Researchers identify over a thousand species of bugs in dried teas, herbs found in supermarkets

A cup of tea, stock image
Bug diversi-tea: Researchers gathered arthropod environmental DNA from dried teas and dried herbs found in supermarkets - chamomile, mint, tea and parsley. They identified over a thousand diverse arthropod species. Photo credit: Getty Images

Insects have long been considered a delicacy in some areas of the world: eating caterpillars, termites, crickets and palm weevils is commonplace in nations such as Uganda, Congo and Cameroon, and bugs also remain a traditional food in cultures across Asia and Latin America.

And while our six-legged friends typically don't appear on the menu here in Aotearoa, new research has found that traces of the critters could be lurking among your pantry staples - even that calming cup of chamomile tea before bed could be harbouring remnants of a creepy-crawly. Yum!

A new study conducted by researchers from Germany's Trier University has identified more than a thousand species of insects, spiders, mites and other bugs - simply from the DNA they leave behind in a cup of tea

Using a new DNA analysis method, the team of researchers gathered arthropod environmental DNA from dried teas and dried herbs commonly found in supermarkets - chamomile, mint, tea and parsley. Arthropod refers to an invertebrate animal of the phylum Arthropoda, the largest phylum in the animal kingdom, which includes the likes of spiders, mites, insects, centipedes and millipedes. 

Their research, which has since been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biology Letters, identified more than a thousand diverse arthropod species.

Among the species they found were some that are known agricultural pests. The authors say this method of analysis could be used to trace the origin of illegal plant material confiscated by customs. The technique could also be used to detect agricultural pests, monitor arthropods and arthropod-plant interactions - and monitor bug diversi-tea.

"Every organism leaves traces of its DNA in its environment, so-called environmental or eDNA," the researchers said.

"eDNA can be enriched and sequenced, allowing researchers to characterise biological communities without the need for collecting actual specimens. 

"Here, we introduce a novel approach to recover eDNA of arthropods from dried plant material. From various commercially produced teas and herbs, we recovered diverse arthropod communities totaling over a thousand species. 

"Atypically for eDNA, arthropod DNA in dried plants shows a very high temporal stability, greatly simplifying the monitoring of arthropod communities."

Well, during my uni days I once worked at a café where a cockroach crawled out of a tea cup - but according to science, maybe that isn't so shocking after all.