Folk Medicine

Folk remedies for the treatment of the innumerable ailments that befall humans and their animals are found worldwide. Although less important than herbal remedies, insects play a role in the folklore of healing and drug use. One of the most well-known insect-derived folk medicines is cantharidin. This powerful vesicant is derived from dried blister beetles, particularly Lytta vesicatoria. Although cantharidin can be extremely toxic to humans, as recently as the early 1900s cantharidin was used to treat a variety of ailments such as asthma, epilepsy, warts, sterility, and bedwetting. In Europe, where the drug as well as the beetle is known as "Spanish fly," powdered cantharidin was taken orally for its purported qualities as an aphrodisiac. Cossinus, a close friend of the Roman Emperor Nero, reportedly died when an Egyptian doctor gave him "cantharis" to drink for treatment of a skin disease.

Many other insects and insect-derived products have been, and sometimes continue to be, used to improve health and treat disease. One product of insects that is widely used today in the context of what might be called folk medicine is bee pollen. The consumption of bee pollen is said to improve general health and increase stamina. Tonics and teas derived from nearly every insect order, from bedbugs to beetles and cicadas, have found their way into the human apothecary. In China, exuviae left behind by newly emerged adults are used to prepare a tonic to treat eye disease and ailments of the lungs and liver and to soothe crying children. Another particularly interesting use of insect-derived pharmaceuticals in China has recently received much publicity. A tonic made from the fruiting body of the entomophagous fungus Cordyceps sinensis is considered a general-health and stress-relieving tonic. The fungus is collected in the wild from the dead caterpillar hosts of the hepialid moth Hepilus fabricius. In addition to the variety of ailments purportedly treated with this tonic, caterpillar fungus is also used to improve stamina and endurance. The tremendous performances of Chinese female distance runners in the early 1990s were attributed in part to the use of this caterpillar fungus tonic as part of their training regimen.

Although generally based on some empirical observation some time in the distant past, the validity of insect-based folk medicines should not be assumed, even on the grounds of widespread and long-term use. This is particularly true of aphrodisiacs. The symbolic, religious, and ceremonial associations common to the historical use of many drugs tend to obscure evidence on actual potency. On the other hand, the medicinal use of insects in folk remedies should not be dismissed outright as untrue. Each insect species possesses a unique biochemistry that has the potential to perform any number of medicinal tasks. Some insect-based folk remedies, such as the use of bee venom to treat arthritis and rheumatism, may eventually find a place in modern medicine or may at least serve as the basis for the derivation of modern treatments.

In addition to folk remedies that use insects to cure ailments, another body of insect folklore deals with ways to rid ourselves of pestiferous insects. Pliny the Elder wrote that one sure way to rid one's fields of pests, particularly plagues of cantharid beetles, is to have a menstruating woman walk through the field. This treatment was said to cause the "caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other vermin to fall to the ground." One widespread remedy for an infestation of cockroaches is to seal a few roaches and three coins in an envelope and leave it outside. Whoever picks up the envelope would not only be a little richer, but would also be the new owner of your roaches. A simpler remedy was to slip some roaches to some unsuspecting acquaintance to take home with them with the assurance that your roaches would soon follow. Problem ants can be dealt with in much the same way. By rolling several of the bothersome ants in a leaf and leaving it at a neighbor's house, you could be sure that the ants in your house would soon depart to take up residence with the neighbor. Similarly, some folklore deals with how other animals rid themselves of pestiferous insects. Scottish foxes infested with fleas were said to hold a lock of wool in their mouth and then slowly submerse themselves in water until only the nose and the wool were above water. In trying to escape the water, the fleas end up on the fox's nose and the wool. To finish the job, the fox puts its nose under water and releases the wool along with its passengers of fleas.

0 0

Post a comment