applied to cure migraine headaches and ear infection.

13. The red velvet mite is eaten in urogenital disorders and to cure paralysis.

14. A mass of boiled mealybugs has been used to alleviate affects of poisonous mushrooms and other fungi as well as to treat diarrhoea, clean teeth and in the treatment of caries.

15. In the heads of cockroaches are chemical compounds that can kill Escherichia coli (E. Coli) and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), two harmful bacteria that are resistant to most drugs. It was discovered that tissues, taken from the brains and nervous system of these insects, killed off over 90% of MRSA infections and E. Coli.

16. Scientists from the Institute for Biomedical Research in Barcelona, have carried out successful in-vitro tests using wasp venom to kill cancer cells. Wasp venom contains Polybia MPI (from the venom of the wasp polybiapaulista), which shows anti-tumour activity and kills only cancer cells, leaving the healthy cells around it.

17. Studies on caterpillar venom show that cecropins, which are a group of peptides isolated from the caterpillar blood of the giant silk moth Hyalophoracecropia, have anti-microbial activity, and have been used as a potent anti-cancer agent against a variety of tumour cell lines. Cecropins are active against several mammalian lymphomas and leukaemia, and may offer novel strategies for the treatment of bladder cancer.

18. In 1993, Margatoxin was synthesised from the venom of the Central American bark scorpion. Patented by Merck, it has the potential to prevent by-pass graft failure. Scorpion venom extract has been shown to be able to detect and spot cancer cells under a special light used during surgery.

All these insects are being killed in the millions everyday as pests. Unless we take action to protect and develop our environment sustainably, and get rid of pesticides/herbicides and poisons that kill them and us, the window of chance for the discovery of new medicinal agents will be closed forever. One day we will find that the millions of insects we have killed, through pest control, could have saved our lives. By then it might be too late for them and us.

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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2019 19:05:59 IST