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Natural medicine: Fancy a Beetle?

Oil beetles work like Viagra, ladybirds help against tooth ache and cardinal beetles can even save your life. Medicinal gold-seeking in the world of creepy crawlies.



Jewel Beetles as a household remedy for indigestion
Picture by Roland Lupoli

The thought of eating a beetle appears disgusting to most people in this country. Indeed it can hardly be explained as to how a "test of courage" à la Daniel Küblböck, who let hundreds of cockroaches crawl all over him in a glass container, can raise TV audience ratings.

Even in ancient China the reaction would have been a lack of understanding, but for other reasons. There not only were, and still are, diverse types of insects eaten as a delicacy rich in protein, but they also ingest dried cockroaches to counter indigestion and believed them to have fever-reducing properties.

Even in ancient China the reaction would have been a lack of understanding, but for other reasons. There, not only were, and still are, diverse types of insects eaten as a delicacy rich in protein, but they also ingest dried cockroaches to counter indigestion and believed them to have fever-reducing properties.

"Nowadays there are better things", dissuades beetle-expert Prof. Konrad Dettner, from Bayreuth University, from nibbling cockroaches: "Even cockroaches carry lots of bacteria in them, that we definitely should not eat. Fever-reducing? I can’t really imagine that. But who knows: there are countless insects, which produce substances that have yet to be explored, many of which are so complicated that man is unable to reproduce them. And some beetles work essentially like medicine..."

For example the ladybird, which used to be chewed in China as a household remedy for tooth ache, like cloves in this country. Dr. Dettner: "Ladybirds contain a high amount of alkaloids, which have an anaesthetic and pain-killing effect."

Beetle remedies were also used in Europe, for example jewel beetles (see picture) against indigestion. Dried oil beetles, with their supposedly slightly nutty taste, were ingested instead of Viagra in the middle ages. The aphrodisiac Cantharadin that is found in them has an arousing effect in small doses and turns the so-called "Spanish Fly" into a sought-after sex beetle. If there were however an accompanying text for this scrabbling stimulant that is also used to treat warts, you would be likely to read the following under "Contraindications": "Warning, an overdose will not only lead to a permanent erection, but can also lead to painful and sudden death..."

For around five years now, research laboratories have once again started seriously looking at insects as a source for drugs. "What in actual fact is completely incomprehensible", finds the French entomologist Dr. Roland Lupoli, who deals exclusively with beetles and their chemical secret weapons at the pharmaceutical company "Entomed" near Strasbourg.

Lupoli: "59 percent of all living things on the Earth are insects. The remaining 41 percent includes not only all types of animal, but all plant varieties as well (16 percent), from which so many of our remedies come. And because insects have inhabited the Earth for over 500 million years, they have had much more time during the course of evolution than humans to develop and test out bio-chemicals. Does it therefore not stand to reason that we should take a closer look at these valuable mites?"

Morpho butterfly in Costa Rica. It produces a protein against fungal decay
Picture by T. Micke

1200 kinds of beetle from all different kinds of countries (from around 400,000 known species worldwide!) are currently being researched at Entomed. Among them are fireflies, from which new remedies for heart diseases have been able to be extracted, and a type of dung beetle that could potentially yield new antibiotics. The study is also observing such beautiful insects as the highly poisonous Monarch butterfly – it could maybe do help against cardiac insufficiency in humans – and the shimmering blue Morph butterfly (see photo) from Brazil, which produces a protein against fungal decay.

The beetle researchers' wanted list even mentions a less beautiful but sought-after female: to protect her eggs from being stolen, the female cardinal beetle endows them with the "sex poison" Cantharidin, from which researchers hope that maybe a cure for cancerous tumours could be developed.

Why in the search for new medicine since the 80s did the chemistry laboratories of Bask, Bayer, Schering, Pfizer and co. go off the idea of producing "hit or miss" artificial bio-molecules and instead snoop around once again in the chemistry laboratory that has proven itself over millions of years, nature? Dr. Lupoli: "There are millions of different molecules that are found in nature and already a rather small molecule, like that of Aspirin, can be varied in millions of ways with one and the same four ingredients. Each time, the characteristics can change and they must be re-tested. So instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, look for a firefly in the undergrowth..."


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© A report by Tobias Micke (06-06-04) – Contact