2017 12 Europaparlament The Use of Insects in European Sciences and Case Work
7. DEC. 2017
AT THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT BRUXELLES
Room ASP A3G-3
Rue Wiertz 60
Bruxelles // Belgium
The Use of Insects in European Forensic Sciences and Case Work - In Reference to the Current Status of Declining European Insect Populations
Nutzung von Insekten in der europäischen Kriminalistik - unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des derzeitigen Insektensterbens in Europa
When you walk through the world of nature and of art, in the European Parliament or in your private life you sometimes see some things that you categorise: This a cyberpunk girl, or maybe you come from the Gothic side, then this is a punk. It’s an artistically overt form – you can immediately perceive the social message. This here is tattooed girl with a radioactive bikini. This is the Hulk or the She-Hulk and it eats a banana. Even if it is weird, we go through, drink a glass of champagne, and we feel fine in a world where, with a certain level of education, we understand the symbols an what is happening around us.
We need to imagine 75% of all members of a political party dying. Or, what if 75% of all people in Lübeck, Cologne, Hamburg or Bruxelles died. You would say, “Hey! Why isn’t anybody doing something? Why aren’t the papers talking about it? Why doesn’t anybody know about it?” Here is a picture of people who work with insects at an international two-day meeting of entomologists.
As you can see, they are nerds, and of course if you are over 60, and nerd and you’re in a polyester shirt, no-one listens to you. If you go to a newspaper and write a letter, people think — at best — that you’re a pundit saying that some insects are dying, and that is it. The bad thing about this was that this summer was the first summer – as was predicted for a long time – where there was a silent spring, a theme from a book title from a long time ago. The quiet spring has now happened. Suddenly there are no insects left. The birds that eat insects were not singing. Also, in Germany everybody said, "Isn’t it strange now that suddenly we don’t have any dead insects on our windscreen?"
Amongst the people who established this — now recognised across the world by parliaments, government organisations and non-governmental organisations — were formerly unknown guys, for example Martin Sorg and Heinz Schwan from the Association for Entomology in Krefeld which I’m not a member of and you’ve probably never heard of them. The other is Jan Habel of the Technical University of Munich who is a professor of terrestrial ecology and several colleagues of them, and they took measurements. They didn’t design a thought experiment, they didn’t hope, they didn’t throw dice or negotiate or discuss or drink beer. They actually measured the real material. Heinz Schwan and his colleagues for the last 30 years took measurements at dozends of sites looking at the animals living there and flying there. They measured and collected them. They’re still in their cupboards. You can check that. Also, they took an already existing collection from the Keilberg in Regensburg which has been there since 1766.
They’ve been collecting insects there for a very long time and both groups found that the decline of insects is not imaginary. It’s nothing to do with biotope changes or use of glyphosate alone in a certain spot. It has to do with the landscape being completely fragmented so that you can have your cheap food in large quantities and, therefore, three quarters of our insects died. Three quarters doesn’t look so threatening in yellow, nor is it so threatening in orange. So let’s use red on this slide here. If you don’t like figures or colours, let’s just say, “75 percent is a lot. It’s an enormous amount.” I hope you understand that in a very short time three quarters of all flying animals have disappeared. If you are as old as I am, you will be surprised: A few years ago, we didn’t even realise they were gone.
If you want a few quotations, this is a man that you may not know even though he is very known amongst biologist. Edward Wilson is a good colleague and confided in the National Geographic that, “This is the most spectacular loss of diversity of invertebrates in the since the historic records began.” This is since we have been recording things. It was the first time since people have been living on the planet that a whole group or class of animals has been threatened by extinction.
This is reality in 2017. Humans spread the plant seeds. It’s not as easy as you think. The seeds need to fall somewhere where there is no glyphosate and where all else is right for them — otherwise they won’t germinate. So many insects are animals we need so we can live. This is the cycle of life and the recycling of substances — most of you don’t even know, perhaps, that this is not just a fantasy from the Lion King — that everything is in the flow of the circle of life. It’s the basis of all life. It’s not just a song by Elton John. It’s every breath you take; not metaphysically or esoterically.
