Several years ago while I was living in the Bolivian Amazon, I developed aching joints. I was in a jungle populated by people who had malaria, dengue, and the chronic problems of a hard life in a poor country: my complaints seemed silly. Still, my joints bothered me so I mentioned them one day to my neighbor over a dinner of jungle rat and rice. The neighbor, a local woman who, like most people in the world, extracted most of her medicine from the land around her, said she could help me. She took me to a tree surging with long, thin, reddish ants and told me to put my leg against the tree. The ants lived in the hollow center of the Palo Diablo (devil tree), which they were, by all appearances, prepared to defend. Reluctantly, I applied my leg. A dozen ants immediately swarmed up to my thigh and then up and, how do I put this politely, beyond. As they began stinging me, Maria said I could move away from the tree now. When I stopped screaming, I looked over at her. She was on her knees laughing—and my knee had stopped hurting.

My first thought was that the pain of my joints had simply been replaced by the new and more exotic pain of the ants. But Maria may have been on to something. Today there is a US patent on the chemicals those ants were injecting into the fat above my patella. Stripped of its tropical splendor, the patent reads “Venom sac of ants from the genus Pseudomyrmex triplarinus is injected into a patient with the result that there is a remission of pain and other symptoms.” Trials in the lab with mice have shown that the venom of P. triplarinus contains a new class of anti-inflammatory proteins. A process has now been developed and patented for culturing the venom gland cells of these ants in the lab, which could provide a route to production of the active components of the venom for arthritis treatment in a way that doesn’t involve swarming ants.

In the drive to find new sources for drugs, scientists and conservation biologists in particular draw attention to plants and their potential. This potential is real, if not always realized, but plants are a minority player in the planet’s biodiversity. Insects produce complex suites of chemicals. They make them for the same reasons plants do—defense, mating, communication, medicine, and other processes that help them survive—but they are many times more diverse than plants. This means they contain a much greater diversity of chemical compounds too.

As a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, I have often lectured on the potential medicinal value of things found in rainforests. Compounds derived from blister beetles have been shown to be effective in treating certain cancers in cell cultures. In lab experiments, termite poop, extracts of housefly larvae, and the fungi farmed by ants all kill fungi and bacteria, often more effectively than do commercial antibiotics. Devil-tree ants and bees treat rheumatism (and the mysterious aches of certain tropical biologists). Compounds derived from insect skeletons work as anticoagulants and to lower cholesterol levels. Extracts of male silkworms (but not females) even extend the lives of fruit flies and, the implication is, potentially humans.

Commercially packaged extracts of many pharmaceutically active insects, whether clinically tested in a Western sense or not, are widely available to large markets. These products range from the completely fictional (Spanish fly can be bought on the web from many sources, but typically does not include the true Spanish fly, a blister beetle), to highly effective (but typically poorly regulated). In China and Korea, insects are used widely and are available in medical offices, stores and now on the web and at stores around the world (including my local Asian food store). A quick googling yields products as exotic as, dried centipede (for lock jaw) or  “silk moth poop,” for the treatment of, in what seems to be a poor translation, “Turbid Dampness.” The demand for some insect medicines is great enough to inspire counterfeiters. Recently, a Chinese businessman was sentenced to execution for selling hundred of millions of dollars of what he reported were rare medicinal ant of the genus Polyrhachis to be raised in colonies in people’s homes. Polyrhachis ants have been used as medicine in China for thousands of years and have been clinically tested for a variety of uses. But the ants being sold were instead extracts of a more common ant with little medicinal value.

In Western countries, many insects and insect derivatives are now marketed as supplements. Often these supplements have been tested in lab settings (in vitro) and even in vivo in rats but not clinically. Propolis is a resinous material bees make by mixing plant products (often poplar tree buds)and wax. Honey bees use propolis as both a glue and an antibiotic in their hives. In lab settings, propolis has been shown to have antibacterial activity against common gram-positive bacteria, including the human tubercle bacilli, possibly due to its high flavenoid content. Other studies have shown propolis to have antibacterial activity against a laundry list of other bacteria, including Streptococcus pyrogenes, and Staphylococcus aurea.

