An Exploration in Frass

by Deidra Wirakusumah, Workshop Designer and Webinar Instructor

What’s the Deal with Frass?

Frass is the scientific term for insect poop, and that will be the topic of the post today! It’s a natural part of life, but not a part we generally like to discuss. Yet like many other things, insects have found a way to turn this waste product into gold. So if you are squeamish, this maybe is not the post for you, but we guarantee this exploration will be fun!

Why is Frass Valuable?

Considering the number of insect species likely existing on earth (conservative estimates predict 5 million species), and that all these animals need to poop, it’s a wonder that we aren’t overrun with insect poop. This is because insect frass, and faeces in general, are filled with useful nutrients. When taken into context of an entire natural ecosystem, where other insects, microorganisms, and larger animals are at play, organic waste is broken down, and the nutrients eventually help to feed the grasses and trees and other vegetation. But not all insects dispose of their frass into the environment, many of them have their own personal uses for this organic waste.

Watch out for a bees first flight, they have a lot to unload!

Highlighting Insect-Frass Relationships

In a previous article, we have already discussed how dung beetles use animal poop to make their own mobile home. Here are other examples of insect relationships with frass:

First Flight

See that pretty bee in flight? Watch out, because bees almost exclusively poop as they fly. It is a general rule for flying animals, such as birds and bats, that they need their bodies to be as light as possible while they are in the air. How better to do this than to drop everything as they take off? 

So what about bees that don’t fly? While adult bees have wings and the ability to fly, bee larvae do not. And when you consider that bee larvae are fed pollen on an around the clock basis, and take approximately a month to reach the stage of adult bees, that is a lot of waste that needs to be disposed of, right? Actually, larval bees do not defecate at all. Throughout their entire larval stage, they store all that waste inside their bodies. Once they metamorphosize into adult bees and are ready to take their first flight, it is during this time that they actually drop all the excrement they have been holding onto as hungry babies. So best to steer clear when new flyers leave the hive!


Stay Clear, Please!

Poop is admittedly gross. It isn’t strange if you do not want to be near it, don’t like the smell, or it generally just makes you uncomfortable. It is a natural reaction. And some insects use this to their advantage. The tortoise beetle larvae, Chelymorpha alternans, uses its own frass as a protective shield, to make other insects, such as ants, leave them alone. But as a chemical deterrent, this only works when the ants directly touch the shield. The chemicals from the tortoise beetle poop can result in irritation or disorientation. On a similar note, some species will poop next to their eggs, using their frass as antifeedants and a way to deter predators from their unhatched babies.


Potty Mouth

Termites eat a whole lot of plant material, and that plant material is made of tough cellulose. This is very hard to digest, even cows, and humans have trouble breaking down vegetables in our guts. And all of us, termites, cows, and us, rely on special gut microbes to help us break down the plants we eat so that our bodies can actually use that energy. Termites are on a different level however, since they do not eat just leaves and stems, but also wood. For this reason, these gut microbes are incredibly important, but they are not something termites are born with. To address this, some termite species will feed their own faeces to the termite larvae. This allows the larvae to begin growing their own colony of beneficial termites in their own guts so they can one day join on the woody feast. The Australian Bess Beetles and some ants exhibit similar behavior with their own young.

Fun fact:
There is a cute and furry animal that also feeds poop to its baby for similar reasons to that of termites: the Koala. Koalas eat eucalyptus leaves almost exclusively, and some koalas are adapted to only eating particular species of eucalyptus. Eucalyptus leaves however are not known for being highly nutritious, they are high in fibre and low in other nutrients. Koalas rely on their own gut microbes to help them break down the eucalyptus, but again, they are not born with these helpful organisms. So their babies, called joes, need to eat the mothers’ poop before they can actually start eating the eucalyptus leaves. 


Medicinal Poop

Domesticated silkworms, Bombyx mori, have long been our insect allies due to their ability to create silk. An entire industry is built upon the magical abilities of these industrious insects to weave this precious material. But did you know that this is not the only reason they are special? Silkworms have 2 secrets in their butts, silk and frass. Silk worm frass has been shown to have antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and other medicinal properties, and help us learn how to combat some diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. That’s some special poop!


Do you know where Honeydew comes from, or about the insect that poops candy?

If not, check out this TEDx video by George Zaiden to find out more! 





Interested to learn more? Check out our sources: