Scientists often come up with new discoveries, technologies or theories. But sometimes they rediscover what our ancestors already knew. A couple of recent findings show we have a lot to learn from our forebears—and nature—about bugs.
Modern methods of controlling pests have consisted mainly of poisoning them with chemicals. But that’s led to problems. Pesticides kill far more than the bugs they target, and pollute air, water and soil. As we learned with the widespread use of DDT to control agricultural pests and mosquitoes, chemicals can bioaccumulate, meaning molecules may concentrate hundreds of thousands of times up the food web—eventually reaching people.
As Rachel Carson wrote in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, using DDT widely without knowing the full consequences was folly. She showed it was polluting water and killing wildlife, especially birds, and that it could cause cancer in humans. Her book launched the environmental movement but did little to change our overall strategy for dealing with bugs. Although DDT was banned worldwide for agricultural purposes in 2001, the chemical is still used to control insects that spread disease.
Recent research shows that widespread use of pesticides like DDT may have caused us to ignore or forget benign methods of pest control. Because the chemicals were so effective, infestations were reduced and there was little interest in non-toxic methods. But bugs evolve quickly and can become immune to pesticides. That’s true of bedbugs, the now ubiquitous critters that are showing up around the world in homes, hotels, schools, movie theaters—even libraries.
But a method used long ago provides an effective and non-toxic weapon against the pests, according to a U.S. study in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The authors looked into the once-common Eastern European practice of spreading bean leaves around a bed to control bedbugs. What they found was fascinating.
The scientists, from the University of California, Irvine, and University of Kentucky, wrote:
During the night, bedbugs walking on the floor would accumulate on these bean leaves, which were collected and burned the following morning to exterminate the bedbugs. The entrapment of bedbugs by the bean leaves was attributed to the action of microscopic plant hairs (trichomes) on the leaf surfaces that would entangle the legs of the bedbugs.
They discovered that after bugs get caught up in the hooked plant hairs, they struggle to escape, and in the process vulnerable parts of their feet are pierced by the hooks, permanently trapping them. The research focuses on a way to replicate this.
“This physical entrapment is a source of inspiration in the development of new and sustainable methods to control the burgeoning numbers of bedbugs,” the researchers wrote, adding that the method “would avoid the problem of pesticide resistance that has been documented extensively for this insect.”
Other research has literally dug up pest control methods that go back millennia. An international team of archeologists recently found evidence that people living in South Africa almost 80,000 years ago made bedding out of insect-repelling plants.
According to the journal Science, the research team found 15 different layers containing bedding made from compacted stems and leaves of sedges and rushes, dating between 77,000 and 38,000 years ago. One layer of leaves was identified as River Wild-quince, which contains “chemicals that are insecticidal, and would be suitable for repelling mosquitoes.” The archeologists also found evidence that people often burned the bedding after use, possibly to remove pests.
These are just two examples of what we can learn from our ancestors and from nature. Because natural systems tend toward balance, the fascinating field of biomimicry has developed to explore what nature can teach us. It’s aimed at finding “sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies,” according to the Biomimicry Guild website. “The goal is to create products, processes and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”
Maybe the truest sign of human intelligence is not to learn how we can shoehorn nature into our own agenda, but to see how we can better find our own place in nature.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
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After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
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