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The Difference Between Ants and Humans

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

What is the difference between you and an ant? From war making to making slaves, from inventing medicines to farming, they do it much like humans, only better.

* In every dense community, human, mammal or insect, sanitation is a problem. Of all the creatures that inhabit the earth, man is probably the dirtiest, spreading his poisonous faeces everywhere and caring little about its pollutive effects. Lasius niger ants live in nests and they use the corner of their nests as common toilets, according to the journal PLOS ONE by the University of Regensburg, Germany. Ants normally keep a very clean nest, and usually throw out dangerous rubbish, like food remains and dead bodies. This piled-up dry waste is kept for defence, as building materials, and as manure for their crops.

* Lasius neglectus workers tear apart and spray acid on pupae in order to disinfect the nest. If pupae are found to carry an ant killing fungus in their bodies they are killed and eviscerated . How do they know which juveniles to kill, while the fungal infection was still in its incubation period before it had become visible or contagious? Believe it or not, according to researchers from the Institute of Science and Technology, Austria, the pupa itself communicates a find me/eat me signal, the ultimate altruistic act to save the colony.

* Diseases can spread quickly among dense populations of organisms, whether they're people living in crowded cities or groups of social insects such as ant colonies. When humans are infected with a pathogen, the immune system churns out proteins, called antibodies, that rally to the body's defence. Some ant species use antimicrobials — chemical compounds that kill pathogens — to stop disease, according to a study at North Carolina State University published in RSOS. These antimicrobial compounds are applied by the ants to their own bodies, to those of their nest mates, and to their nests.

These compounds may be acquired from antimicrobial bacteria; for example, leafcutter ants cultivate bacteria on their bodies that protect them against infection from parasites that feed on the fungus they grow as food. Other ant species harvest the ingredients from tree resin. These microbials are shared among the colony.

* Ants have all kinds of different weapons. Often, ants will cooperate to pin down members of the other colonies, or cut them to pieces while the enemy is being held down. Ants are really quite nasty. Other ants have glands in the head, or abdomen, that exude toxic chemicals to confuse their enemies. Their tactics range from physical fighting to chemical warfare, just like it does in humans.

Their wars are large scale, intense, tactical. Mark Moffett’s book, Adventures Among Ants, documents barbaric and bizarre combat strategies – the same as human ones.

130 army ant species operate like Roman armies. Moving as a massive, united front, they depend entirely on the element of surprise to overwhelm the enemy. Once the food in the new territory has been eaten the army moves on.

As in human armies, which place the young and inexperienced as foot soldiers or infantry in front, ants also assign the smallest, weakest, older ants and the cripples on the front lines. In effect, the expendables. The actual fighters are behind the lines waiting for the enemy to get tired and reduce in ranks while fighting the cheap labour. Then the large sized, mega-jawed killers move in and bite the enemy to death.

And, while ants will readily die for their community, they're also pragmatic.

"An ant would never go out of its way to save another ant," Moffett says. "They go in to get the job done, not take care of one another."

* Slave-maker ants attack other ant colonies, captures their eggs and larvae, bring them back to their own nests and raise them as slaves to increase the worker force of their colony. After emerging in the slave-maker nest, slave workers work as if they were in their own colony, while the slavemakers only concentrate on replenishing the labour force from neighbouring nests. A colony may capture 14,000 pupae in a single season. Most slave-raiders capture only the young, but Strongylognathus ants also enslave adult workers.

Workers that emerge from eggs  in the slavemakers’ nest will rear the brood, feed and groom the workers, defend the nest against aliens, and even participate in raids, including those against their original colony.

In some cases, the enslaved ants rebel against their slave-maker ants, killing a large number of the slave-maker ant offspring. Thus, the slave ants protect their native colonies from further raids by slave-maker ants.

* Unlike in other ant colonies, all dinosaur ants are able to reproduce. However, there’s still a single queen, surrounded by beta females. If any of the queen’s servants becomes greedy for power and decides to lay eggs and be the new queen, it’s subdued by the rest of the courtiers and pinned to the ground for up to four days until the urge subsides.

* Dracula ants are the fastest animals on earth. One species, Mystrium camillae, has a pair of mandibles that snap at 90 metres a second or 320 kilometres an hour, according to a study in Royal Society of Open Science. That’s 5,000 times faster than you can blink your eye and 1,000 times faster than you can snap your fingers. Their name derives from their cannibalistic feeding habits, As adult ants are unable to process solid food, they feed prey like paralysed termites or centipedes to their larvae and then chew holes in their larvae and drink their blood.

* Weaver ants, Oecophylla smaragdina, build homes out of tree leaves. Their larvae produce a thin silk which acts as the glue that sticks the leaves together.

* Allomerus decemarticulatus ants of South America make tiny holes in a plant stem, hide and cover themselves with a fungus they produce themselves. When an unsuspecting insect lands on a stem full of those trap holes, the ants jump up and catch it with their mandibles. Then, they slowly drag the captive to a leaf pouch and tear it apart.

