Waxworm Wonders

Caterpillars Offer Clues to Plastic Cleanup




monticelloSefa Kaya

Waxworms, a type of caterpillar, are vexing to beekeepers because they devour the wax that bees use to build honeycombs. It turns out that they can do the same to plastic. Ongoing worldwide research reveals several types of bacteria found in waxworms that digest some kinds of plastic at rates that vary from weeks to months.

Scientist Federica Bertocchini, at the Spanish National Research Council, mashed up a quantity of the greater wax moth and applied the paste to polyethylene. After half a day, about 13 percent of the plastic had disappeared.

She collaborated with biochemists at the University of Cambridge to analyze this chemical decomposition of the plastic. They discovered that some of the substance is converted into ethylene glycol, a sign that it was genuinely being degraded. The carbon-to-carbon bonds found in polyethylene are also present in the wax that the caterpillars eat.

Susan Selke, director of the Michigan State University School of Packaging, remarks, “The hunt for organisms that can degrade plastics is on. Right now, we don’t have a good solution for dealing with the plastics that are piling up on our planet.”


This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Natural Awakenings.

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