An Ode to the Humble Lac Bug

This bug has transformed the world.

The vast majority of us couldn’t identify a lac bug if our life depended on it. And yet, not a day goes by in which you haven’t benefited from this bug’s mere existence. Even though odds are high that you’ve never crossed paths with even one of these critters, you probably swallow or touch lac bug secretions thousands of times each year.

Admit it. You had no idea, did you? I certainly didn’t, until an offhand comment sent me through a twisty maze of research, and at the end of this maze sat the humble lac bug. Specifically, the female lac bug, minding her own business, carrying on with her brief and buggy little life.

So we embark upon this winding avenue of inquiry by gazing at a bug no bigger than a watermelon seed. I know this is probably not your favorite thing to look at, but you’ll thank me someday when you emerge, triumphant, from your local bar, just having won something mildly satisfying on trivia night. You’re welcome. Please consider using the proceeds to purchase my book, Notes on Gratitude. ( Shameless self-promotion.)

The impetus for this adventure was my offhand comment that I intended to weatherproof a piece of wood by coating it in shellac. Actually, as most people do these days, I was really going to use polyurethane, but for some reason, my brain came up with the much more ancient, traditional, and natural product that I doubt I’ve ever had the opportunity to use myself. (Besides, shellac works much better as an indoor resin, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate for my purposes.)

From there, Dear Husband told me that shellac came from the shell of the lac bug. This was news to me. (And proved to be false. Sorry, hon.)

Lac bugs secrete a substance that we turn into shellac, the only known commercial resin of animal origin. It’s a renewable resource. It’s considered a natural form of plastic. We have been using it for at least 3,000 years.

Europe first learned of lac and its many uses thanks to the travels of Marco Polo in the late 13th century. They must have been gob smacked. All that, from a bug?

You’ve probably heard of shellac being used on fine furniture and stringed instruments as a wood finish/primer/stain/high-gloss varnish. In fact, in the 16th-century a craftsman who could apply shellac well was called a varnisher, and this was considered a trade all its own.

But shellac is even more versatile than that. For about 40 years, it was mainly used to make records. Unfortunately, these records were very fragile. Therefore, in the 1950’s they started making records from vinyl. (There’s a scene from 1946 in It’s A Wonderful Life in which Donna Reed smashes a record. That was shellac, not vinyl as the YouTube link erroneously claims. You can’t smash vinyl like that.)

Shellac has also been used as a dye, particularly on cotton and silks, and as an artist’s pigment as well as a protective coating on paintings. Its color ranges from yellow to orange to a rich reddish ochre.

Before modern advances in plastics, shellac was molded into picture frames, boxes, jewelry, and dentures. Shellac mixed with a specific type of synthetic resin produces Bakelite, and at the risk of dating myself, that substance made things seem very colorful and modern when I was a child, but now those same things look incredibly quaint.

For many years, shellac was used by archeologists as a coating to stabilize the bones of dinosaurs, but it’s an organic substance, so modern conservators no longer use it for fear it will have a negative effect on fossils in the long term.

But probably the most surprising thing about shellac, at least for me, is that it is edible. Now, don’t get too excited. Many shellac products are most definitely not edible.

You would be ill-advised to take a can of shellac off your hardware store shelf and chug it down, for example. To make shellac usable for the maximum amount of time, things are added that would be quite dangerous for you to consume. In a nutshell: Don’t do it. Even the edible kind of lac products are toxic to humans if eaten in large quantities.

Having said that, I feel obligated to mention that to this day, shellac is used as a coating on pills and candies. If you take any type of timed release pills, you’re most likely consuming shellac. Shellac is what makes jellybeans shiny. It’s also used on candy corn, Milk Duds, Goobers and Raisinets, Junior Mints and Sugar Babies. It was used in Skittles, but they went bug-free and vegetarian in 2009.  It’s also used on citrus and apples to make them shiny and prolong their shelf life. It’s nearly impossible for most of us to avoid consuming shellac, and knowing that means I’ll never look at the world in the same way again.

Shellac is also used to make biodegradable plastic bags, shoe polish, hair spray, nail polish, floor wax, grinding stones, adhesives for fishing flies, and it’s a binder in India ink. It makes felt hats stiffer and more water resistant. There’s even an ancient Vedic book that claims that an entire palace was once made from its resin. (Oh, for a Wayback Machine!)

Veterinarians used to mix lac with lard and use the paste to fill cavities in broken horse hooves. In addition, shellac is an ingredient in blue and green fireworks. Ironically, it’s also used for mounting insects.

So, how is shellac made? I encourage you to check out this fascinating YouTube video. It’s a bit slow to start, but then it gets really interesting. It even shows people stretching shellac into transparent sheets as big as a man. Once those sheets dry, they’re broken into shards for bulk sale. You’ll also see men pulling shellac like 20 foot stretches of taffy.