* Leafcutter ants are fulltime farmers. They  cut out fresh leaves with their sharp mandibles and  bring them to their nests to feed a particular type of bacteria that lives with the ants. That bacteria develops into fungi to become the food source for the ants. 

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  • Written by Denis Giles
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Every Creature in the World is Useful – Except the Human

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

As more and more people become resistant to antibiotics, their chances of survival, if they have chronic wounds, decrease. Surgeons have now gone back to a thousand year old technique of healing called maggot therapy or biosurgery, introducing live, germ free maggots into non-healing skin and soft tissue wounds in order to clean out the dead skin, disinfect the wound and stimulate healing .

Flies sometimes lay their eggs on the festering wounds of living beings. Their eggs hatch, become larvae and start feeding on the tissue. The flies used most often for the purpose of maggot therapy are the Green Bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) and Northern Blowfly (Protophormia terraenovae).

Maggots are applied to the wound at a dose of 5–10 larvae per square centimeter of wound surface area, and are left within their dressing for 48–72 hrs. (Since medicinal maggots cannot dissolve or feed on healthy tissue, their natural instinct is to crawl elsewhere as soon as the wounds are clean, or the larvae are satiated.) Doctors have found that large numbers of small maggots consume necrotic tissue far more precisely than surgeons can operate, and can remove foreign material and damaged tissue in a day or two. They secrete enzymes that liquefy the necrotic tissue which they eat. As they eat they increase in size and have to be removed in two days, leaving a clean wound. 

Larvae kill bacteria in wounds by producing natural antibioticlike agents and growth promoting agents which cause a wound to heal rapidly. There is evidence that they secrete chemicals with a broadspectrum bactericidal effect. They also secrete ammonia, causing wounds to become more alkaline, which inhibits bacterial growth. Studies have shown that maggots destroy a wide range of pathogenic bacteria including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), gram positive aerobic and anaerobic strains, Streptococcus pyogenes and S. pneumoniae. Having removed the bacteria, the wound is stimulated to grow healthy tissue. They are particularly useful in chronic ulcers including diabetic foot ulcers, osteomyelitis, postsurgical wound infections, and burns. Lifethreatening ear bone infections and gangrene have also been treated with maggot therapy after unsuccessful antibiotic and surgical treatments. Research is on to see whether maggots can be used to eat away tumours or cancerous lesions when surgical intervention is not possible .

Evidence exists that larvae have been used for thousands of years by ancient cultures such as the aboriginal Ngemba tribe of Australia, the Hill people of Myanmar and the Mayan healers of Central America. The Mayans soaked dressings in the blood of cattle, and exposed them to the sun before applying them to lesions, in order to attract flies.

The French surgeon, Ambroise Pare (1510–1590), was the first doctor to note the beneficial effect of fly larvae for wounds. Napoleon’s surgeon, Baron DominiqueJean Larrey (1766–1842), who treated the injured in  Napoleon's army, observed that maggots of the “blue fly” only removed dead tissue and had a positive effect on the remaining healthy tissue.

The first officially documented application of maggots was done by John Forney Zacharias (1837–1901), a surgeon from Maryland during the American civil war. He wrote “During my service in the hospital at Danville, Virginia, I first used maggots to remove the decayed tissue in hospital gangrene and with eminent satisfaction. In a single day, they would clean a wound much better than any agents we had at our command. I used them afterwards at various places. I am sure I saved many lives by their use, escaped septicaemia, and had rapid recoveries.”

But the popular medical belief was that maggots were dirty and full of infection. By the end of the 19th century, there were hardly any doctors who would support the use of fly larvae.

During World War I, mortality from open wounds increased to 70%. Antiseptic tools did not work. In 1917, William Baer, a military surgeon in France, reported his treatment of open fractures and stomach wounds with maggots. After the war he became Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University. From 1929 to his death he continued his experiments with maggots on patients on whom all other treatment had failed.  In 1931, he published the first scientific study of maggots’ effectiveness in wound care.

In order to overcome the disgust of patients and staff, he created special bandages to hide the larvae, and he and his colleagues developed specific flies, and different methods, to sterilise the eggs.

In the 30s and 40s maggot therapy boomed. More than 1,000 American, Canadian and European hospitals introduced maggots into their programme of wound healing. Many had their own insectariums. Others bought from Lederle Pharmaceuticals, who bred and distributed “surgical maggots”. More than 100 publications appeared.

Then penicillin and antibiotics came in and the medical world abandoned maggot therapy. By the 50s, it was over.

By the end of the 1980s, millions of people were resistant to penicillin and antibiotics, pressure ulcers and diabetic foot ulcers were on the rise, and conventional wound care was inadequate. Diabetic foot ulcers alone affect 15% of the diabetes patient population and account for over 1.5 million foot ulcers and at least 70,000 amputations annually.

In 1989, University of California physicians Ronald Sherman and Edward Pechter reintroduced maggot therapy for use with patients whose wounds failed to respond to antibiotics and with victims of flesh-eating bacteria. Their results were every bit as spectacular as Baer’s first experiments. They demonstrated that maggot-treated patients required fewer days of antibiotics and healed their wounds an average of 4 weeks faster than control patients. Studies have consistently shown that pre-amputation maggot therapy saves 40–50% of limbs, usually with complete wound healing.

