It’s that time of day where you take a break from work and let your twisted curiosity get the better of you as you watch 10,000 maggots devour a 16-inch pizza.
This is not some viral YouTube video but a study of how black soldier fly larvae manage to scarf down food so quickly. The study is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
The intent behind the “maggot fountain” – their words, not mine – is actually quite beneficial. The team are studying the larvae’s incredible ability to gobble food waste so fast and efficiently. Once fully gorged on leftovers, it’s possible these larvae can be used as a high-protein food source for animals – you know, the ones humans seem more keen to eat such as chickens, fish, and other livestock. This could create a more sustainable food system, particularly as humans produce 1.3 billion tons of food waste per year.
“Raising black soldier fly larvae, Hermetia illucens, is one promising method to deal with this waste,” wrote the Georgia Tech team. “Larva farmers raise thousands of larvae together in bins and feed them food waste.”
To understand in detail how the maggots eat en masse, the researchers used time-lapse videography and particle image velocimetry (PIV). Instead of tracking the larvae in three dimensions, the team used two-dimensional imaging from the top and bottom and PIV to analyze the flow and motion inside the wriggly horde.
When the larvae eat individually, they consume food in 5-minute bursts and are near their food source for 44 percent of the time. This can result in roadblocks to other larvae getting at the food, so how do groups munch on a 16-inch pizza with such ferocity?
They overcome this limitation "by generating fountains around food, where new larvae crawl in from the bottom and are ‘pumped’ out of the top,” wrote the team.
“This self-propagating flow pushes away potential roadblocks, thereby increasing eating rate.”
The team first fed orange pieces to groups ranging in size from 10 to 58,000 larvae, spanning four orders of magnitude in size. They then made mathematical models based on the larvae’s rate of eating. They found that this “fountain” behavior allows the hungry maggots to replace those that have gorged themselves to the point they no longer want to eat.
The team say their research could help companies scale up production and turn food waste back into a useable food source for livestock.
Or you know, we could just eat them...