(The above mentioned video kind of reminded me of those “how do they make stuff” videos that you’d see while watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers fed my inner nerd. If his travel budget had been bigger, I can imagine him going to India and wandering through this shellac factory, gently asking all the questions you wish you could ask.)

Nature does most of the dirty work in the shellac production process. Basically, the life cycle of your average female lac bug is about 6 months. They feed on the sap of certain trees, mainly found in India and Thailand. They swarm to these trees by the thousands, eat the sap, lay eggs, and secrete lac, which dries as a hard substance that protects their larvae.

During this process, a single lac bug can lay 300-1,000 eggs. Unfortunately, this same lac secretion eventually encases the mature bug as well, and ultimately they die. At a certain point, the young will break through the crust and the cycle begins all over again. (And now I’m singing The Circle of Life.)

The trees are pruned twice a year, and the lac is broken off the pruned branches. It is then ground up, melted, and sifted to remove the dead bug bits and any other debris. While it does take about 100,000 lac bugs to make a pound of shellac resin, no live bugs are intentionally harmed by humans to make shellac, so PETA can calm down.

Lac bugs do have natural predators, which means approximately 40 percent of these bugs don’t get to fulfill their mission. These enemies include monkeys, squirrels, rats, lizards and birds, as well as a host of parasites.

One of the most endearing stories about lac bugs that I came across is that they are responsible for raising more than 900 households in Vietnam from poverty. Lac harvesting had been a traditional occupation for their ancestors, who used to sell the lac to the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet bloc broke up, the industry collapsed, the trees were chopped down for firewood, and the resulting fields were used to cultivate other crops that were much less financially rewarding. A Vietnamese initiative to restore the lac industry has been a huge success, and it has radically improved many human lives. Thanks, lac bugs!

Even though the use of shellac is on the wane now that we have synthetic resin compounds, it’s safe to say that the humble little lac bug has transformed the world, and continues to have a significant influence on it to this very day.

Lac bugs should really learn how to brag. We’d be lost without them. Who knew?

Additional Sources:


Why Can’t We Leave the Sentinelese Alone?

Why can’t we just let these people be?

There are very few unexplored places left on this planet, unless you count the bottom of the Marianas Trench, which is about 36,000 feet under the sea. But even in that unwelcoming environment, scientists keep trying to make inroads to find out what’s down there. We just can’t seem to stay way.

I get that desire to discover, to learn, to broaden one’s horizons against all odds, to answer those unanswered questions. I really do. And in most instances, I say go for it. Curiosity is one of my favorite human qualities. However, I make one exception: I genuinely believe that uncontacted people should be left alone, unless, of course, they make the first move.

The people from North Sentinel Island, way out in the Indian Ocean, have been left to their own devices for at least 60,000 years. They have not developed past the stone age, and have rebuffed all attempts to contact them. They shoot arrows at approaching boats and planes. They turn their backs. They shout aggressively. More than once, they have killed those who have deigned to trespass. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much all we need to know. These people want to be left alone. So let’s leave them alone.

Fortunately, the government of India currently agrees with this philosophy. It is illegal to get within 3 miles of this island. This has not always been the case, but it is now. Why isn’t that good enough? Why can’t we just let these people be?

Most recently, just last month, an American missionary, John Allen Chau, decided that these people need to be converted to Christianity. The arrogance. The nerve. How dare any of us think that we know what’s best for an entire group of people who have never asked for our opinion? How dare we launch what amounts to a religious missile into their midst, knowing full well it would change their entire culture forever?

Not only is it foolhardy to approach an isolated group that has no immunity to our diseases, but it’s criminal to barge uninvited into a land that they’ve occupied for thousands upon thousands of years. Have we learned absolutely nothing from history?

Chau was promptly killed by the Sentinelese, as he stood there spewing his scripture at them in a language they did not understand and do not care to know. His body will never be recovered. Its mere presence there, with its unknown disease vectors, may cause the death of the last uncontacted people on earth.

In the past 130 years, this island has been invaded by the outside world at least a half dozen times. One time, by a group from the National Geographic. Whether their intentions were good or not, these contacts have never ended well. Not once.

We know virtually nothing about these people. We’re not even sure if they number 15 or 500. No one knows their language. There’s even strong debate as to whether they are capable of making fire. But one thing is clear: They want no part of us. So let’s leave them in peace. Our curiosity does not trump their right to live their lives as they see fit.


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Why Do Cities in India Change Their Names?

It’s got to be a royal pain in the behind to change the name of an entire city. Signs must be replaced. Government departments must be renamed. Not to mention all the business cards, letterhead, newspaper mastheads, maps… It must cost a fortune. And it’s confusing for those of us who can’t seem to keep up.

