Why do we study bugs?

Ups and Downs of Living with Bugs

Bugs may eat and maim our own grub, but we can strike back — by eating them. Maybe you've seen Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern jet to Taipei or Ecuador and snack on some cocoons and worms, cooked or raw and wriggling. To the squeamish Western viewer, it's downright disgusting to watch. But economically (and historically), it just makes sense: Bugs are easily the most abundant and nutritious source of protein available, yet almost all of Western civilization has yet to catch on. Bugs are not the answer to global food shortages, but they are an effective supplement.

While our relationship with bugs and our food has always been obvious to us, our relationship with bugs and diseases has not. Malaria has afflicted humans for many hundreds if not thousands of years, but it was not until 1880 that a French army surgeon named Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran discovered parasites in the blood of a malaria patient. Seventeen years later, in 1897, a British officer by the name of Ronald Ross successfully demonstrated that mosquitoes transmitted the malaria parasite. With concrete evidence that insects can carry disease, a fascination with bugs was no longer a hobby; it was a necessary science integral to our survival.

Or how about a sexier example? Have you heard of the kissing bug, aka the assassin bug? While there are dozens of species of the so-called kissing bug, those native to Central and South America can carry Chagas disease, responsible for the deaths of 50,000 people each year and the infection of some 18 million people altogether [sources: CDC, University of Wisconsin-Madison]. The transmission of Chagas disease really is the "kiss" of death: A deadly parasite lives in the kissing bug's digestive system and is then excreted by the bug after feeding, often near the victim's mouth at night. The unwitting victim may sleepily wipe or scratch the bite, introducing the parasite into her bloodstream. If left undiagnosed, the parasite may cause mild, nonspecific symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea and eventually more severe complications like an enlarged heart or cardiac arrest. For the hellish, sci-fi story of the kissing bug and Chagas disease alone, bugs are certainly worth studying.