If you find this boring, or if you already found this boring at school, like maths and physics et cetera, of course, you can work on it satirically. In the last issue of Titanic magazine — I’m not a curmudgeon who can’t make jokes about this — there are jokes about the fact that there are enough insects left to fall into the beer; that you need to pollinate with an artificial penis, etc.. Very nice, but nevertheless…
You may wonder what this has to do with breathing. Let me show you the recycling of the substances when you die or when others die. With every breath, oxygen goes into blood cells. It binds there to iron. But iron was never generated on the earth. Iron does not come from earth. Where does it come from? From aliens? No, it comes from a time when the earth did not exist yet. The whole iron accumulated in the form of star dust. There is no endless resource of iron as there are no endless sources of oil. But, oil can be reproduced over very long periods of time. You just need plants to die and then it will form. But not iron. Iron can only be used for breathing because there are microorganisms and very small animals who make it available for us again.
Let’s move on to the amphibians because this is probably clearer. Amphibians are also dying out. They have been dying for 20 years. Some people just know that you can lick certain toads — it’s cool and it gives you a rush — but if you’re not biologists what you don’t know that all the properties of an animal, of frogs or insects, will be forever lost once they die out. You cannot re-engineer these animals back. You cannot re-engineer what was lost on the species level. Imagine all of these animals outside that you do not even notice and you will see how much genetic knowledge there is that we could lose — and that we could use for humans, too. We are killing animals, and at the same time, we kill knowledge.
The reason these amphibians are dying was unknown for a long time. Many thought it was general environmental changes. But, no. It was people again. It was linked to the fact that we want to live for a very long time. We all want to live a long, long time. We use animals as medical models. For instance, this type of frog here. You may also be thinking of mice or drosophila. On the basis of these model animals, we know how these all develop. There’s even a German Nobel Prize for this won by Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. But, this particular frog has spread across the world so that we can live longer because it’s a standardised model that can be used in biomedicine to help us. But, this exterminated the amphibians because an organism that lives in this frog spread with it across the world. These parasites have now spread and the amphibians are dying.
Now, insects are dying and amphibians are already nearly gone. "We were all there" — it`s like watching a sex crime taking place, and we were all just standing by and later saying, “I could have stood up and helped.” It is exactly the same situation. Of course there are some contrary voices if you talk to some big companies. They say, “Don’t make a fuss. There were just a number of minor extinction events.” But these are major extinction events, comparable to the first relevant one 500 million years ago. Then came three others and everything you already know, for example when the dinosaurs died 50 million years ago. These are all extinction events that always meant that we were at the bottom of diversity. It wasn’t nice but there weren't that many people.
Again, if somebody was trying to be clever, they would say, “Look, Benecke, don’t make a fuss. Apparently these collapses were not so bad because human population figures increase exponentially, like the value of Bitcoins." But money works with trust; as long as people believe that paper or coins are worth something, it works. That will stop the millisecond when nobody any longer believes. Then everybody runs to the cash machine and the whole economy collapses. Sometimes it only takes a second. Because in the end, it’s just printed paper or a figure on a screen. But biological networks, that is something different. Here we’re not living on trust. We are living because millions of different species exist and because they make the cycle and circle of life possible. That is useful to us.
Just to give you an idea of what we’re talking about, this is in University of Medellín where I sometimes work. This is where your cocaine comes from, and yes, Pablo Escobar lived there. They put this beautiful picture on the wall because they like animalitos, small bugs and plants. It shows how many animalitos exist and live on earth. Remember, the group from Krefeld found that three quarters of biomass have disappeared. In this picture, these are the small animals with six feet and the small animals with eight feet.
Now let me show you the surprising fact that the biomass and the number of animals is very small when you get to people. People cannot even be represented here in this picture. They would be the dot on the "i", or a snowflake on an iceberg. People are barely represented on the Earth — biologically, they are not relevant. If a neutron bomb exploded only killing people it would make no difference to earth’s history. It would be exactly the same. People build buildings and destroy animals. But, for the actual circle of life, humans don't make any difference. Even higher plants you see in green here — you might think most things on Earth are trees — that’s not true. And that was true even before the time we cut down all the forests.
