A species of bee-hive dwelling caterpillars known as waxworms have the capacity to digest plastic bags — and could be the answer to one of the world’s most plaguing problems. 

Scientist Federica Bertocchini made the accidental discovery a few years ago during a routine inventory of her beehives. Waxworms (Galleria mellonella) are the larvae of waxmoths and persist as parasites in bee colonies, feeding primarily on beeswax.

Federica encountered a multitude of these waxworms on one of her beehives and removed them, temporarily enclosing them in a plastic bag. A short time later, the larvae had managed to escape through worm-sized holes, leading to the researcher’s curious theory.

She discovered these tiny insects, measuring less than an inch in length, are actually capable of digesting plastic. They are efficient at breaking down the chemical bonds in polyethylene, the primary constitution of plastic bags and other packaging materials found around the world. Tons of plastics are dumped into the ocean on an annual basis, attributing to unfathomable environmental harm.

Plastics are some of the earth’s most problematic pollutants due to their lack of biodegradability. Polyethylene takes hundreds of years to break down, requiring intensive chemical processes — while these caterpillars can digest the compound in hours. 

A process involving mystery enzymes within the insect’s stomach effectively disrupts the carbon bonds in plastics. Polyethylene is broken down into ethylene glycol which degrades in the environment within a matter of weeks as opposed to hundreds of years.

Further experimentation is needed, but isolation of this specific enzyme could serve as the answer to one of the world’s biggest pollution problems. Thus far, the worms seem unharmed by the plastic digestion.

The full paper was recently published in Current Biology.