You Can Thank Insects for Many Human Inventions
By Eric R. Eaton
Insects are beneficial in more ways than simply as pollinators of crops, decomposers of decaying organic matter, controllers of agricultural pests, and food for other wildlife. They also inspire new inventions or improvements to existing ones through unique anatomical features and behaviors strikingly similar to our own. Even in this digital age, we continue to extract ideas and materials from insects and their relatives.
Insects Did It First
In the new edition of our book Insects Did It First (Xlibris, 2018), coauthor Gregory S. Paulson, Ph.D., and I explore many insect-initiated inventions, from antifreeze and chemical weapons to navigation and communication. There is even an insect, in its nymph stage, that possesses cog-like “gears” that allow it to jump farther, more efficiently. Thanks to observations of vespid wasps, we have the modern pulp and paper industry, which began in 1719 due to the persistence of French naturalist and physicist Antoine Ferchault Réaumer. More recently, the chainsaw got an upgrade when Joe Cox of Portland, Oregon, watched the wood-boring larva of Trichocnemis spiculatus (sometimes known as the “ponderous borer”) and noticed that the insect’s opposable mandibles were highly effective in gnawing through wood. Cox devised a new saw chain with “right” and “left” cutting teeth. He began manufacturing the new design in 1947 in the basement of his home. Oregon Sawchain Corporation eventually became Omark Industries, an international company.
Still Learning After All These Years
Surely, in this technological age, insects have nothing more to teach us. Not so. Sometimes we recognize the achievements of insect evolution after we have accidentally duplicated them with our own devices. The insect equivalents of radar and sonar help moths, mantids, and other arthropods detect and avoid bats. We have learned that dung-rolling scarab beetles navigate by celestial objects, 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 since lost. Studying the eyes and brains of dragonflies has led to new algorithms for visual tracking that are 20 times faster than previous generations of such software.
Beyond A Utilitarian View
The challenge of today may be to avoid a strictly utilitarian view of other organisms, whereby a species is expendable if it cannot demonstrate economic value that can be measured in dollars. The idea that insects can provide us with new chemicals for medicines and manufacturing (“bioprospecting”) is a powerful argument for invertebrate conservation. So is biomimicry, but that has led us to attempt to replace pollinating insects with microdrones. Walmart filed an application for a patent on miniature drones on March 8, 2018, citing evidence of declines in bee populations and the need to supplement the pollination services provided by insects. Japanese scientists had previously built drones for the cross-pollination of lilies, but videos of the machines in action exposed how clumsy they are compared to the direct and delicate maneuvers of bees. Considering that insects have been on the planet for millions of years longer than Homo sapiens, perhaps it is time to realize that there are some things that cannot be improved upon.
Proceeding With Caution and Respect
Replacing bees and other insects with machines cheapens our humanity in other ways, too. There is no substitute for interactions with other living organisms, though we seem hell-bent on trying to substitute them anyway. Our knowledge of how insects interact with other species, including our own, is woefully inadequate. Entomology’s greatest redeeming quality is its potential for discovery, and the blossoming fields of citizen science and science communication allow anyone to have an impact on our collective knowledge. Observations have led to a better understanding of the geographic distribution of different species, led to the discovery of new species, and documented previously unknown behaviors and relationships thanks to videos taken on cell phones. All of this can be shared instantly through social media and online platforms.
We should be grateful to insects and related arthropods for their inspiration and complexity, and we should continue to learn from them. We must do so, however, with a degree of reverence, rather than an overriding desire for monetary windfalls.
Eric R. Eaton is principal author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), and contributor to several other books, and he has worked as a professional entomologist at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, Chase Studio, Inc., and the Cincinnati Zoo. He also writes about insects and arthropods at his blog, Bug Eric. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.