Here is another picture I drew myself in colour, but the original is from a scientific publication. The vertebrates are not taking up a lot of room, but those animals with six feet and those with eight feet, they do, even compared to all other species and even to single cell organisms. Most people think that there are super many single cell organisms, but this is not the case. Compared to all other animals, those with six or eight feet are the masters of the universe. They really are.
How can you see this in everyday life? Because you may still say, "Why should I be concerned with this?" In this picture you see dirt that we took from a corner and, if you look closely, it’s not made of excrement of cows or dust. If you clean in your home, then maybe yes. But in real life and not below your carpet or under it, things are different. These are all insects! Wasps and mites and all sorts of bugs, butterflies and beetles and blow flies. This is what the world is made of. If you wake up tonight or dream: Think that out there, there are mostly these animals outside.
Some of these animals eat corpses. I work with them, that’s my job. I’m a forensic biologist and an entomologist. I have a very long official title, but basically, I work with insects on corpses. Here you see these animals eating a mouse. The picture comes from an old textbook that children would learn from in the past, but decades later parents would say, "Good grief! This is really gross. Take it out of the book."
One of the animals that you see here is the greenfly or green bottle, Lucilia sericata, and she is laying some eggs. These are the eggs — about 200 eggs. They come from this single fly. It is on a tissue in which a corpse has lain. The corpse had been wrapped in this cloth and put into this bag. The fly did not want to go onto the corpse, but still laid its eggs. This is typical. Most think flies are dirty — Benecke just said so. But not at all. You all touch corpses. This is a piece of meat from the butcher. It is made from a corpse. It is corpse that you buy at the butcher. Corpse muscle. Corpse fat. It’s all corpse. It’s all dead.
Each of these eggs of a fly will produce one fly. These animals do not come out of the body. They come from eggs that need to be laid and then you get a carpet of maggots. Here you see a real corpse with a few bacteria also helping to recycle material. Without these bugs there is no recycling. You can imagine that this is what things look like in coffin. A fly may have laid some eggs under your arms or in your eyes and you will become a maggot carpet. It’s very nice poetry, Baudelaire wrote that this sounds like the sea or the ocean, or like the wind going through a corn field. If you put your ears to a maggot carpet, you will hear this because there are so many maggots rubbing agains each other.
We use insects in real cases because there are all sorts of applications. There is recycling and then there are criminal cases. Here’s a photograph of somebody who died in bed and nobody touched him because they were all afraid. They were afraid of poisonous corpses even though that doesn’t exist, otherwise, like i mentioned, you couldn’t eat meat. It’s only a corpse. He dried out, and this is dried out tissue. This is the top layer of the skin. The problem was, he had some maggots in one eye. Here you can see the maggots in his eye: It does not look so good because if they’re all in one eye maybe there was some poison in the other eye, or possibly a knife.
It could have been the other way round. This is why the experiment is so useful. And that’s the bad thing about politics: it’s difficult to make experiments in politics. Everybody says, “Socialism has failed and that was shown in the experiment.” But, the question is, was socialism done the way where it would work properly so it could work? Could it be correct? Nobody knows. The inverse experiment is capitalism. Is it working? It is eating up everything and in particular resources. We don’t know what a modified form of capitalism would look like. It’s very difficult to make political experiments or they are too short lived. That is our main problem here.
I like my tiny world where you can carry out real experiments. In politics you can only watch and make sure that you can protect our world and do things that are useful and sometimes sexy. I want to show you a brief few examples. This is the Palermo Mummies, more than 2,000 mummies in a basement at a Capuchin abbey. We were only allowed to work there at night which is of course the dream of every young boy. I didn’t know that when I was a young boy, but I later found out that this is what I wanted as a young boy. At night, for days in an abbey cellar with 2,000 mummies — it can’t get any better. This is my colleague Tina, this is the archaeologist Joerg. And this is our local liaison person — he’s clever and smart. And this is a journalist from the newspaper, Die Zeit. We spent our time there analysing these mummies, going through these cellars.
I will show you what you see when you look at things like a child. If you’re over 45, you may remember that once there was a proxy war in Afghanistan. If a child asks you “What is the connection with IS?”, you can google that. It can be done very quickly. But in natural sciences and in forensics, we are using experiments and are not taking a historical or political view.