This name change thing happens in India quite a bit. Bombay is now Mumbai. Calcutta is now Kolkata. Benares is also Varanasi. Madras is Chennai.

It must be awfully strange to go to sleep in one city and wake up in another. Even stranger than getting married and suddenly having a new last name, or having to write a new year on things for the first couple weeks of January.

There are several reasons why name changes happen in India. In a lot of cases (Mumbai, for example), they are simply improving the spelling of a city whose name never really changed for the native people. Bombay is just an anglicized version of what the Brits heard the locals say. There’s a lot of arrogance surrounding colonialization, but the “we know better than you do what this place is called” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned. (But then, not nearly enough American place names reflect the wishes of the Native Americans, so who are we to criticize?)

Adding another layer of complexity to the situation, there are 22 official languages in India, and 1652 spoken languages. Needless to say, all these people have different ways of pronouncing things, and different senses of history for each area.

From a political and religious standpoint, there’s also some pressure to change Islamic and Christian city names to their Hindu counterparts, as Hinduism comprises almost 80 percent of the population of India.

The thing I find most interesting is that a city’s name may “officially” change, but that does not necessarily mean that the locals or the press or the international community will adhere to that change. In some cases, it’s business as usual. Apparently it’s only a big deal if you make it one. Which makes me think of that old saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Colonial India
The arrogant, and now largely inaccurate, colonial map of India.

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It’s No Honeymoon

I heard recently that the tradition of having a honeymoon after one gets married has some very nefarious origins. Back when abducting the bride from a neighboring village or tribe was even more commonplace than it is today, it was a good idea for the man to hide the woman for a couple of weeks. That way the girl’s family had a chance to calm down, and in some cultures be assured that she was now “damaged goods” and not worthy of reclamation.

The sad thing is that this isn’t ancient history. According to Wikipedia, bride abduction is common among the Hmong people of Southeast Asia, the Romani, the Tzeltal in Mexico, and it’s a long-standing tradition amongst the people of Kyrgyzstan. It’s also still done in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Chechnya, Moldova, Turkey, parts of India and Bulgaria.

Most recently there was a horrifying abduction of 234 school girls between the ages of 16 and 18 in Nigeria. According to the Washington Post, rumor has it that they were taken into the forests and forced to marry members of the radical militant group Boko Haram. The group’s name literally translates to “western education is a sin.” “The group, for which Western education is anathema, has killed at least 2,300 people since 2010, according to estimates in journalistic and Amnesty International reports.”

When will the world stop looking at women as commodities? And what good can possibly come from relegating yourself to a lifetime of being, basically, a slave owner and a rapist? Is that your idea of happily ever after? Is readily available sex and housekeeping really worth all the misery?

Bride abduction is only one step above sex trafficking, which is also horribly prevalent throughout the world. When I was 19 I was approached by what I believe was a sex trafficker. I was in Paris, standing outside a museum, when a very good looking but strangely scary man approached me and asked if I wanted to go to a party. I said, “Uh, I don’t think my boyfriend would appreciate that.” And thank God my boyfriend arrived right at that moment. And the man ran, literally ran, away. I often think about that close call and what might have become of me. Because of this, stories like those in Nigeria strike a chord.

The frustrating thing about bride abduction, sex trafficking, and rape in general, and this is globally, is that most cultures view the victims as being culpable, tainted, and damaged, so even if they manage to get free, their lives are forever ruined, so many women simply resign themselves to their fate, which makes the whole sick crime that much easier to carry out.

Until we as a species educate ourselves and adopt a more sane attitude to these sex crimes and hold accountable the people who are really at fault, these women will be punished for the rest of their lives.


Some of the Nigerian school girls.

[Image credit:]

I Just Love a Good Glottal Stop

I was just listening to a friend who hails from Essex, England. What was he talking about? I have no idea. Oh, I could understand him. It’s just that I was so mesmerized by the sound of his voice that I really wasn’t focusing on the content of his commentary. He could read the phone book and I would sit happily entranced at his feet. You see, I love a good glottal stop.

A glottal stop is that sort of hiccup people use in the middle of a word, like when you say uh-oh. For example, my friend doesn’t say “butter”. He says “BU-er”. Delicious.

I think glottal stops make a savory stew out of a language that would otherwise be a bland broth. It just adds a certain something that draws you in. And dozens of languages use them.

I also love that click consonant that several African languages use. Sadly they are starting to disappear. That breaks my heart because they’re delightful.

Oh, who am I kidding? I love accents and dialects of every stripe. I can spot a Dutch accent from 50 paces, and it always brings me back to the wonderful summer I spent in Holland. Indian accents make me think of the delectable smells and tastes and rich colors of that country. If you whisper in my ear with a Spanish accent, you have me at hola.