Recent work in mice has shown that propolis can also reduce inflammation leading to less pain in mice with rheumatism (and hopefully the same effect in humans with rheumatism).
In addition to its antibiotic properties, more recent research has shown that propolis can inhibit HIV viral expression, at least in cell culture. Although Propolis is not approved for medicinal uses in the U.S., it is approved as a supplement and as a supplement it is widely purchased. For the moment, propolis is perhaps the greatest success story in insect medicine.

Few insect derived pharmaceutical appear to have yet made through the clinical trial phase and on into sales as pharmaceuticals. But a few start-ups view the possibilities that insect pharmaceuticals represent as sufficiently appealing so as to represent their sole focus. Entocosm, a bioprospecting company partially funded by the Australian government, has patented antibiotic proteins that ants use to sanitize the environment. So far, Entocosm has screened more than 1000 insect species and is focusing on identifying anti-microbial and anti-cancer compounds. Other patents are pending and Entocosm is in the process of expanding its research.

A South Korean company, EntoPharm, is dedicated exclusively to deriving commercial compounds from insects. To date, it has worked primarily with the blowfly Calliphora vicina from which it has extracted the peptide Polyfensin which, as of the publication of this article, was in pre-clinical trials as an antibiotic. It has completed clinical trials on an injectable antiviral agent called Alloferon, also made from blowflies, which it claims is the “first immunomodulatory agent from insect [sic].” Alloferon has been approved in Russia as treatment for genital herpes and has a US patent. Versions of Alloferon are also in clinical trials for the treatment of immunological disorders.

But though the number of herbals, supplements and pharmaceuticals being extracted from or derived from insects is growing, it’s not growing fast enough. Merck recently pulled out of a 1991 multimillion-dollar venture with the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, a private nonprofit devoted to conservation as well as bioprospecting, with whom Merck had arranged to have exclusive rights to new products. Despite nearly 15 years and $4 million (and a broader contribution from other donors of nearly $60 million), no products came out of the venture. Similar problems, were encountered by BioAmazonia (a partnership between Novartis and the Brazilian government)and Shaman Pharmaceuticals, both of which planned to screen insects. So if insects hold the secret to vast amounts of valuable compounds, what’s going wrong?

The first problem is diversity. Because there are so many species with no apparent medicinal value—and so many species altogether—it takes time to sort the wheat from the chaff. And most species are not known at all. As many as nine out of ten insect species on earth have not yet been named, much less studied in depth. Even for projects, like Entocosm’s, that simply begin by screening large numbers of species, Entocosm has to know something about the species, if only to be able to find them again once they are discovered to be useful.

“Even in the United States and Europe, almost any insect you encounter is a blank slate when it comes to its diet, behavior or habitat requirements, or even simply where to find it again,” says Sacha Spector, manager of the Invertebrate Conservation Program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The diversity of insects is not the only barrier to their use as medicine either. Bugs are also just small. The glands and chambers of insects in which compounds are stored are even smaller. The smallness of insects and our ignorance about their diets and habits make it difficult to culture sufficient individuals to extract large quantities of compounds. Here the exception proves the rule. The relative success of honey bee propolis is at least partially due to the fact that honey bees are easy to culture and widespread. The same for blow flies which have been studied in the lab for over a hundred years. Conversely, for most species, even Ants, which are among the largest groups of insects culture techniques remain primitive. I study ants—and indeed they are one of the most-studied species. But I don’t know what most of the ants living in my backyard eat, much less what the more diverse ants of the tropics eat or what the exponentially more diverse beetles of the tropics eat.

But the hidden and most serious obstacle to a bug-drug revolution is time. In order for the secrets of the insect world to be revealed, scientists need insider information, and scientists are a little too late: those insiders, or at least their traditional knowledge, is being lost.

