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Bugs a Major Source of Inspiration in Robotics

Bugs a Major Source of Inspiration in Robotics

Robotics is a relatively new science, really gaining traction in the early 1980s. Back then, robots shaped like insects were large enough to carry human passengers on their backs. But scientists have made huge strides in recent years, both in reducing the size of robots and equipping them with all the bells and whistles that our silicon-valley age offers.

Despite progress in creating sensors to help navigation and report data, the challenge remains how to move through – and around – obstacles. Insect movements are a perfect template, because most insects spend their lives crawling, climbing, dangling, and scuttling on every imaginable surface.

One design that continues to be improved is the VelociRoach. Recent upgrades have included spines on its legs and a super svelte ovoid shell. The spiny legs give the robot greater traction, while the rounded shell allows for roll-and-tumble maneuvers that allow that roach to slip between barriers.

“What’s so great about nature is, what we’re trying to do with robotics is solve a lot of really hard problems like how to get around, how to walk on difficult terrain, and nature has already solved it,” said Nick Kohut, chief executive of Dash Robotics, a company that produces little robots for home assembly.

Webspinner Leads Amazing Life

Webspinner Leads Amazing Life

She’s called Embioptera, or webspinner, and she lives her whole life in a complicated maze of silk. Neither spider nor silkworm, she nonetheless can spin just as effectively: those who’ve studied her say she is in evolutionary holdover, the only insect silk-spinning legs.

The webspinner is often mistaken for the prey of a spider, as she is found deep inside what looks like a prison of silk strands. She lives inside tree bark, where she spends her entire life constructing an extremely elaborate, multi-layered web, full of tunnels and rooms. A web mansion, you might call it.

Specialized structures on this insect’s legs create silk. Looking much like a long-bodied ant or termite, this bug can crawl very rapidly both forward and backward. Considering the complexity of her home, she needs to be able to move fast in tight spaces.

The male webspinner is an odd creature, sometimes wingless, who has to generally crawl in order to find a mate. Because crawling through someone else’s tunnel can be confusing and exhausting, the males prefer to pick family members for mating. After the larval stage, the winged males develop into adulthood and never eat again. Their anatomy doesn’t allow for it – they get wings, but no mouths.

The mouth parts are really only there to grab a female, and mate. Unable to eat, they starve and become a food source for any of the tribe’s females.

Rats and Roaches Plague Vets

Rats and Roaches Plague Vets

The Veteran’s Administration treats every veteran that comes through its doors. It’s the largest non-private healthcare plan in the country, outside of Medicare and Medicaid. And the VA has struggled with funding, because many of the patients seen there have chronic conditions that are expensive to treat but also due to factors of underfunding and poor administration.

The James A. Haley VA in Tampa, Florida is a recent example of how underfunding rears its ugly head. In this case, the problems come in the form of rats and cockroaches. The building is infested, and dead rats and roaches are being found in large numbers.

An email sent internally noted that three dead rats had fallen through the ceiling of a single area of the hospital. Officials are concerned that the roach problem is even worse, with the probability that some roaches may have crawled their way into patients’ meals.

Hospital officials maintain this is not a long term problem, but came about due to construction on a property adjacent to the VA building. A recent pest-control contract will cover the next five years, and is scheduled to begin in the canteen and food preparation areas.

Biodiversity Contributes to Fighting Plant, Animal Pests

Biodiversity Contributes to Fighting Plant, Animal Pests

Among biologists and ecologists, there is a term called the “dilution effect.” Simply stated, this hypothesis suggests that biological diversity is the foundation for a healthy ecosystem and limits outbreaks of disease – both in humans and wildlife.

The dilution effect is generally accepted, but a debate continues as to whether the effect holds true only for parasitic species, or more broadly in the natural world.

One researcher at University of South Florida, Dave Civitello in the Department of Integrative Biology, decided to review all the evidence around the relationship between biodiversity and disease.

