Street cleaners in New York have help from insect garbage-munchers

"If insects weren't eating all of this food, it would accumulate and be foul," Elsa Youngsteadt said.
By Brooks Hays  |  Dec. 2, 2014 at 5:49 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- For junk food-loving insects, New York City is the place to be. According to new research, urban-dwelling bugs -- millipedes, ants, spiders and cockroaches -- roaming a 150-block stretch of the Broadway/West Street corridor consume the equivalent of 60,000 hotdogs each year.

Yes, it's not just rodents that keep keep half-eaten hot dogs, potato chips, and cookies from accumulating -- preventing parks and road medians from becoming wastelands of rotting food. According to scientists at North Carolina State University, insects do their part, too.

"If insects weren't eating all of this food, it would accumulate and be foul," lead study author Elsa Youngsteadt, an entomologist at North Carolina State, told National Geographic.

Researchers measured the waste-reduction contributions of insects by observing their consumption of human foods in a controlled setting. Scientists recreated a series of city medians and sidewalks in the lab and placed Ruffles potato chips, Nabisco Nilla Wafers and Oscar Mayer Extra Lean Franks out for the taking.

In one of the experiments, the food was protected by a cage, allowing only the arthropods (a variety of insects and arachnids) to access the edible refuse. In a separate setting, arthropods and animals (a variety of rodents) were both given unfettered access to the junk food. Alone, the arthropods consumed 34 percent of the food. In tandem, the animals consumed 80 percent.

But combining their observations from the lab with knowledge of how many and what kinds of insects populate the scalable ecosystem of a city block, the researchers were able to estimate the total street cleaning support of cement-crawlers in the city.

The takeaway: the role of insects in keeping city streets, sidewalks, parks and playgrounds free of garbage is considerable.

Youngsteadt hopes the findings are just the beginning of a prolonged effort to better understand the urban ecosystem.

"More than half the world's population lives in cities," she told The New York Times, "and we have to decide how the organisms that live around us provide services or disservices to us."

Youngsteadt's research was published Tuesday in the journal Global Change Biology.

Topics: Oscar Mayer
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