If you ever swatted a fly, whacked a mosquito or screamed at the sight of a cockroach, you are not alone. Many people see insects as pests to be annihilated as quickly as possible. However, many insects are beneficial and make our world go ‘round.
Besides being a major player in our food supply, insects are inspiring inventions that are helping in many unexpected ways. Researchers study insects and copy certain aspects of their behavior or physical traits in order to create new innovations that improve our lives.
Copying how a moth sees, a flea jumps or a butterfly’s wings reflect light have all helped scientists design new technologies that are benefitting mankind. Moths are nocturnal and have specialized compound eyes for seeing at night. Their eyes capture light rather than reflect it which helps them see where they are flying and avoid being eaten by bats and other night-hunting creatures. Since their eyes are covered in a non-reflective material, their eyes do not glow in the dark when moonlight or porch light shines on them. This prevents moths from being easy targets for night-time predators.
Scientists at the City University of New York, MIT and NYU studied the moth’s compound eyes and developed a material that has crystals covered with pyramid-shaped bumps made of silicon nitride. This material captures energy from x-rays that would normally be lost so that the resolution of the x-ray image is improved. Because more of the x-ray’s energy is captured, the x-ray dose can be greatly reduced while still maintaining a sharp image.
Other companies are using the moth’s non-reflective eyes as an inspiration to create non-glare cell phone screens that capture light instead of reflect it so the screens are easily seen in bright sunlight. Solar panels have been designed to capture more sunlight using a non-reflective film.
Even the tiny spider and its gossamer web have inspired inventions. Scientists were intrigued with the ability of birds to avoid spider webs when in flight. After researching spider webs, they discovered the webs have special strands that reflect ultraviolet light, which birds can see but we can’t. Seeing the UV strands in a spider web allows birds in flight to avoid the web, protecting the web from being destroyed.
A German company utilized that concept and created a glass called Ornilux which has a tangle of UV reflecting strands running through it. The UV strands allow birds to see the glass so they don’t run into it when flying. We cannot see the strands, so the window looks clear. A recent study showed a 75% reduction of birds killed flying into windows when Ornilux glass was installed. One survey estimated 100 million birds are killed yearly flying into windows. Further research will allow modifications to the Urnilux glass to make it even more visible to flying birds.
Many butterflies’ wings and the feathers of some birds, such as peacocks, have beautiful colors that are not actual pigments in the wings. Instead, the wings and feathers have scales in a prism-like structure that splits light into various color bands and reflects certain colors. The Morpho Butterfly has shimmering blue wings because its scales reflect light so that only a blue color is seen.
Qualcomm, a technology company, copied the layered structure of the Morpho’s wings for their e-reader screens to make the screen’s reflect bright colors while using 90% less power to operate.
The screen can also be read much easier in bright sunlight. This new technology is called Mirasol and has been used by several Chinese companies.
Who would have thought a flea would help improve our lives. Scientists studying the ability of a flea to jump 100 times its body length discovered that a protein in its joints, called resilin, absorbed force and then released it to make the flea’s giant leaps possible.
Resilin was found to have a 98% resiliency, much higher than synthetic rubber. Research is on-going by the Australian Advisory Council of Science and Industry to create a synthesized form of resilin that can be used in everything from heart valves to athletic shoes.
The next time you are working in your garden and spot an insect, take a closer look. Perhaps, one day, that tiny insect will help scientists develop a new product to make your life easier, cure a disease or create a new product for companies to manufacture. We may be at the top of the food chain, but it’s a bug’s world when it comes to our survival on planet Earth.