Kernels of entomological thoughts

Apparently, it is National Popcorn Day.  It is also No Name-Calling Week.  It is pretty easy for me to celebrate the frist.  I admit to being a bit challenged by the second.  However, I will do my best to be nice to you, friendly reader, today as I delve into this corny subject from an entomological perspective.

In honor of National Popcorn Day, I give you: the maize weevil (Sitophilus zeamais).  We

sitophilus_zeamais01
The maize weevil has a distinctive “snout” and four yellow spots on the elytra.

have many insect species that have become pest of the foods we eat because…  well…  we give them the food and they take advantage of it!  The pest species of weevils go after whole grains.  They need a whole, intact kernel.  This is because they actually develop inside that kernel.

 

Here’s how they work.  The adult chews a little crevice into the kernel, lays her egg in that crevice, then seals it up so the egg is protected like a second-grade class burying a time capsule.  All the good stuff is inside and safe.  When the egg hatches, voila!  Food source is right there!  It’s like not having to get out of bed to eat…  ever!  So the newly hatched larvae now just starts eating the kernel of grain from the inside out.  When it is ready to pupate, it still has it’s nice protected home, so why leave?  It pupates right in that hollow shell of the kernel.  When it finally gets to the adult stage, it chews a perfectly round hole and finally exits the kernel, leaving a dried up husk behind.  Like eating a Chipotle burrito from the inside and leaving just the tortilla, still in burrito shape.  Check out this awesome illustration:

rice-weevil
Life cycle of the weevil.  Illustration by EH Zeck.

Before you give up eating popcorn for the rest of your life for fear of finding some added protein sources, the way popcorn is stored and processed before getting to your microwave (or stovetop) ensures little to no insect contamination.  In fact, if stored correctly, popcorn kernels can last for millennia.  Maize weevils and other grain feeding insects want in after the corn has been harvested.  Storage happens in large grain bins that insects see as a

popcorn bins
Popcorn bins = free food for insects!

neverending buffet.  So those bins are sealed as well as possible to keep the little critters out.  Treatments may occur to protect the grain and the facilities where the corn is packaged into those handy microwave pouches have pest management plans in place to prevent infestations.  They have a full arsenal of pest management weapons to prevent and destroy all invading organisms, keeping your tub of extra buttery goodness insect free.

 

Aside from the maize weevil, here are a few other insects that can partake of your perfect popcorn:

images
Stored food pests
  • Angoumois grain moth (Sitotroga cerealella)- named for the French region where they
    were first found.  Another insect that develops inside the kernels.
  • Red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum)- will go after the damaged kernels.  They can’t chew through an intact grain but will take advantage of the kernels the weevils damage.
  • Indian meal moth (Plodia interpunctella)- considered the number one pest of retail stores and homes.  They will go after ANYTHING.

There you go, a little bit of entomological awesomeness to go with your popcorn on this significant holiday (who comes up with these?).  While most of us don’t want our popcorn to taste like insects, there are a few of us brave souls who want our insects to taste like popcorn.  Spread the entomological awesomeness and I promise not to call you any bad names!

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