So let’s look at these things like a child; the uninformed, stupid and silly view. We see something is wrong. What is wrong, as I was saying, is the fact that flies like to lay their eggs into the eyes, so why is the face in this picture of a mummy gone and the back is still there? That is something a child will ask. A 5-year-old child asks, “Daddy why is the face still there and all else is missing?” This is something we need to find out. First we look to see whether it’s true at all. We verify or falsify. You can’t do that in politics because if you say, “I believe that a conservative market policy…” or, “I believe that an egalitarian legislation… a free health system is good or bad…”, you cannot isolate it from the social or cultural context. In criminalistics, if done properly, we can do that. We can look at whether it’s right. So do the mummies have masks? So we use the Occam’s Razor principle. Occam’s Razor or the Sherlock Holmes rule: First of all, exclude everything experimentally that is not correct. Thinking is bad, and you do not need it. Just exclude everything that cannot be — by use of experiments. What is then left must be true even if it is improbable.
In the private sector you may often ask a similarly easy question: Qui bono – who benefits? If you use this in everyday life, your life would be very easy. You could use both rules for relatives and friends. "Who benefits?" It is so simple and many things would become perfectly clear. But this is very difficult here to ask because you don’t know the social or cultural context.
So who do we ask in forensic sciences? We ask the insects, for example. What insects? We often don’t see any insects. Of course we don't, because normally, we are not looking closely for them. Children touch everything and see it immediately. So let's take a closer look. This here is a scale used at murder site. We always use this card, so we have a scale of millimetres and inches, and colours in every photograph. Then you can go and zoom in and zoom in and you see that we have some leftovers there. The leftovers of insects you see here in the picture were hundreds of years old. How do I know? Because in this case, I have worked with an archaeologist. I had corpses that were over 1,600 years old. How do we know? Because one was sealed with seals, and the dendrochronologist and the seal experts knew when that wood was cut and when it was sealed. They have wood and Christian seal collections spanning hundreds of years and can say how old the piece of wood and the seals were. We work together and in the end, we know how long the person was buried. It's not thinking, just observing.
Let’s take a look at the small animals. This is for specialists, particularly people who are not interested in politics or religion or culture or social content very much — for example people with Asperger’s. Hans Asperger of the eponymous neurodevelopmental disorder said it himself. I went to London in the autisms library and I found the last manuscript of a journal in which he stated that for good art and good science you need a dose of autism to look away from all the big context which is there, but which is not meaningful on the crime stain level.
So I know it’s boring, but I will show you what animals we may find. I will introduce them to you.
Don’t worry it will not be many. I’m just going to show you this one for starters: Hydrotaea ignava.It is a fly which looks good because it’s all black. Black is nice. Black is beautiful. I like it. And these animals have a very limited way of life, like you. This is because of connections in their brain are pretty hard-wired. They don’t think. They are like small robots. So we can use their behavior and places they prefer to find out what conditions were around when they came to the corpse.
Here is a real case — a case from Italy where a man died involving my colleague Teresa Bonacci. The man just died for whatever reason. Maybe neglected or using substances. Maybe it was a cardiac arrest. We have a few Calliphora vicina, the green bottle fly and Hydrotaea ignava. These are animals that tell us what happened before with the corpses, even when it’s gone. Sherlock Holmes magic! When insects like these die out or when three quarters of them are gone, we have three quarters fewer tools in our toolbox. Even if you believe that you hate insects and you don’t want them because they bite and they sting, then at least we can take with us the utilitarian argument that they are useful in the circle of life and in crime scene investigations.
Another very useful argument in favour of these animals is that there are some animals that clean injuries. This here is a typical injury in the 1990s with multiresistant bacteria in Cologne in Germany where we had a huge problem with multiresistant infection. Some of you are quite sure to die of this. In hospital some of you will get multiresistant infections, but it will not be reported because allegedly, you had a “cardiac arrest”. But this is because of the multiresistence. The wound may will get worse and you cannot swim and dance with it. Your friend or your girlfriend or your boyfriend doesn’t want to bathe with you because of what it looks like. It doesn’t go away. When the doctor wants to amputate, you’ll say no because your leg or hand still functions. In such cases, we use the maggots of the green fly and a few months later, like we do in poor countries like Vietnam, Peru, Colombia, we put them on the wound. In Germany you can also buy them at the chemist’s. In Colombia you just take rotten dog food and they come immediately. On this picture, you see the healed injury. Even the skin came back. Without sewing, the wound closed without a scar. This is what the animals can do. This is not the greatest achievement, but it’s a super useful one.