To get a clearer picture, Civitello and co-author Jason Rohr reviewed 200 evaluations related to disease and biodiversity and concluded that, in fact, the theory of dilution does apply across the board.

‘Our study found broad evidence that species-rich communities suffer less infectious disease, and the magnitude of this effect was independent of host density, study design, type and specialization of parasites, and whether the parasite infected humans or wildlife, indicating that dilution was robust across all ecological contexts examined,’ stated one of the study’s leaders.

Additional research shows that not only is biodiversity a boon for animal life, but plant life as well. The greater variety of plant life, the more resistant all plants are to pests. The number of pests is reduced in a system that has many types of plants, and the more species of plants that exist, the more all are resistant to diseases.

Native Moth Winning In David v. Goliath Story

Native Moth Winning In David v. Goliath Story

Invasive plants and pests cause untold damage on ecosystems. Whether it’s the tree killing Asian Long-horned beetle or tropical Tawny Crazy ants, creatures that are new to our shores are difficult to control. Attempts to rein them in have including introducing other predatory pests and developing a better insecticide.

Non-native plants can wreak plenty of havoc, too. In green and lush Florida, where tropical plants thrive, an exotic yellow-leaved Crotalaria retusa not only grows to eight feet, but is poisonous. And it’s pushing out other native plants. Although they grow freely and quickly, and were used originally as cover crops, they are also poisonous to mammals who feed on them.

Known colloquially as “rattlebox”, some species grow among food crops, creating hazards to consumers.

But one tiny creature is taking on this giant, bright yellow invader – and winning.

The small, white-and-brown spotted bella moth has been found to eat the poisonous seeds of “rattlebox” plants, and survive. The moth evolved to live on the native rattlebox, but seems to be thriving on the invasive type.

Andrei Sourakov, a University of Florida Lepidopterist, notes that the moth is doing a great service to the state of Florida. “In this day and age, some of these rattlebox plants probably wouldn’t have been introduced because people are more aware of the negative impacts of introducing exotic species,” he said. “But in this case, we have a rare success story. A native species of moth does a good job of keeping these plants under control.

The Call of the Wild Grub

The Call of the Wild Grub

If you have a lawn, they live in it, feed on it, and burrow underneath it.  Grubs eat the roots of grass and therefore can do a lot of damage before they are spotted.  Brown patches of dead grass will be the first sign of grub infestation.

But they can also do damage more indirectly, by attracting raccoons and skunks to your back yard.  These rodents will dig through the grass in attempts to secure an easy and delicious grub-centered meal.

To keep the rodents away, the best approach is to discourage their presence.  To make your yard inhospitable, dangle shiny CDs above the area, use loud noises, spread ammonia-soaked rags, or disperse the urine from predatory animals.

Most home care businesses will supply a variety of products to repel rodents.

Controlling the grub population may be necessary if there is a serious infestation (four or more grubs per square foot), but using grub pesticides can have adverse consequences for other, beneficial soil organisms.

A better approach to rid the lawn of too much digging is to spread a generous coating of Milorganite, which will dissuade rodents from digging.  To repair damage, re-seeding can begin in the fall season.

Beetle-Inspired Nail Polish a Real Beauty

Beetle-Inspired Nail Polish a Real Beauty

No beetles were harmed in the making of this new and unique beauty product, but this nail polish glistens and shines in a natural range of beetle shades.

Christian Louboutin has created a fabulous and Egyptian-inspired nail polish to honor the insects of his “second home” on the Nile.

Beetles, also known as scarabs in the Egyptian world, have been long commemorated among the Egyptian people.  They are famously immortalized on ancient Egyptian temples.  Now, they are making the leap into the modern age by lending their metallic glimmer to the human fingernail.

This limited edition collection is called Scarabee, and comes in three colors that mimic the changing shades of a beetle shell.  Each reflective style also seems to contain three-in-one hues of its own.

The iridescent colors, or styles, are best described as a reddish, blueish and yellowish.