To find out about uses of plants, scientists often talk to the people who have used them for generations. If people living in the forests, savannas and coasts for thousands of years used a species for a particular ailment, there is a reasonable probability it actually works (and of course a real but incalculable probability it doesn’t). Many important pharmaceuticals have come from this approach. But most ethnobiologists assume, against the weight of evidence, that indigenous peoples know little about invertebrates.

My friend, Maria Sosa, uses dozens of species to treat her family, including bees, wasps, ants, beetles and roaches. And recent studies indicate that many indigenous groups know and use hundreds of insect species as medicine. In Chhattisgarh, India, over 500 species of insects, mites and spiders are used as medicine. Chinese and Korean pharmacopeias include hundreds of species of insects, from house flies to rare ants, and their use is widespread and common. The Caboclo people of Brazil grind roaches into a powder to treat asthma. In a recent survey in South Korea, 100 percent of medical clinics offered centipedes, silk moth larvae, and cicada nymphs as treatment. The more we look, the more we find that the use of insects in medicine is widespread.

And what of the cultures of the past? Insects have been used in Chinese medicine for 3,000 years. Several recent discoveries of the medical values of insects have been borrowings from China. But when cultures die, the only hope of learning from them is through their writings, if they have any. In scouring old ethnographies with my wife, who is an anthropologist, I find little. In one source I read that the Wingke mPoso of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi kept red ants in a bamboo container, fed them popcorn, collected their droppings and then sprinkled these on wounds to promote healing; they also swallowed them to cure diarrhea. But no more details of these little red ants were ever recorded and no one knows which of the nearly thousand ant species in Sulawesi they were.

Traditional knowledge holds a key to quickly identifying useful insects. It emerges through millennia of “R&D”: what worked when our people were sick? Some insects were poisonous and some were useless. But a subset were used again and again, proving themselves. In the handful of cultures in which the use of insects as medicine has been studied, hundreds of applications have been identified. It may be that most cultures once had hundreds of medicinal uses of insects. But when the people’s languages die, that knowledge, more often than not, dies with it. Languages are being lost worldwide at a rapid pace. Some estimate there were 12,000 a hundred years ago and that 80 percent of the remaining 6,000 will soon be extinct. With those languages and all of the knowledge coded in specific words, will go much of what we collectively know about the curative powers of insects.

So every year that our ability to produce insect-based pharmaceuticals increases, we lose more of the knowledge that would lead us to discover them. We remain ignorant both about what the value of insect medicine could be and what our future needs for medicines will be. And whereas the benefits to pharmaceutical companies, whenever they invest in insect or any other pharmaceuticals, may be temporary, the consequences of losing the knowledge of traditional peoples are permanent.

“Ethnobotanists have likened the loss to the loss of a library. If all the libraries of a nation were to burn to the ground tomorrow, what would be lost?” says Mike Gavin, an ethnobiologist at the University of Wellington in New Zealand. “But the loss of traditional knowledge is more than this. Lost is a link to a place, to a way of being, and to the past,” Lost also are the efforts of the men and women who went to the forest and did their own clinical trials until they found the bugs that worked.

The night that I was treated by Maria Sosa’s ants, I sat up listening to the sounds around me. The Amazon is full of species, a billion animals calling to each other, sniffing each other out in the dark. For now when I talk about the value of such tropical biodiversity in class I still mention the potential of pharmaceuticals from insects as well as from plants. Their economic value is still mostly a potential one, a value not yet fully realized, but one, that if we don’t realize now will be much harder to realize in the future. The libraries of traditional knowledge are disappearing far more quickly than is biodiversity itself. As they do, we seem to be just on the verge of realizing that those books were full of things that our lives depended on.