The tonal languages of Asia fascinate me as well, although I’d be afraid to attempt one. I don’t have the ear for such things. I can’t even tune a guitar.

I can’t imagine living a life that is isolated from all the scrumptious differences that this world has to offer. I want to dive into your voice and just bathe there for a while. Would you mind?

Xenophobes don’t know what they’re missing.


Hawaiians have the glottal stop down to a science.

Have we Overstayed our Welcome?

Aw, jeez, I need to stop surfing the internet. I just came across a website called Recent Natural Disasters, and it gives you all the reported disasters all over the world, 24 hours a day. I have a hard enough time avoiding my tendency to anthropomorphize nature, especially when it seems as though the planet is becoming more and more pissed off.

Typhoon Haiyan has certainly displaced thousands of people, but it’s only the latest in what seems to be an increasing number of natural disasters, from the expected to the downright bizarre. I mean, who expects flooding in Saudi Arabia? But that’s been happening, too.

And I’m stunned by how many of these events have escaped my notice up to this point. Here are but a few of the headlines from the past few months:

Massive landslide in Denali National Park, Alaska – Could take 10 days to clear

Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung volcano eruption prompts evacuation of 3,300

Mudslide traps 20 in Cross Rivers, Nigeria

Very severe cyclonic storm Phailin: India’s biggest evacuation operation in 23 years, 43 killed

Eurasia’s highest volcano Klyuchevskoi spews ash up to 3.7 miles

40,000 evacuated amid Gujarat flooding

7.7 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan kills 400, Awaran declares emergency

Flooding in Bunkpurugu, Ghana kills 1, displaces 6,000

Shanghai heat wave 2013: Hottest temperature in 140 years!

Spanish Mallorca forest fire: Worst fire in 15 years evacuates 700

Namibia African Drought: Worst in 30 years

Yarnell, Arizona Wildfire 2013: 19 firefighters killed

Central African Republic gold mine collapse kills 37, national mourning declared

Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand flood 2013: At least 5,500 killed

Colorado wildfires destroy 360 plus homes, 38,000 evacuated

Whether you believe in Global Climate Change or not, don’t you sometimes get the feeling that we as a species are no longer wanted on this planet? And if so, who could blame Mother Nature? I mean, we take and take and take, and what we give in return is pollution, destruction, and devastation. If a guest in my home were behaving this badly, I’d kick him out, too.


My Father Figure

On this, my 200th blog entry, which happens to fall on Father’s Day, I think it’s only appropriate that I write about someone whom I loved very, very much.

His name was Ram Verma, and he was the closest thing to a father figure I ever had. I met him when I worked at the health department here in Jacksonville, Florida. He was the physician in charge of the tuberculosis clinic. A more caring and compassionate man you will never meet. In fact, he came from Burma by way of India because he wanted his children to have the freedom to choose the paths their lives would take (a right that the people of Myanmar, formerly Burma, do not have to this day) but even so, he often shed tears for the TB patients he had to leave behind when he came to this country.

He was one of those people with such a deep sense of inner calm that you could feel your blood pressure lower just by being in his presence. I wanted to learn from him. He was a true guru. We would often eat together and I would listen closely to everything he had to say. One day I said to him that I didn’t know what to call him. Dr. Verma seemed too formal. Ram seemed too familiar. I was honored when he told me I could call him Bapu, “father” in Hindi. I had never had anyone to call father before. His love was unconditional and his support and acceptance of me was unfailing.

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to call him Bapu for very long. On my last visit to his home I was in a great deal of pain. I had strained my neck and couldn’t turn my head. I apologized but had to take my leave. He practically begged me to stay, but I just wanted to go home, take something for the pain, and try to sleep. Looking back, he knew. On some level he knew. That’s why he didn’t want me to leave. A week or so later he passed away. His wonderful, loving, generous heart, which he gave to the world without hesitation, had turned on him in the end.

Upon hearing the news I fell apart. I felt not only the loss of the man, but the loss of my future with him. Since every single moment with him was a gift, I was grateful for having known him, but utterly bereft because I could have learned from him for a lifetime. I wish I had pictures of him, but I see him in my heart and it makes me smile.

I went to his funeral, and when we got to the cemetery I didn’t realize we would be watching his body go into the crematory, typical Hindu that he was. I watched the smoke rise and become one with the air and I knew he was in a better place. We never spoke much about our spiritual beliefs, but if he believed in reincarnation I am sure he is an extremely enlightened being now. But drawing from my own tradition I comfort myself with the fact that I will see him again one day, and I will be forever grateful that for an all too brief period in my life, I finally knew what it was like to have a father.

Happy Father’s Day. Appreciate what you have. It’s precious.