Stories tagged insects

Once termites are finished solving our fuel problems, ants can help us with traffic. Iain Couzin, a mathematical biologist at Princeton and Oxford, studies army ants in Panama, trying to deduce the simple rules that allow millions of individuals to move smoothly and efficiently. He hopes these rules may someday be used to alleviate traffic congestion for humans.

Nov
02
2007

Nanotechnology sometimes borrows from nature.

Morpho butterfly: Pigments don’t cause these butterflies’ intense colors. Instead, super-small lattice-like structures on the wings reflect only certain wavelengths of light (or color). And the colors shift with your perspective. (Photo courtesy Lionoche, through Flickr)
Morpho butterfly: Pigments don’t cause these butterflies’ intense colors. Instead, super-small lattice-like structures on the wings reflect only certain wavelengths of light (or color). And the colors shift with your perspective. (Photo courtesy Lionoche, through Flickr)

Super-small, light-reflecting structures—instead of pigments—create a morpho butterfly's intense, iridescent wing color. Scientists are developing nanomaterials with similar properties.

Zoom in on a butterfly's wing
Zoom in on a butterfly's wing

If you used a special microscope to look at these butterfly wings, you’d see tiny scales made up of thin layers of transparent wing material with nanoscale gaps between them. Light waves bouncing off the bottom surfaces interfere with waves reflecting from the tops. Most light waves are cancelled and only certain wavelengths—or colors—bounce back to your eyes. The more light in the environment, the brighter the color.

Wing structures: These complicated structures on butterfly wings manipulate light to control the color that we see.
Wing structures: These complicated structures on butterfly wings manipulate light to control the color that we see.

How do transparent thin films create color?: Scientists haven't yet created materials that work exactly like the butterfly wings. But layers and layers of transparent, super-thin films--each with a different index of refraction--can be tuned so that they only reflect specific wavelengths of light (o
How do transparent thin films create color?: Scientists haven't yet created materials that work exactly like the butterfly wings. But layers and layers of transparent, super-thin films--each with a different index of refraction--can be tuned so that they only reflect specific wavelengths of light (o

Scientists are developing all sorts of products that, like the butterfly wings, use layers of transparent materials with nanoscale spacing between them to manipulate light and create color. With them, we can create computer and cell phone displays, fabrics and paints that change color, optical devices that improve telecommunications systems, and films that reflect much more light than glass mirrors. Can you imagine other uses?

Oct
29
2007

She's safe, but for how long?: As you read this, government agencies are developing mind-invasion technology that not even aluminum foil can stop.  (photo courtesy of jspaw on flickr.com)
She's safe, but for how long?: As you read this, government agencies are developing mind-invasion technology that not even aluminum foil can stop. (photo courtesy of jspaw on flickr.com)
The Washington Post has given me something new to try not to think about during every waking hour in a recent article on robotic insects and their potential uses as spies.

At recent political events and rallies in New York and Washington there have been several suspiciously similar sightings reported of large, robot-like insects hovering just above the participants, sparking paranoia that the Department of Homeland Security might be using high-tech surveillance tools to spy on American citizens.

That last paragraph was a very long sentence, with at least one extended example of alliteration.

It has also been argued that these are, in fact, sightings of dragonflies. And, as strong as my inherent distrust of governments and insects is, when you compare the number of tiny government robots out there to the number of actual insects, this second theory seems pretty likely. Nonetheless, the Post article offers a pretty interesting look at some of the developing “robobug” technologies out there.

The Defense Department documents at least 100 models of flying robots in use today, ranging in size from something like a small plane to a songbird. The conventional rules of robotics, however, don’t work very well on a smaller scale, so making a robot as tiny as an insect is much more complicated. The CIA developed a four-winged dragonfly-like device as early as the 70s, which flew under the power of a tiny gas engine, but was abandoned due to its inability to cope with crosswinds. Several universities have since created palm-sized fliers, and a team at Harvard got a tiny fly-like robot airborne in July, its tiny, laser-cut wings flapping at 120 beats per second. It weighed only 65 milligrams, but it couldn’t be piloted, and was tethered by a power-supply cord.

Other researchers, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have directed their efforts towards creating cyborg bugs, inserting microchips into the pupae of moths. The thought is that the nerves of the moths could grow into the chips, and that they could then be controlled and fitted with a tiny camera (or whatever). DARPA also has a similar project with beetles, where the muscles of the insects would generate the energy needed to power the various instruments they could carry. At a symposium in August, a DARPA project manager said of the research, "You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support. This science fiction vision is within the realm of reality." Even assuming that the DARPA spokesman wasn’t referring to a giant magical eagle when he mentioned “air support,” this is a very funny statement.

There are even rumors that the CIA and other organizations have developed insect robots that exist in your brain and prevent you from being productive by forcing you to think about them constantly. These robots are manufactured and reproduced by your own imagination, and, reportedly, can only be dealt with by chemical abuse and other hobbies.

Oct
25
2007

Today while paying for my batteries at Radio Shack in Stillwater, I noticed on the counter a large model (or robot?) of an insect about 4 1/2 inches long. As I queried the clerk about the device. He said It was live and had been a visitor for several days. As we talked it very slowly turned about to face me. I leaned close and moved my head back and forth sideways. It followed my movements carefully. It didn't react fearfully when I touched it. Later climbed slowly on the clerks hand for a better look at me. Now I was surprised that Mantis could be that large, or that friendly. What's with these kind creatures?

Oct
05
2007

I was looking around at the number of people that visit which stories on our website this morning and noticed a huge spike in traffic to this story we wrote back in 2006 on Boxelder bugs. Just yesterday alone the number of people searching for the story went from an average of 40 people to about 250 in one day. This got me wondering, are you starting to notice that seasonal invasion of these bugs?

Leave a comment here to tell us about your box elder stories. 2006 was a big year for the little buggers and I wonder what differences you might see this year.

Bee driven sensors: Courtesy Susana Soares.
Bee driven sensors: Courtesy Susana Soares.
An artist at the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom has designed some beautiful glass sculptures that could help use bee's amazing powers of smell to help detect disease. Susana Soares was inspired by recent news on research to use bees to sniff out chemical weapons and bombs.

Also check out:

University of Montana's Bee Alert program.
More on bees from Science Buzzzzzz

If you haven't spent any time surfing the "What's that Bug?" website, you must do it now. Really. "Carnage, "Bug Love," plus insect identification and links... It's the best.

Not a chicken eating a spider. But a giant spider eating a dead chicken. More photos here.

Seriously, what more do I need to say?

Bomb-sniffing bees. Anthrax-absorbing roaches. Remote-control butterflies. Scientists are using insects and other creatures to identify biological hazards, including those that may be related to terror attacks.