Stories tagged insects

Green June Beetles (before cyber-enhancement)
Green June Beetles (before cyber-enhancement)Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are commonly used in military operations. Micro air vehicles (MAVs) are a subcategory of UAVs that are currently in development and can be as small as 15 centimeters (~ 5.9 inches); their anticipated uses include search-and-rescue, surveillance, detection of explosives, and monitoring of hazardous environments.

Two researchers from the University of Michigan researchers had an idea: instead of building UAVs the size of an insect, why not use the insects themselves? Professor Khalil Najafi and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka engineered a piezoelectric generator that converted the kinetic energy from the wing movements of a Green June Beetle into electricity (45 µW per insect). Their research was recently published in the paper, "Energy scavenging from insect flight," which appeared in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.Cyborg Beetle: Through a device invented at the University of Michigan, an insect's wing movements can potentially generate enough electricity to power small devices such as a camera, microphone, or gas sensor.
Cyborg Beetle: Through a device invented at the University of Michigan, an insect's wing movements can potentially generate enough electricity to power small devices such as a camera, microphone, or gas sensor.Courtesy Erkan Aktakka

This research was funded by the Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

University News Release: Insect cyborgs may become first responders, search and monitor hazardous environs

I'm on a roll, now. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"Water striders don't really stride, they row on the water. But their legs are spindly and don't seem good for paddling. David Hu, mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech, wanted to understand the basic physics of how water striders glide. By filming them stride on food coloring and building his own robotic strider, he found out that the secret to the stride is in the paddle."

I know, I know, it's not Friday. But I didn't post the Science Friday video last week. (Or the week before, for that matter, and that one's up next.)

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

This week (last week?):

"Crocuses, robins, spring peepers aren't the only creatures to signal spring. We visited the "Insect Compactor" at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to learn about which bugs to look out for as the weather warms. Keep your eyes on the willow trees--that's where early bees like to hang out."

There's still time to purchase this most unique Valentine's Day gift for your dear, especially if he/she is into entomology or dirty apartments.


Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?
Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?Courtesy Steven G. Johnson
If you're as big a fan of Science Buzz as I am, you might remember us saying that eating bugs can be a bad idea.

(I doubt you are as big Science Buzz fans as I am, though. Do you have a large, Party of Five-style poster of Liza, bryan kennedy, Artifactor, mdr, Thor, and Gene hanging in your room? Didn't think so.)

Anyway, despite what we might have said, it turns out that eating bugs may in fact be a good idea. But it's a good idea that's never gonna happen. (When I say "never," I mean "not in my lifetime, so as far as I'm concerned, 'never.'")

See, there are lots of folks who eat bugs (it's called entomophagy). And it's not all Fear Factor-style disgustingness—the insects are often cooked and flavored, and, you know, I'm sure they're fine. Like Corn Nuts.

But there are a lots more people who get their protein from eating larger animals, like cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys and stuff. And for a long time some people ate cows and pigs, and some people ate insects, and the world spun along just fine.

Then, not too long ago, people started to realize something: raising enough cows and pigs and things to feed billions of people has a tremendous negative impact on the environment. You have to feed each animal many times its weight in plants before it grows to full size, and all the while its pooping, peeing, and farting. And before you start complaining about how you're too young to read "pooping, peeing, and farting," let me say two things. 1) The alternative was to write "defecating, urinating, and flatulating," and you are too young to read that; and 2) animal poop, pee, and farts have a huge environmental impact.

When animal waste leaks into water sources, it can make them unhealthy to drink, and toxic to live in (if you're the sort of organism that lives in the water. And the various gases (like methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide) emitted by animals and their waste are a major source of global warming.

So there. It turns out that those of us who eat meat are straining the environment quite a bit.

But what about all those edible bugs? How do they fit in?

Well, a group of scientists from the Netherlands just published a report on that very thing. They compared the emissions of common meat animals to those of a variety of insects, and found that the world would probably be better off if we raised and ate bugs instead of cows and pigs.

