Insects that heal
Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
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, standardised 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 the 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:
Many native healers use ants. Black mountain ant extracts dilate blood vessels that supply the penis. Red harvester ant venom 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.
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.
All these insects are being killed by 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.