• Eric R. Eaton

Insect Inspired Inventions

By Eric R. Eaton

It is easy to see insects as pests, or at least a nuisance, but we also have six-legged arthropods to thank for advancing our society and technologies. Some spark new inventions or improvements outright, while others have evolved anatomical and behavioral aspects startlingly similar to our own. Even in this digital age we continue to learn from insects and their relatives.

Among the earliest bridge builders were the ants, particularly army ants

of the Neotropical regions. Illustration: E. Paul Catts from Insects Did it First

Insects Did it First

Take paper, for example. French naturalist and physicist Antoine Ferchault Réaumer observed paper wasps constructing nests of wood fibers in 1719. This gave him the idea of using that source of cellulose to cope with a shortage of cotton and linen, the materials used in manufacturing paper in Europe up until that time. The pulp and paper industry continues to thrive to this day.

The modern chainsaw owes its origins to observations of another insect, the Ponderous Borer, Trichocnemis spiculatus, a type of large beetle. Until the mid-1940s, saw chains had a tooth arrangement similar to that of a manual crosscut saw. The chains were inefficient as they dulled quickly. Many loggers ended up abandoning them for the manual equivalent. Joe Cox of Portland, Oregon happened to pay attention to the wood-boring larva of a Ponderous Borer, and noticed that the insect’s opposable mandibles were highly effective in gnawing through wood. Cox devised a new saw chain with alternating “right” and “left” cutting teeth that vastly improved the quality of chainsaws. His design was patented and led Cox to begin manufacturing his product in 1947 in the basement of his home. Oregon Sawchain Corporation eventually became Omark Industries, an international company.

Today and Tomorrow: From GPS to Biomimicry

Fast forward to today. Sometimes we recognize the achievements of insect evolution long after we have inadvertently duplicated them with our own contrivances.

The equivalents of radar and sonar help moths and other insects detect and avoid bats. Cog-like “gears” at the base of the hind legs of an issid planthopper nymph give it even more speed and power to jump away from predators. We have learned that dung-rolling scarab beetles navigate by the sun and the stars, the ancient predecessor to GPS. The emerging science of biomimicry creates robotic insects, or in some cases allows a human to “operate” a live insect as if it were a robot, capitalizing on the acute senses of the invertebrates that humans have long lost along our own path of evolution. Bees and wasps can sniff out explosives, and cockroaches can help first responders find victims buried in rubble after disasters. Studying the eyes and brains of dragonflies has led to new algorithms for visual tracking that are twenty-times faster than previous generations of such programs. The science of chemical ecology reveals compounds found only in insects that can be applied to medicine. Venom from one Brazilian wasp shows promise in killing cancer cells. Toxins in fireflies may lead to a cure for the herpes virus.

Micro Drones: A Real Buzzkill

There is at least one case in which mimicry is not the sincerest form of flattery. On March 8, 2018, Walmart filed an application for a patent on miniature drones designed to pollinate crops grown by the retail giant for sale in its grocery stores. The company cited evidence of declines in bee populations and the need to supplement the pollination services provided by insects. This strategy is nothing new. The Japanese had previously built drones specifically for the cross-pollination of lilies. Videos of the machines in action only served to expose how clumsy and blundering they are compared to the direct and delicate maneuvers of bees.

Might it be cheaper to employ drones instead of honey bees? Apiculture is itself an industry, with attendant expenses that are passed on to the customer. Many large-scale beekeeping enterprises involve the transcontinental movement of hives to fields and orchards where they are needed to pollinate almonds and other crops. This is not a cheap endeavor, and perhaps accountants for Walmart have declared that bees are inferior to drones from a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Proceed With Caution: Future Generations Ahead

Replacing bees and other insects with machines cheapens our humanity in other ways, though. There is no substitute for interactions with other living organisms, though we seem hell-bent on trying to make it so. Our knowledge of how insects interact with other species, including our own, is woefully inadequate. Making assumptions can have horrible, unintended consequences. Suppressing one pest insect, for example, can liberate another competing pest and start the war anew. We need to give thoughtful consideration to the potential ramifications we will leave for future generations as a result of our current tinkering.

Eric R. Eaton is principal author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America and writes the blog “Bug Eric.” He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Heidi. (Early Spring 2019)