Several years ago while I was living in the Bolivian Amazon, I developed aching joints. I was in a jungle populated by people who had malaria, dengue, and the chronic problems of a hard life in a poor country: my complaints seemed silly. Still, my joints bothered me so I mentioned them one day to my neighbor over a dinner of jungle rat and rice. The neighbor, a local woman who, like most people in the world, extracted most of her medicine from the land around her, said she could help me. She took me to a tree surging with long, thin, reddish ants and told me to put my leg against the tree. The ants lived in the hollow center of the Palo Diablo (devil tree), which they were, by all appearances, prepared to defend. Reluctantly, I applied my leg. A dozen ants immediately swarmed onto my leg and then up and, how do I put this politely, beyond. As they began stinging me, Maria said I could move away from the tree now. When I stopped screaming, I looked over at her. She was on her knees laughing—and my knee had stopped hurting.

My first thought was that the pain was gone only because of the very new and more exotic pain of the ants. But Maria may have been on to something. Today there is a US patent on the chemicals those ants were injecting into the fat above my patella. Stripped of its tropical splendor, the patent reads simply “Venom sac of ants from the genus Pseudomyrmex triplarinus is injected into a patient with the result that there is a remission of pain and other symptoms.” Trials in the lab with mice have shown that the venom of P. triplarinus contains a new class of anti-inflammatory proteins. A process has now been developed and patented for culturing the venom gland cells of these ants in the lab, which could provide a route to production of the active components of the venom for arthritis treatment in a way that doesn’t involve swarming ants.

In the drive to find new sources for drugs, scientists and conservation biologists in particular draw attention to plants and their potential. This potential is real, if not always realized, but plants are a minority player in the planet’s biodiversity. Insects produce complex suites of chemicals. They make them for the same reasons plants do—defense, mating, communication, medicine, and other processes that help them survive—but they are many times more diverse. This means they contain a much greater diversity of chemical compounds too.

“Insects may well turn out to offer a far wider range of products than plants,” says Andrew Beattie, professor and director of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University in North Ryde, Australia.

The ants that stung my knee are the tip of a medicinal iceberg.

As a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, I have often lectured on the potential medicinal value of things found in rainforests in my classes. Compounds derived from blister beetles have been shown to be effective in treating certain cancers in cell cultures. In lab experiments, termite poop, extracts of housefly larvae, and the fungi farmed by ants kill fungi and bacteria, often more effectively than commercial antibiotics do. Devil-tree ants and bees treat rheumatism (and the mysterious aches of certain tropical biologists). Compounds derived from insect skeletons work as anticoagulants and to lower cholesterol levels. And under the category of, no one is going to have time for the clinical trials, extracts of male silkworms (but not females) extend the lives of fruit flies and, the implication is, potentially humans.

Commercially packaged extracts of many pharmaceutically active insects, whether clinically tested in a Western sense or not, are widely available to large markets, either on the internet or in medical offices in other countries. It seems to call these herbals, but there is no good word for the insect equivalent, insectals perhaps. These products range from the completely fictional (Spanish fly can be bought on the web from many sources, but typically does not include the true Spanish fly, a blister beetle), to highly effective (but typically poorly regulated). In China and Korea, insects are used widely and are available in medical offices, stores and now on the web and at stores around the world (including my local Asian food store). A quick googling will yield products as exotic as, dried centipede (for lock jaw) or  “silk moth poop,” for the treatment of, in what seems to be a poor translation, “Turbid Dampness.” The demand for some insect medicines is great enough to inspire counterfeiters. Recently, a Chinese businessman was sentenced to execution for selling hundred of millions of dollars of what he reported were rare medicinal ant of the genus Polyrhachis to be raised in colonies in people’s homes. Polyrhachis ants have been used as medicine in China for thousands of years and have been clinically tested for a variety of uses. But the ants being sold were instead extracts of a more common ant with little medicinal value.

