Critter Love: Biology Course Demonstrates the Versatility of Insects

Posted: July 16, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

The chocolate chip cookies looked harmless enough, as did the spring rolls. It could’ve been an ordinary end-of-the semester party except for the bowl of mealworms and the chocolate-covered grasshoppers.

cookies
The secret ingredient in these normal-looking cookies: termites.

Rebecca Forkner’s insect biology class, BIOL 332, wasn’t just reviewing for the final exam, they were dabbling in a little entomophagy.

Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects either by humans or other insects. In this case, the humans were mostly junior and senior biology majors.

The professor made the cookies herself with a special ingredient: termites. To prepare the critters for her recipe, she roasted them in the oven before grinding them up and adding them to cookie flour. Forkner, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, also stir-fried the mealworms with a little cayenne pepper.

“You really don’t need to add oil when you stir-fry. They have a high fat content already,” she says.

student with insect
Students in the insect biology class sampled their study subject.

The shrimp spring rolls were prepared by senior An Pham. Her not-so-secret ingredient was silkworm pupa, a delicacy she has been indulging in since girlhood in her native Vietnam. Pham regularly buys silkworm pupas – they come in a can – at her local Asian grocery, but she admits that she prefers them on the side, not in her meal.

The spring rolls were a big hit with the class, as were the cookies. “The spring roll is absolutely fantastic,” said junior Juraj Cech. “There are hints of mint, so good.”

Accompanying the snacks was a PowerPoint prepared by Forkner showing people around the world enjoying locusts on skewers, lemon ants, palm weevils and really big spiders.

But the class wasn’t entirely about insect cuisine.

Using the text “Bugs in the System: Insects and Their Impact on Human Affairs,” Forkner covered ecological, medical and economic entomology over the semester. Course content ranged from learning the basics of insect classification, morphology and development to agriculture, pest management and the relationship between insects and human health. The class also covered forensics and the role of insects in crime scene processing.

Forkner’s own research focuses on invertebrate conservation. Her projects have included studies of social spiders in Mexico, moths and butterflies in tropical forest canopies of Belize, ants in coastal and subtropical habitats, moths in logged and hurricane-damaged ecosystems, and desert- and forest-dwelling beetles. Combining her expertise in entomology and antioxidant chemistry, she is currently conducting research in plant-insect biochemical interactions at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center.

Rebecca Forkner teaching class
Biology professor Rebecca Forkner says, “To me, nearly everything about insect biology and behavior is fascinating, important and potentially groundbreaking.”
Photos by Nicolas Tan

“Our lab is studying the impact that insects have on leaf color change in the fall,” she says. “By damaging the plant, the insects change the biochemical pathways, which in turn change the color of leaves in the fall.”

BIOL 332 will be offered again in the fall. In spring 2009, Forkner and Cynthia Beck, associate chair of Molecular and Microbiology, will be teaching a course on sex (insect, as well as invertebrates and vertebrates).

“Insects are not only the most abundant multicellular life forms but also are responsible for nearly every life-sustaining activity on which we rely, such as nutrient cycling, stabilization or aeration of soil, pollination of crops, removal and decomposition of wastes and control of economically noxious weeds,” says Forkner.

“Lately, we’ve even created a new field of science called biomimicry, in which we use solutions from the insect world to provide technological and medical advances, from computer chip and fiber optics designs to new medications and methods of bomb detection. To me, nearly everything about insect biology and behavior is fascinating, important and potentially groundbreaking.”

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