usgs bee inventory

People around the world use more than a trillion plastic bags every year. They’re made of a notoriously resilient kind of plastic called polyethylene that can take decades to break down.

But the humble wax worm may hold the key to biodegrading them.

It was an accidental discovery. Scientist and beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was frustrated to find that her beehives were infested with the caterpillar larvae of Galleria mellonella, commonly known as a wax worm.

Bertocchini, who works at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain, tells NPR that she was cleaning out the hive and put the worm-infested parts in a plastic bag.

But shortly afterward, she noticed that “they were all crawling around my place and the plastic bag was riddled with holes.”

The Lowly Wax Worm May Hold The Key To Biodegrading Plastic

Photo: Wayne Boo/USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

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You’re probably familiar with honeybee-style pollination: bees enter flowers to drink sweet nectar, the accidentally pick up up pollen and then transfer it to another flower. But many plants rely on buzz-pollinators instead. Bumblebees repurpose their flight muscles to vibrate pollen loose:

The bee bites down at the base of the anther, leaving little marks called bee kisses. She “unhooks” her flying muscles from her wings so she can contract them without taking flight. Then she begins to vibrate violently, a behavior scientists call sonication.

The vibrations travel through her soft body to the flower and shake up the pollen grains trapped inside anthers. When she buzzes hard enough, the pollen shoots out of the top and covers the bee. The bumblebee grooms herself, combing the pollen down and mixing it with saliva. She stores the pollen in sacs stuck to her legs as she makes her rounds.

The bumblebees actually eat the pollen as a source of protein - so the flowers who partner with them are undertaking a risky evolutionary gamble. Read more about it here.

And watch Deep Look’s video about it here:

They use a tuning fork to mimic buzz pollination!

Image credit: Adam Cole, with photos from the USGS Bee Inventory and Michael Levine-Clark.