See, insects are able to turn the food they eat into protein much more efficiently than cows and pigs, because insects' metabolisms don't constantly burn fuel to maintain a regular body temperature (like the metabolisms of cows, pigs and people do). In the end, for the amount of mass they build, insects produce less greenhouse gases than pigs, and way less than cows. The insects' production of ammonia (a source of water pollution) was also much less than cows and pigs. The long and the short of the research is that if we were to have farms raising delicious mealworms, house crickets, and locusts, we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

But I don't have high hopes for any of that; it's hard to imagine seeing insect-based food items on the shelves any time soon. Here's hoping though, right?


4+ on the Schmidt Scale: Take that!
4+ on the Schmidt Scale: Take that!Courtesy Scott Camazine
Well, I understand that Science Buzz generally focuses on science in the news, as well as seasonal phenomena, and, frankly, this post doesn’t fall into either of those categories.

But yesterday I was starting to work on the next Object of the Month (I don’t want to spoil anything… but it’s “wasps’), and I came across an article on the tarantula hawk. The tarantula hawk is neither a hawk nor a tarantula—it’s a giant freakin’ wasp.

Growing up to 2 inches long, the tarantula hawk is one of the largest wasps in the world. It gets its name from its habit of paralyzing tarantulas, dragging the spiders back to their burrows (the wasps are that big), and then laying an egg on the tarantula’s living body. When the egg hatches, the wasp larva sucks the tarantula’s juices until it grows large enough to burrow into the hosts body. There it will eat the still-living spider’s organs, saving the vitals for last. When the wasp matures into an adult, it gives up its tarantula devouring ways, and lives off of fruit and nectar. How nice.

Anyway, the article also mentions that the tarantula hawk can have a stinger as long as 1/3rd of an inch, and that its sting is reported to be the second most painful sting in the world, according to the Schmidt sting pain index. (The Schmidt index was developed to the effects of insect venoms only, so I’m assuming that potentially fatal spider bites don’t count.) Naturally, the tarantula hawk’s position on the index begs the question, “What is the most painful sting?”

Answer: The bullet ant, so called because, supposedly, a sting from the bullet ant is like getting shot by a crossbow. I mean a gun. With bullets.

Native to central and South America, worker class bullet ants grow to about an inch, and are called “hormigas veinticuatro” by locals, or the “twenty-four [hour] ant” because the pain from a sting is supposed to remain unabated for a full day.

While the bullet ant will also bite, it delivers its sting the same way wasps and bees do, through a modified ovipositor on its abdomen (that’s all stingers are—egg-laying tubes evolved to inject venom).

The injected venom is a neurotoxin unique to the bullet ant: poneratoxin. A neurotoxin is a poison that affects the nervous system; poneratoxin interferes with the chemicals that allow nerve cells to send electrical signals to each other. So, when other insects and arthropods are stung with poneratoxin, they can be paralyzed (because, remember, you need nerves to control your muscles). When humans are stung with poneratoxin, they just experience extreme pain. Repeated stinging can lead to uncontrollable shaking, and temporary paralysis of the limbs.

But bullet ants aren’t generally aggressive, so how do we know about the affects of repeated stinging? Because some folks get themselves stung a lot. On purpose!

The Satere-Mawe people in Brazil use bullet ants as part of an adult-initiation tradition. (Or an initiation into adulthood. Whatever’s better.) Here:

Now, keep in mind, the tone of that video is pretty ridiculous. (That is, the “look at the weird stuff these weird people do” thing. We all do weird stuff, but other people’s weird stuff is just less familiar.) Also, if you go to the youtube page that video is hosted by, the description says that their hands “turn completely BLACK with poison.” That actually doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not true—the color is from charcoal.

Still, though… wild!

Oh, also, folks who have lived around the ants for a long time have used their stings to treat rheumatism (painful joints, etc), and have found that their bites are so strong that the ants’ mandibles can be used to pull the edges of a cut together, like stitches. The ant’s body is then twisted off, and the head (still biting) is left on the wound as a suture.

But we like the sting gloves. It’s news to me, right?

Want to help track monarchs? The Minnesota Zoo is offering visitors the chance to participate in a monarch tagging project. (Data from tagged monarchs helps scientists learn about their amazing migration.)

August 30, 4 - 5 p.m.
September 6, 4 -5 p.m.
(Dates are subject to change depending on the weather.)

Cost is $10 per person. Children under 10 should be accompanied by an adult. Call 952.431.9273 to make a reservation.