In Western countries, many insects and insect derivatives are now marketed as supplements. Often these supplements have been tested in lab settings (in vitro) and even in vivo in rats but not clinically. Propolis is a resinous material bees make by mixing plant products (often poplar tree buds)and wax. Honey bees use propolis as both a glue and an antibiotic in their hives. In lab settings, propolis has been shown to have antibacterial activity against common gram-positive bacteria, including the human tubercle bacilli, possibly due to its high flavenoid content. Other studies have shown propolis to have antibacterial activity against a laundry list of other bacteria, including Streptococcus pyrogenes, and Staphylococcus aurea. Recent work in mice has shown that propolis can also reduce inflammation leading to less pain in mice with rheumatism (and hopefully the same effect in humans with rheumatism).

In addition to its antibiotic properties, more recent research has shown that propolis can inhibit HIV viral expression, at least in cell culture. Although Propolis is not approved for medicinal uses in the U.S., it is approved as a supplement and as a supplement it is widely purchased. For the moment, propolis is perhaps the greatest success story in insect medicine.

Few insect derived pharmaceutical appear to have yet made through the clinical trial phase and on into sales as pharmaceuticals. But a few start-ups view the possibilities that insect pharmaceuticals represent as sufficiently appealing so as to represent their sole focus. Entocosm, a bioprospecting company partially funded by the Australian government, has patented antibiotic proteins that ants use to sanitize the environment. So far, Entocosm has screened more than 1000 insect species and is focusing on identifying anti-microbial and anti-cancer compounds. Other patents are pending and Entocosm is in the process of expanding its research.

A South Korean company, EntoPharm, is dedicated exclusively to deriving commercial compounds from insects. To date, it has worked primarily with the blowfly Calliphora vicina from which it has extracted the peptide Polyfensin which, as of the publication of this article, was in pre-clinical trials as an antibiotic. It has completed clinical trials on an injectable antiviral agent called Alloferon, also made from blowflies, which it claims is the “first immunomodulatory agent from insect [sic].” Alloferon has been approved in Russia as treatment for genital herpes and has a US patent. Versions of Alloferon are also in clinical trials for the treatment of immunological disorders.

But though the number of herbals, supplements and pharmaceuticals being extracted from or derived from insects is growing, it’s not growing fast enough. Merck recently pulled out of a 1991 multimillion-dollar venture with the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, a private nonprofit devoted to conservation as well as bioprospecting, with whom Merck had arranged to have exclusive rights to new products. Despite nearly 15 years and $4 million (and a broader contribution from other donors of nearly $60 million), no products came out of the venture. Similar problems, were encountered by BioAmazonia (a partnership between Novartis and the Brazilian government)and Shaman Pharmaceuticals, both of which planned to screen insects. So if insects hold the secret to vast amounts of valuable compounds, what’s going wrong?

The first problem is diversity. Because there are so many species with no apparent medicinal value—and so many species altogether—it takes time to sort the wheat from the chaff. And most species are not known at all. As many as nine out of ten insect species on earth have not yet been named, much less studied in depth. Even for projects, like Entocosm’s, that simply begin by screening large numbers of species, Entocosm has to know something about the species, if only to be able to find them again once they are discovered to be useful.

“Even in the United States and Europe, almost any insect you encounter is a blank slate when it comes to its diet, behavior or habitat requirements, or even simply where to find it again,” says Sacha Spector, manager of the Invertebrate Conservation Program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The diversity of insects is not the only barrier to their use as medicine either. Bugs are also just small. The glands and chambers of insects in which compounds are stored are even smaller. The smallness of insects and our ignorance about their diets and habits make it difficult to culture sufficient individuals to extract large quantities of compounds. Here the exception proves the rule. The relative success of honey bee propolis is at least partially due to the fact that honey bees are easy to culture and widespread. The same for blow flies which have been studied in the lab for over a hundred years. Conversely, for most species, even Ants, which are among the largest groups of insects culture techniques remain primitive. I study ants—and indeed they are one of the most-studied species. But I don’t know what most of the ants living in my backyard eat, much less what the more diverse ants of the tropics eat or what the exponentially more diverse beetles of the tropics eat.