In the UK, surgeons John Church and Stephen Thomas set up the Biosurgical Research Unit in South Wales. Since 1995, the unit has commercially distributed sterile larvae. Thomas  has calculated that the use of maggot therapy for just 30% of non-healing diabetic ulcers could save the United Kingdom approximately £50 million annually.

Since 1996, an annual world meeting on larval therapy, called the International Conference on Biotherapy, is organised by the International Biotherapy Society.

In 2004, the FDA cleared maggots for use as a medical device in the United States for the purpose of treatment of non-healing necrotic skin and soft tissue wounds, ulcers and non-healing traumatic or post-surgical wounds.

Now it has become standard treatment all over the world. The revival in maggot therapy is due to technological advancements. The three most common objections to maggot therapy, during the 1930s, were the hassle of making dressings, the difficulty in obtaining live, germ-free maggots, and their high cost. Now, improved adhesives and synthetic fabrics allow doctors to make dressings to hold the maggots within the wound bed. The establishment of dozens of laboratories throughout the world, and overnight courier services, has made germ free medicinal maggots readily available. And treatment by maggots is less expensive than surgery

The UK Government is spending $250,000 (Pound 196,000)  in 2019 to buy green bottle blowfly maggots to send to war zones in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.

To roll out "project maggot," the U.K. will have field hospitals raise maggots on location. Once the fly eggs are laid, they will be sterilized and then incubated for a day or two. At that point, the maggots can be put directly into wounds, or placed in BioBags which are then wrapped around injuries. By 2021 doctors plan to create a do-it-yourself maggot starter kit, so that people in remote communities can raise them themselves.

Every creature in the world is useful – except the human. 

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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Insects Could Save our Lives

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

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

Human beings have used insects as medicine in different human cultures throughout the world, but very little research was done to convert local use into proven, standardized medicine. Entomotherapy is a branch of science that uses insects for medicine. The rise of antibiotic resistant infections has forced pharmaceutical research into looking for new resources. 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.

One insect alone, the honey bee, provides honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis and an anti-inflammatory peptide melittin. Honey is applied to skin to treat scar tissue, rashes and burns, and as an eye poultice, for digestive problems and as a general health restorative. It is taken hot to treat colds, coughs, laryngitis, tuberculosis, throat infections and lung diseases.

Apitoxin (honey bee venom) is applied through direct stings 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; these may provide useful drugs such as anticoagulants, vasodilators, antihistamines and anaesthetics.

Here are some lesser known insects who are used in human medicine :

1. The University of Miami is researching the use of the venom of the South American Devil Tree Ant in rheumatoid arthritis. Half the patients were injected with venom extract. The other half with placebos. Those who received the venom derivative showed dramatic reduction in the number and intensity of inflamed joints, and marked increases in their freedom of motion. Patients who received the placebo showed no improvement. A U.S. patent is pending on the chemical.

Many native healers use ants. Black Mountain Ant extracts dilate blood vessels that supply the penis. The venom of the Red Harvester Ant was used to cure rheumatism, arthritis and poliomyelitis. The South American tree ant, Pseudomyrmex sp., commonly called as the Samsum Ant’s venom can reduce inflammation, inhibit tumour growth and treat liver ailments.

Even 3,000 years ago the mandibles of soldier ants were used as stitches. The ant was agitated, and when it opened its jaws , it was placed around the wound to be stitched and the mouth allowed to close. The ant's body was then pinched away, leaving the head holding the wound together.

2. Several African cultures use poultices made from ground grasshoppers as pain relievers for migraines. Neurologists hypothesize 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 capitalized on blister beetles’ healing powers since ancient times. Also known as “Spanish Fly,” the beetles represent humankind’s first remedy for 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, and may be useful in 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 they reduce serum cholesterol, and dissolve vascular plaque. Boiled silkworm pupae  have been used by 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 in asthma, bronchitis, influenza, whooping cough.

7. Spider silk is an ideal material to use in 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 eyes, to heal with little scarring.

8. The Jatropha Leaf Miner, a moth who feeds on the Jatropha plant, is an example of an insect considered a pest who has medicinal value. The larvae of the insect are harvested, boiled, and mashed into a paste which is administered topically and is said 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 in 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 for asthma, arthritis, tuberculosis and the Palm Beetle for earache.

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

13. The Red Velvet Mite is eaten in urogenital disorders, and paralysis.

14. A mass of boiled Mealybugs was ingested to alleviate the affects of poisonous mushrooms and other fungi, or diarrhoea, and to clean the 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 the insects, killed off over 90% of MRSA infections and E. coli.

16. Scientists from the Institute for Biomedical Research, Barcelona, have carried out successful in vitro tests, using wasp venom, to kill cancer cells. Wasp venom contains Polybia MPI (from 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 synthesized from the venom of the Central American bark scorpion. Patented by Merck, it has the potential to prevent bypass graft failure. Scorpion venom extract has been shown to be able to detect and spotlight 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.

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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