When Naoko Takahashi won the gold medal in women’s marathon running at the 2000 Summer Olympics, she had assistance from an unexpected source: hornet juice.
The new book, “Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects,” by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (Simon & Schuster), out now, shows us that however annoying they may be, insects have done much to better our world.
Hornet juice — specifically, a jelly-like substance produced by hornet larvae — is believed to increase endurance.
Adult hornets feed their larvae small chunks of meat, after which the larvae “regurgitate a kind of jelly that the adults then slurp up.”
In time, it was discovered that the jelly “was crucial for the adult hornet’s endurance — they can fly 60 miles a day at a speed of 25 miles per hour,” Sverdrup-Thygeson writes.
Some companies have seized on this, marketing the jelly substance as “a miracle product to boost sporting endurance and performance.”
“Today,” she writes, “you can buy sports drinks containing hornet larva extract in Japan and similar products in the United States.”
Here are a few other ways insects are changing the world:
Flies have been helping catch criminals since medieval times.
“There is a pattern to when species come to a corpse, and this can be used to help solve crimes,” Sverdrup-Thygeson writes, noting that the first instance of insect-assisted crime-solving was in 1235 in China.
“A man was brutally murdered with a sickle, and the local peasants were called into a meeting [and] instructed to bring their sickles with them,” she writes.
“The investigator made them wait and since it was a hot, sunny day, it wasn’t long before flies appeared. When all the flies landed on the same sickle, the owner was so shocked he confessed on the spot. With their peerless sense of smell, the flies were drawn to the traces of blood even though the sickle had been cleaned.”
These same instincts make insects a valuable crime-solving tool to this day.
“Insect species appear in a dead body in a given order and follow a particular logic,” Sverdrup-Thygeson writes. “This fact can be used to calculate time of death and may, in some cases, tell you something about the cause of death.”
The gall wasp
If you enjoy the writing of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven, you have the gall wasp to thank. Without it, 700 years of documents may have been lost to history.
Early carbon-based inks were impermanent, easily erased or washed away. It wasn’t until around 1100 that the more permanent iron gall ink, taken from the oak-tree-dwelling gall wasp, became commonly used.
The gall wasp creates tumor-like growths on oak leaves known as galls, which are “stiff with a form of tannic acid.” This, mixed with iron salt and gum arabic, was used to create ink that was “non-soluble: it ate its way into the parchment or paper it was written on.”
“From the 1100s to well into the 1800s, oak gall ink was the most commonly used kind in the Western world,” Sverdrup-Thygeson writes.
“If it hadn’t been for the little oak gall wasp, it is far from certain we would have so many well-preserved and legible documents from the great artists and scientists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”
The lac bug
Without this critter, we would have had to wait decades before being able to listen to music at home.
Early 78 rpm records, from the late 1800s through the 1940s, were made with shellac, a substance derived from the lac bug which is also used for everything from varnishing wood to making apples shinier.
Found in great numbers on “the branches of various tree species in Southeast Asia,” lac bugs by the thousands congregate on a twig and slurp down plant sap, which they then excrete as “an orange resin-like liquid, which hardens when it comes into contact with air.” This is then scraped from the branches, giving us shellac.
These little creatures seem to have a native intelligence regarding the creation of climate-controlled dwellings, a superpower copied by architects.
“The enormous termite mounds of Africa can tower several yards above the ground,” Sverdrup-Thygeson writes. “Despite the baking heat outside, it is always pleasantly temperate inside the mound.”
“It turns out that an ingenious system of air channels use temperature oscillations outside the mound to create a draft that runs through the construction. This ‘artificial lung’ ensures that cool, oxygen-rich air is drawn down while warmer air, rich in carbon dioxide, is driven out.”
The system is so efficient that architects have copied their designs, including for the building of Eastgate Center, one of the largest malls in Zimbabwe.
“It doesn’t have any regular air-conditioning or heating; instead it uses passive cooling, applying the principals used by termites,” she writes.
“As a result, the building uses only 10 percent of the energy that would be consumed by an equivalent-sized building with standard mechanized air-conditioning systems.”