Drug eating insects

As I work though the ideas for a redraft of Carrion, it has become necessary to consolidate my understanding of the drug eating insect that are such an important part of the story.

One of the first ideas I had for Carrion was the image of insects eating drugs. Initially I though it would be enough to have a species just feed on drugs. I thought these insects could be either a naturally occurring or genetically engineered blight, eating their way through the stockpile of illicit drugs. I envisioned a plethora of subspecies, one for each substance, migrating from stash to stash, decimating the supply. I quickly realised this would probably end the war on drugs, and my story with it.

Then I read about cocaethylene. Cocaethylene is the drug formed in vivo when cocaine and ethyl alcohol are ingested simultaneously. Studies suggest that it may be more cardiotoxic, and possess a longer duration of action than cocaine taken in isolation. The thing I find most interesting about cocaethylene, is that it is only produced in vivo, in the body. From this small revelation, I quickly got to the image of insects feeding on drug users.

I had the notion that a species engineered to feed on drugs in vivo would plague drug users. Logic dictates that this strategy would limit attacks to those under the influence. Once they stop producing the drug, the insects would migrate to another user. While this provides more story, there still isn’t enough drama.

So while looking for a more dynamic scenario, I started to research the various insect species that might be spliced together. While I have been unable to find any species of insect that targets drugs in their refined state, I was able to find several species that attack drug precursors like coca, the source of cocaine.

Aegoidus pacificus lays it’s eggs in the plant bark. The beetle’s larvae then burrows into the stem, irrevocably damaging the plant.

The larvae of Eloria noyesi feeds on coca leaves. Capable of eating fifty leaves in it’s lifetime, an infestation eventually destroys the plant.

Stenocarus fuliginosus and Myzus persicae both feed on and destroy the opium poppy, the source of heroine.

As my research progressed I started to understand more clearly the role the insects would play within Carrion. In a previous post, Drugs as a tool, I described the insects as the “physical manifestation of prohibition. A tool that takes the ruthless unrelenting enforcement of prohibition to its merciless conclusion. The physical destruction of anyone who takes drugs.”

For the insect to have this quality, I realised they needed to be more aggressive. So I started to look for insects that might attack humans, insects that are carnivorous. The insects I found most intriguing are those species attracted to humans post mortem.

From the moment of death legions of insects start to feed on human remains. Calliphoridae (blowflies) lay their eggs around wounds and natural openings in the body. Their eggs hatch, and maggots move into the body secreting digestive enzymes, and tearing tissue with their mouth hooks.

As the rate of decay increases, the smell attracts more blowflies, and species of Coleoptera, including Staphylinidae (rove beetles), silphidae (carrion beetles), and Cleridae (checkered beetles). These late-arriving insects are predators, feeding on the abundant supply of maggots as well as the decaying flesh.

They’re joined by parasitoid wasps such as Brachymeria calliphorae, that lay their eggs inside the maggots, injecting venom into the host along with the egg. This venom is a highly complex mixture of chemicals, that not only paralyse the host, but also modifies the host’s tissue, making it more nutritious for the developing larva.

As the decaying body passes through the stage known a black putrefaction, the predatory insects become more abundant, until the body enters butyric fermentation, when the remaining flesh is removed, and the body dries out.

The reduction in soft food makes the body less palatable to the mouth-hooks of maggots, and the amount of predatory insects declines. The remains become more suitable for the chewing mouthparts of beetles. As the body enters the final stages of decay, mites, tineid moths, and bacteria feed on the remaining tissue.

All insects progress through one of two main types of metamorphosis, complete and incomplete. Complete consists of egg, larva, pupa, adult. Incomplete, egg, nymph, adult.

I envision insects going though the complete metamorphosis. The genetically engineered adults feed on drugs, then much like the parasitoid wasps, lay their eggs in the users. Employing a strategy know as polyembryony, a single egg continues to divide, cloning itself into a mass of individual larvae. These larva then hatch, and start to move around the host, feeding on the non-essential parts of the body, until they are mature enough to pupate.

After complete metamorphosis, the adult insects must then escape the host. I imagine a swarm gnawing free of the host in a bloody explosion. This image is the origin of the name Carrion. Infested users are the living dead, walking through the stages of decomposition, treated as carrion, destroyed by insects. The “physical manifestation of prohibition”.

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