A medical miracle in the making?
A medical miracle in the making?Courtesy nbonzey
If you're one of those people who is easily grossed out, you might want to stop reading this post. Because what I'm about to tell you might make your stomach turn.

In an effort to help heal human wounds, medical researchers have been studying creepy, crawly, flesh-eating maggots. THE SAME wiggly critters that appear in your garbage can, on road kill, and any place where they can find dead meat or rotten food. In case you don't know the maggot life story, eventually these larvae grow-up to become flies, at which point they continue to hang out with garbage. It's not a pretty life, but they don't complain much.

So...what do maggots have to do with medicine?

Well, people have known for a long time that deep or difficult wounds (ulcers, burns, deep lacerations) heal much faster if you enlist maggots for a little help. In fact, hospitals even breed fly larvae (maggots!) so they can apply "maggot therapy" to wounds that would otherwise heal poorly. As gross as it sounds, this technique actually works well. The maggots eat the decaying tissue, preventing bacterial growth and helping to keep the wound "clean" so it can heal better.

Until recently, researchers were not exactly sure how these maggots did their miracle work on wounds, or how they could make maggot therapy more accessible. What they've discovered is that an enzyme produced by the maggots can itself help to remove decaying tissue. You can read more about it here.

This means that new bandages infused with maggot juice, or maggot ointment, might not be far from drugstore shelves. The enzyme appears to help heal wounds large and small, and with very few side effects. I wonder if upset stomach is one of them?

What do you think - would you buy a maggot-based product to help heal cuts and scrapes?


Hey Buzzketeers, brace yourself for some natural beauty.

Hey! Hey! I know what you’re thinking!

Y’all are thinking, “Hey, JGordon, everything in nature is just doing its best, the best way it knows how. Nature is beautiful, smartypants!”

Smartypants yourselves—I wasn’t being sarcastic. I’m just trying to help you experience natural beauty in the safest way possible. So brace yourselves. Buckle up. Stand over a tarp.

Because Mother Nature is about to hurl all over you. In a beautiful way.

So… you know aphids? Little, plant-eating bugs? We don’t often like them in our gardens because they can be pretty destructive to the plants, but, as you pointed out, they’re just little animals, doing their beautiful best. (Your words.)

It turns out that some aphids are able to interact with plant tissue, forcing it to form a gall, or an area of swollen tissue. Aphids can then live inside the gall. Kind of neat, huh?

But what if the gall is damaged? If a hole is punched in the gall, what happens then? Something beautiful.

Some gall-forming aphids species have “soldiers,” individuals that crowd around the rupture in the gall and—get this—puke out sticky goo to cover the hole. As much as two thirds of a soldier’s bodyweight can be comprised of the goo. The soldiers mix the goo with their legs, until it hardens into a crusty little “scab.” The goo is so sticky and quick-drying, in fact, that soldiers often become trapped in it, their own bodies building the gall scab.

Although… now that I think of it, I’m not sure if the soldiers puke the goo, or if they squeeze it out of some other orifice. Take a look for yourself: Puking or squeezing?

Scientists only discovered this awesome puking/repairing technique in the last few years. Even more recently, however, it has been observed that the galls will fully heal only with the aphids’ help. Once the hole is sealed, soldier aphids (the ones that aren’t stuck in the goo forever) tend the healing plant, manipulating its re-growth until the breach is fully healed. Pretty cool.

This is why I like to think of aphids as “Nature’s doctors.” Because, just like “peoples’ doctors,” they puke on wounds, and sometimes get stuck in the puke as it dries.

To make sure that I’m conveying this concept clearly, I have prepared a series of diagrams demonstrating how aphids repair their homes. Instead of aphids, however, I have drawn multiple JGordons. And I have substituted my own home for a plant gall. But the principle is the same.
Aphids consider their damaged home: Their sweater vests clearly mark them as soldiers.
Aphids consider their damaged home: Their sweater vests clearly mark them as soldiers.Courtesy JGordon

The aphids react on instinct: This is the beautiful part.
The aphids react on instinct: This is the beautiful part.Courtesy JGordon

The job done, nature's doctors admire their work
The job done, nature's doctors admire their workCourtesy JGordon