Here is a hump-backed fly, so called because it has a hump. My colleagues and I found in catacombs but also at corpses in the grave. So even if we don’t have comparative DNA, we can at least make a reconstruction of the time and events because we know how long these insects develop and how they like to live. So if these animals are found in a carpet that is wrapped around a corpse found in a lake, you know that this corpse must have been in a grave-like situation — not in water — before. It is very useful. It helps us a lot.
One last example which is very utilitarian too: This here on the next photograph is what happens if you don’t take off your shoes for a long time because you believe that your shoes could be stolen, which is very important for people living on the street, or if you’re just paranoid and think there’s something special about the shoes, or maybe you think the government wants to steal your steal from you. You can get these injuries here which you may recognise as pressure marks. If everything smells like cheese and the wound developed, maggots will crawl in there. These are very small and will clean the injury. This man here in the picture would have died a long time ago if the maggots had not cleaned the injury.
So it’s useful to like useful insects.
Let's take a closer look at another corpse. We always hear that maggots stare at you and that’s why nobody wants to work with them. But these are not eyes. These are the end parts of the animals. This is how they breathe. If you were a maggot, you would be able to breathe with your feet, so to speak. Or, if you were swimming in beer at a party, you could drink with your mouth and breathe with your feet. Those two breathing dots make a difference because, if I think “animals are watching me coming out of the corpse” then maybe I am afraid and I won’t use them to clean a poor person’s injury somewhere in the favelas in Venezuela, Peru or Colombia. If they look at me, I might be afraid they’re going to get me. If you know these are not eyes these but breathing apparatus, you might decide to work with them. It is completely irrational but it's a useful way to look at it and to a good reason to like such insects.
Now, I’m just going to show you a maggot carpet. The nature of the maggot carpet depends on the temperature and the humidity and may help us to determine how long the corpse has been lying there. In this picture here, it could be one week, yet everybody would say, “It’s unimaginable.” But no, don’t imagine. Ever. That would be thinking, and thinking is bad in the world of stains. We don’t think. We don’t imagine, and we don’t believe. We don’t compare this with our reality because it doesn’t make any difference to this one actual case. So we document what we see. It doesn’t make any difference what we believe to be good or bad, or big or small. There are no values in the world of stains, just facts.
Here you see what reality looks like. These are corpses and somebody tells me, “Mark, you have 10 minutes because you’re getting on my nerves and it’s strange that you’re looking at maggots at a rotting penis.” The real reason is that I know how animals live. I don’t know people so well, but I know animals. I know what my animals do and what they like. Here, they go where they’re protected from light. They like heat but they don’t like the light because they don’t want to dry out. They know where is windy and where is warm. That’s what they avoid. That’s why I collect them where it is warm and protected from wind. This is my trap. This is where I find my little decompositional clocks.
There are other situations which are more complicated, like this one. Here you see the maggots, and the slugs are eating the maggots. They are eating away all the egg patches and the maggots and this is bad because this might be your brother lying here and it’s difficult to determine the time since colonisation with insects started because the snails may have eaten them away. This photograph was taken is a garden we have used for 10 years yet I only saw slugs on one single day. If the snails had eaten away the maggots then I may have performed a wrong determination of colonisation time — I may have made the right calculation of the age of my insects but on the wrong premise that no snails had eaten the first wave of insects.
That brings us back to politics. You can have a right decision based on the wrong premise, but you wouldn’t even know. Like these slugs which are sometimes there and are sometimes not. How do we know they are there? It would be good if one had an objective-based policy, but we don’t know most of the premises. In science it’s better because we sometimes know, or at least, as you heard, we can check experimentally, which is always difficult in politics.
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