Nail polish is one of the fashion enhancers you keep around forever, so the fifty dollar price tag may be worth it.  Scarabee can be used for any and all special occasions and makes a great conversation starter.  Available in mid-June direct, this polish will also honor the bugs from whence its special powers originated.

The Fantastic Flying Machines of Nature

The Fantastic Flying Machines of Nature

Scientists who want to understand both hovering and light track ability are looking to the moth for answers.  This member of the Lepidoptera order possess highly developed abilities to hover and track a moving object, two skills highly coveted by their human observers.

A new generation of robots are being engineered for a variety of purposes, and the “small, flying” type will largely be modeled from insect movements.

Moths are common, with 160,000 species known.  They can grow fairly large, and share many traits with their nearest relative, the more celebrated butterfly. They are experts at hovering, in all sorts of conditions.

“There has been a lot of interest in understanding how animals deal with challenging sensing environments, especially when they are also doing difficult tasks like hovering in mid-air,” said Simon Sponberg, an assistant professor in the School of Physics and School of Applied Physiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This is also a very significant challenge for micro air vehicles.”

Moths are able to capitalize on whatever light is available, via a specialized eye structure, but scientists have also wondered if they have some means of slowing down their brains to best adapted to low light conditions.  Speculation on that ability has led to another question:  with slowed brains, how can they make the necessary adjustments to hover in mid-air?


Studies of moths hovering in near darkness demonstrate that only if conditions were extreme – for example, flowers moving in a wind stronger than any nature could produce – did the moths falter.  The research shows how these insects are able to finely tune their brains in order to find food sources.

The Mating Dance of Lightning Bugs

The Mating Dance of Lightning Bugs

In the Eastern States there is a fantastic flying creature that lights up the darkness of forests and back yards alike – the lightning bug.  He doesn’t roam farther west than Kansas, and avoids yards with too much light or pesticides.  Sometimes called fireflies, they are the same creature.

In fact, Lampyridae, as they are known scientifically, are not flies but from a family of beetles called Coleoptera.  Their magical ability to light up is a result of a unique trait called bioluminescence.

Along with their entertainment value, lightning bugs dine on a variety of slimy animals, including snails and slugs.  They are also fond of earthworms, when available.

The light itself is produced as part of a mating dance.  Males produce light as they sail through the dark air, sending out a signal to any nearby females.  On the ground, the female also lights up.  Occasionally, signals get crossed and a male chooses the wrong female.  So she promptly eats him, abruptly ending what was a beautiful mating dance.

Some people say the term “femme fatale” grew out of this mating ritual gone awry.

Scientists do not fully understand how lightning bugs regulate the use of their bioluminescent power.  The current theory is that they control output of chemicals by somehow restricting the oxygen in their bodies.

The Truth About Citronella as Repellant

The Truth About Citronella as Repellant

Mosquitoes are here to stay and are, in fact, increasing.  Warmer weather due to climate change means mosquito habitat is expanding, and with it a host of dangerous diseases like dengue-fever and malaria.

A variety of sprays work to keep mosquitoes away, but some prefer the “all natural route.”  The most common repellent in this category is citronella, but there are a few facts you should know before running out and buying a supply.

First, a commonly known “citronella” plant is actually a species of geranium, called Pelargonium citrosum.  This is not the plant that produces the oil used in citronella candles, but it does carry a remote smell of citronella.  It is the better known plant, lemongrass (Cymbopogon), that actually produces citronella oil – but this plant puts off only a whiff of the odor and unless you weave a lemongrass outfit for yourself it will not repel mosquitoes.

Citronella in a spray is only marginally effective.  Although it is are registered officially as a repellent in the U.S., European countries do not allow citronella.  Its effectiveness really is debated, but if used it needs to be applied frequently – about each hour.  In addition, just because it’s “all natural” does not mean it is not toxic.  In fact, based on studies done on rabbits, the oil is more toxic than DEET.

The oil used in citronella candles is far too mild to repel mosquitoes.


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