Ask people what insects are “good for” (in the anthropocentric sense), and most people will answer that bees produce honey and wax, or silkworms spin cocoons of fine thread. A few people may even realise that shellac comes from the shells of lac bugs, or that carmine & cochineal red food colorings are made from a cactus-feeding beetle. And of course, everyone knows that ladybeetles (ladybird beetles / ladybugs) are useful predators.
But aside from these direct uses of insects for their labor or their exoskeletons, 21st-century scientists are increasingly using lowly hexapods for rather different pursuits: insects are fabulous engineering models!
The field of biomimetics is the realm of applied research and design that makes use of the answers to practical applications that have already evolved in natural organisms. After all, why create things from scratch when the answers are already out there in natural organisms and systems?
Robotics engineers around the world are using the ground locomotion and flight abilities of insects to develop more efficient ‘bots, including robots that can travel terrain unsuitable for wheels (think extraplanetary rovers), and microbots used for gathering aerial data.
Communication of new hot spots for resources and allocation of workers in honeybee colonies were the inspiration for more efficient Web servers.
Just ask my tarantula Rosie — crickets have fast reflexes! Bioelectric hybrid circuits are built upon their efficient sensory-response rates.
Speaking of non-insect arthropods, artificial spider silks are being developed to help repair damaged nerves.
The iridescent blue color of Morpho butterfly wings is really a trick of light reflection (the wings’ true color is brown), and the structural qualities of the scales are being utilised to help produce anti-reflective coatings for radar design.
Other anti-reflective qualities are fly eyes, which help improve the surface of solar collectors for more efficient energy production.
The beautiful multi-color metallics of some beetles have inspired beautiful iridescent paints.