Bugs harmed by nuclear radiation?

Many studies have been conducted about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown of 1986. A large majority of them were focused on the environmental consequences of the radiation release. But, as the San Diego Union-Tribune asks, what happened to bugs? Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a scientific illustrator from Zurich, Switzerland, has collected more than 16,000 insect specimens 'throughout Europe and from every continent except Australia, visiting fields and forests, homes and gardens near working nuclear plants and waste sites.' Her conclusions are clear: 'more than 30 percent of the bugs collected and examined exhibited physical damage.' So what about humans? Are these bugs the equivalent of the canaries used in mines in the past? Read more...

Many studies have been conducted about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown of 1986. A large majority of them were focused on the environmental consequences of the radiation release. But, as the San Diego Union-Tribune asks, what happened to bugs? Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a scientific illustrator from Zurich, Switzerland, has collected more than 16,000 insect specimens 'throughout Europe and from every continent except Australia, visiting fields and forests, homes and gardens near working nuclear plants and waste sites.' Her conclusions are clear: 'more than 30 percent of the bugs collected and examined exhibited physical damage.' So what about humans? Are these bugs the equivalent of the canaries used in mines in the past? Read more...

Hesse-Honegger's irradiated bugs #1

As a first example, you can see above "dorsal (a) and ventral (b) views of selected true bugs." Here are additional details: "a) Watercolor of a squash bug (Coreus marginatus; Coreidae) from Polesskoje, Ukraine (1990); b) Watercolor of a soft bug (Miridae) from Holmrook, U. K. (1989)." (Credit: Cornelia Hesse-Honegger)

This research work has been done by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a scientific illustrator at the Natural History Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, who is painting insects for more than 25 years. For her latest study, she collaborated with Peter Wallimann, the founder of Sensigns, a virtual-art project also based in Zurich.

Hesse-Honegger's irradiated bugs #2

You can see on the left another example of a bug seriously damaged. The illustration shows a "dorsal view of Coreus marginatus (squash bug; head and legs not shown) from Polesskoje near Chernobyl (1990). The dark-brown membrane of the left wing and large parts of the right wing (coreum) are disturbed." (Credit: Cornelia Hesse-Honegger)

Here is an excerpt from the San Diego Union-Tribune article. [Back in 1986,] "she could find little relevant research. When she asked a distinguished colleague what he thought, the geneticist declared radiation levels in Europe too low to have much of an effect, if any, on bugs. Insects were too small and simple, he said, to be much bothered by radiation. Hesse-Honegger was not persuaded.

So she tried to find some scientific proof. "Over the next two decades, Hesse-Honegger collected more than 16,000 insect specimens, primarily true bugs, an order of insects (Heteroptera) consisting of roughly 40,000 known species, from cicadas and leafhoppers to aphids and shield bugs. Hesse-Honegger gathered these insects at sites throughout Europe and from every continent except Australia, visiting fields and forests, homes and gardens near working nuclear plants and waste sites, including Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the decommissioned nuclear production facility near Hanford, Wash.

Hesse-Honegger latest results have been published in Chemistry & Biodiversity, a Wiley InterScience scientific journal, in an article called "Malformation of True Bug (Heteroptera): a Phenotype Field Study on the Possible Influence of Artificial Low-Level Radioactivity" (Volume 5, Issue 4, Pages 499-539, April 18, 2008).

Here is the beginning of the abstract. "The results of extensive field studies on the malformation of Western European true bugs (Heteroptera) are reviewed. More than 16,000 individuals were collected over two decades, and subjected to detailed visual inspection. Various types of disturbances were found and illustrated in detail. Depending on country, region, as well as local influences, severe disturbances and high degrees of malformation were noticed, especially in the sphere of nuclear-power installations in Switzerland (Aargau), France (La Hague), and Germany (Gundremmingen). Malformation reached values as high as 22 and 30% for morphological (MD) and total disturbance (TD), respectively. This is far above the values expected for natural populations (ca. 1%) or those determined for true bugs living in biotopes considered as relatively intact (1-3%)."

And here is a link to the free full paper (PDF format, 41 pages, 4.86 MB), from which the illustrations of this post have been extracted.

For more information (and beautiful watercolors), Cornelia Hesse-Honegger will soon publish a book named "Art on Silk" with Gottfried Honegger. You can pre-order it now on Amazon.com for US $60.00. [Of course, I will not get a single cent on any sales.]

As a conclusion, here is the last paragraph of the San Diego Union-Tribune article. "Hesse-Honegger said her work should be viewed as 'a serious alarm call.' [...] True bugs (and possibly other overlooked life forms) appear to be sensitive bio-indicators of harmful radiation, she said. They may be tiny skittering 'canaries,' suffering first from a poison none of us can feel or see."

Sources: Scott LaFee, San Diego Union-Tribune, May 22, 2008; and various websites

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