But the hidden and most serious obstacle to a bug-drug revolution is time. In order for the secrets of the insect world to be revealed, scientists need insider information, and scientists are a little too late: those insiders, or at least their traditional knowledge, is being lost.

To find out about uses of plants, scientists often talk to the people who have used them for generations. If people living in the forests, savannas and coasts for thousands of years used a species for a particular ailment, there is a reasonable probability it actually works (and of course a real but incalculable probability it doesn’t). Many important pharmaceuticals have come from this approach. But most ethnobiologists assume, against the weight of evidence, that indigenous peoples know little about invertebrates.

My friend, Maria Sosa, uses dozens of species to treat her family, including bees, wasps, ants, beetles and roaches. And recent studies indicate that many indigenous groups know and use hundreds of insect species as medicine. In Chhattisgarh, India, over 500 species of insects, mites and spiders are used as medicine. Chinese and Korean pharmacopeias include hundreds of species of insects, from house flies to rare ants, and their use is widespread and common. The Caboclo people of Brazil grind roaches into a powder to treat asthma. In a recent survey in South Korea, 100 percent of medical clinics offered centipedes, silk moth larvae, and cicada nymphs as treatment. The more we look, the more we find that the use of insects in medicine is widespread.

And what of the cultures of the past? Insects have been used in Chinese medicine for 3,000 years. Several recent discoveries of the medical values of insects have been borrowings from China. But when cultures die, the only hope of learning from them is through their writings, if they have any. In scouring old ethnographies with my wife, who is an anthropologist, I find little. In one source I read that the Wingke mPoso of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi kept red ants in a bamboo container, fed them popcorn, collected their droppings and then sprinkled these on wounds to promote healing; they also swallowed them to cure diarrhea. But no more details of these little red ants were ever recorded and no one knows which of the nearly thousand ant species in Sulawesi they were.

Traditional knowledge holds a key to quickly identifying useful insects. It emerges through millennia of “R&D”: what worked when our people were sick? Some insects were poisonous and some were useless. But a subset were used again and again, proving themselves. In the handful of cultures in which the use of insects as medicine has been studied, hundreds of applications have been identified. It may be that most cultures once had hundreds of medicinal uses of insects. But when the people’s languages die, that knowledge, more often than not, dies with it. Languages are being lost worldwide at a rapid pace. Some estimate there were 12,000 a hundred years ago and that 80 percent of the remaining 6,000 will soon be extinct. With those languages and all of the knowledge coded in specific words, will go much of what we collectively know about the curative powers of insects.
So every year that our ability to produce insect-based pharmaceuticals increases, we lose more of the knowledge that would lead us to discover them. We remain ignorant both about what the value of insect medicine could be and what our future needs for medicines will be. Whereas the benefits to pharmaceutical companies, whenever they invest in insect or any other pharmaceuticals, may be temporary, the consequences of losing the knowledge of traditional peoples are permanent.
“Ethnobotanists have likened the loss to the loss of a library. If all the libraries of a nation were to burn to the ground tomorrow, what would be lost?” says Mike Gavin, an ethnobiologist at the University of Wellington in New Zealand. “But the loss of traditional knowledge is more than this. Lost is a link to a place, to a way of being, and to the past,” Lost also are the efforts of the men and women who went to the forest and did their own clinical trials until they found the bugs that worked.

The night that I was treated by Maria Sosa’s ants, I sat up listening to the sounds around me. The Amazon is full of species, a billion animals calling to each other, sniffing each other out in the dark. For now when I talk about the value of such tropical biodiversity in class I still mention the potential of pharmaceuticals from insects as well as from plants. Their economic value is still mostly a potential one, a value not yet fully realized, but one, that if we don’t realize now will be much harder to realize in the future. The libraries of traditional knowledge are disappearing far more quickly than is biodiversity itself. As they do, we seem to be just on the verge of realizing that those books were full of things that our lives depended on.