This is out about a subfamily of moths, the wax moths. They are usually well known to bee keepers, because the caterpillars live inside a bees or bumblebees nest, where they feed from the nest structure made from bees wax.
But some bee keepers used boxes made from styrofoam and look, what happened...
Wax moth larvae are also frequently bred as feed for geckos or as fishing bait for anglers. On some of these web pages was mentioned, that the larvae can escape from plastic boxes by biting holes in smooth or thin plastic. While some other caterpillars are able to do that too, these ones obviously can also digest it. That means they must have enzymes or microorganisms in their digestive tract, which can decompose plastic.
With some thoughts about, what wax is, this also makes sense: Waxes are lipids with long chains of hydrocarbon (http://lipidlibrary.aocs.org/Lipids/waxes/index.htm). To be able to digest bees wax, the caterpillars must break these chains into pieces.
And this is, how styrofoam looks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polystyrene_formation.png - same hydrocarbon chain, with bulky phenyl rings on every second carbon atom. Other forms of plastic, like polyethylene or polypropylene are much more similar to the chains in bees wax. I guess, all of these types of plastic could be used as food source for the caterpillars, when one presents it to them in an edible form, like the yummy styrofoam...
* Basically three species behave similar, Aphomia sociella (the bee moth), Galleria mellonella (the greater wax moth) and Achroia grisella (the lesser wax moth), probably they are often referred to together as bee moths.
This is very exciting! I wonder if the styrofoam-eating larvae are then toxic for other creatures to eat...I'm imagining using free Styrofoam as a food source for the grubs and the grubs as a food source for chickens but the idea of eating Styrofoam is sort of gross and possibly toxic.
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Matu Collins wrote:This is very exciting! I wonder if the styrofoam-eating larvae are then toxic for other creatures to eat...I'm imagining using free Styrofoam as a food source for the grubs and the grubs as a food source for chickens but the idea of eating Styrofoam is sort of gross and possibly toxic.
Sorry, just discovered your post. Maybe the answer is interesting for others too... Styrofoam is not much different from natural waxes in its chemistry, it contains only carbon and hydrogen, nothing toxic like a lot of halogens. So, it's converted into the normal body fats, proteins and carbohydrates of the moth larvae. The only issue might be, when they eat ONLY styrofoam, that the larvae could suffer from malnutrition. But that could easily be averted by giving them some beeswax in addition.
Meanwhile there is a new discovery: Mealworms and "superworms", both larvae of beetles, can also digest styrofoam and polyethylene! Probably they have the same or similar bacteria in their digestive tract like the wax moths. Polyethylene is also a biologically benign plastic, similar to polystyrene.
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