Are there free insects, living and breeding in the ISS, not part of an experiment?

I am not asking about an occasional escaped single fruit fly, Nor am I asking about insects contained in a enclosure for a current experiment.

I am asking about insects who are freely roaming about the ISS with a breeding population, that have survived for several generations.

We know that plants grow in space per Can plants grow in microgravity?

and we know that insects have been in space, according to this answer at What was the first animal sent into space?

The first animals sent into space were fruit flies aboard a U.S.-launched V-2 rocket on February 20, 1947.

Inspired by the question Is it possible to design a garden that is free from insects and pests? on a sister site.

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    $\begingroup$ There are probably dust mites on the ISS, but last I checked that hasn't been confirmed. They were confirmed on Mir. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Jun 25, 2018 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ That said, dust mites aren't insects, just arthropods, so it is unclear whether they are good proof of concept for free-living insects. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Jun 25, 2018 at 16:41

1 Answer 1


Jared Olson, robotics instructor and flight controller at Johnson Space Center, claims not, and as an entomologist I think that's actually plausible. It sounds like there are extensive quarantine and disinsection procedures for materials launched to the ISS, and while I imagine a handful of small insects are occasionally carried inside pressurised parts of launch vehicles, there probably isn't anything to sustain a population given that all food is sealed until consumption and any crumbs are rapidly filtered out by the air handling systems.

As @called2voyage notes, dust mite are probably present, and unless they've done something pretty drastic I suspect there will also be Demodex mites on the passengers, but mites are not insects.

There is of course a purpose-built insect habitat on the ISS, and a number of insect species have been deliberately introduced, including (now expanded with examples from this post):

  • fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster)
  • alfalfa leaf-cutting bees (Megachile rotundata) - technically not up there yet, but being launched any day now...
  • silkworms (Bombyx mori)
  • butterflies (Vanessa cardui and Danaus plexippus
  • ants (the common pavement ant, Tetramorium caespitum and red harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus)
  • Mealworm beetles (Tenebrio molitor)
  • houseflies (Musca domestica)
  • Mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus)

Of these, three probably have the greatest potential to establish in the event of escape.

In third place, the mealworm beetles could probably survive if grain or grain products were stored in accessible areas in large volumes, but as far as I understand that's not the case.

In second place, the houseflies could breed in food waste if it was accessible for a week or two before disposal. I am not an expert in food waste storage on space habitats but I imagine this is easily avoided.

But in first place is certainly the mosquito, Aedes albopictus. All it really needs is some volumes of free water (5ml or so is sufficient, more is better) and some humans to feed on. The second certainly occurs on the ISS, so it all depends on the first. However, the experiment only involved a handful of eggs which were allowed to hatch inside a sealed silicone tube and were then fixed with formalin, so the potential for escape seems be minimal (report here - thanks @called2voyage!).

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    $\begingroup$ Good find! Added. (Also - Aedes albopictus? What were they thinking?) $\endgroup$
    – tardigrade
    Jun 28, 2018 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ @tardigrade Where did you get the taxonomy of the bees that were on the space station? $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Jun 28, 2018 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @tardigrade That experiment launches no earlier than tomorrow, so technically they are not on the station yet, but good find! $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Jun 28, 2018 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @tardigrade Found the results of the mosquito research: docs.google.com/…. None of them matured past larvae, so I assume no risk of escape. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Jun 28, 2018 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ Good lord... imagine a mosquito outbreak on the ISS. That sounds like the premise to a space horror flick. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2018 at 21:42

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