Insects Teach Man Secrets of Invention (Sep, 1931)
Insects Teach Man Secrets of Invention
by Uthai Vincent Wilcox
Amazing inventions perfected by tiny creatures of the insect world have long baffled scientists, who are studying the remarkable accomplishments of “bug” architects, chemists and engineers to find solutions for their scientific problems.
NATURE is, above all, an inventor. She invents new devices, new processes, new ways to meet situations. Many of her amazing inventions are still fascinating mysteries. Scientists know about them, but they are unable adequately to explain them.
Exploring the insect world, investigators have come upon scientific feats performed by the tiny creatures that have proved nothing short of marvelous to engineers, architects, chemists, and even statesmen.
Bees, for example, possess a super-knowledge of chemistry, and they show, as well, an astounding ability to learn and remember.
The ordinary honey bee is not easily fooled when out foraging for food. Dr. Frances L. Long, of the staff of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, made a series of extensive experiments in Colorado. He disguised the flowers, he concealed brightly colored parts, he removed petals, he added honey and perfume, he made artificial flowers and painted ones, yet, except for rare instances, the bees were always able to distinguish the real flower from the artificial one, although appearances and even odors were identical.
In his experiments he inverted some of their favorite flowers, thus making it difficult for the bees to enter to secure the honey and nectar. This, however, did not disturb the bees over-much. They immediately adapted themselves to a condition not found before. The bees would land at the lower sepals, turn around and enter upside down. Others mastered the problem quickly by “going to five inverted flowers in succession and turning upside down just after landing, a sort of looping-the-loop method.
In other experiments the darting humming bird succeeded in twisting its neck about and altering its position from normal and achieving its objective.
Dr. Austin M. Clark, renowed scientist of the Smithsonian Institute, has spent the most fruitful years of his life investigating the habits of thousands of living creatures. He finds that the highest forms of civilization attained by man rest upon slowly acquired knowledge which is most nearly approached not by mammals but by insects. It is true that birds and mammals have practices in common with the more civilized races of men. The complicated engineering achievement of beavers is an example and the physical structure of the bird’s body is another. ‘ For example, a bird must be able to roost, tuck its head under its wing, and sleep-—all without danger of falling off the perch. The mechanics of Nature’s method in making this possible is an example of the skillful adaption to conditions. The cord which operates the toes of the bird is made extra long and broadens into a muscle. It reaches from hip to heel, running over the knee in front and in a spiral direction around the bone of the lower leg and then over the heel behind. As a result of this rigging over opposed joints the bending of the leg serves to put the muscle and tendon on the stretch, but when the bird settles down to sleep the weight shortens the tendon by drawing the toes together, and the bird is automatically clamped to the perch so that it can’t fall. This is Nature’s patented roosting device.
In the case of the stork, Nature has provided a self-acting lockjoint. The stork walks on stilts—hinged stilts—a feat that would test the ingenuity of an acrobat on any stage. But due to the invention the stork’s leg is made so the lower part fits into a socket, the hinge is thrown out, and there is no danger of falling or bending. The stork can even go to sleep resting on one stilt.
Insects, however, make much broader applications of the principles of physics and chemistry than do most of the mammals, Dr. Clark finds. These are the two sciences that have been largely responsible for man’s advancement.
Wasps learned to make paper long before man acquired the art, and the parasite varieties employ the principle of asepsis with astounding skill. One species, before laying eggs on a caterpillar or spider, paralyses the victim with an injection of formic acid which at the same time preserves the victim from decay. Another kind of acid protects the eggs themselves with a thin layer of chemicals when deposited and allows the host to go on with business as usual.
It has been said that man is the only creature that uses tools, yet bees and wasps utilize various implements. Some digger wasps pat down the earth with small sticks or stones after filling in their holes. Honey bees have special adaptions of legs and muscles that are in effect tools. The stinger itself is a mechanical marvel.
Once started the bee’s stinger has the power and mechanism to drive itself in, being provided with a self-acting muscle of its own. It is detachable and is even capable of going on working by a sort of pumping motion, and driving itself in after the bee has flown away. It consists of two highly-polished javelins or spears, each having a row of barbs along one side, the two shafts fitting and sliding against one another inside a supporting scabbard. The advantages that man has with the repeating rifle is the bee’s also, for the jabbing is continued. On the top of the apparatus is the poison bag which keeps emptying its contents into the wound through a groove between the two sliding spears.
Dr. Clark has discovered that man’s vaunted ability to fly is surpassed by the hawk moths, humming birds, and hover flies, who have learned to fly backwards as well as forwards.
The spinning ants of Africa and Australia, although not equipped with spinning apparatus themselves, have learned how to make use of involuntary child labor by pressing their larvae into service, Dr. Clark discovered on one of his exploring trips. When they set out to make their huge nests, they take some of their helpless young and use them as shuttles to sew bunches of leaves together with the liquid silk they contain until the supply is nearly exhausted. Then they return the larvae to their resting place and bring out a fresh supply of living shuttles.
In Queensland there is a spider which hangs head downward by a strand of web and holds in its claw a lasso about an inch and a half in length. The end of this lasso has on it a drop of sticky fluid. When a moth comes in reach the spider whirls its lasso rapidly and skillfully catches the moth on the sticky drop. This spider is called the Magnificent. His skill is not matched by any cowboy of the plains in unerring accuracy.
While Dr. Clark and the scientists of the U. S. Department of Agriculture spend their lives in studying habits of insects and the smaller creatures, they are confronted by many mysteries, as yet unfathomed.
The Mexican Free-Tailed Bat of the Southwestern states has its mysteries. It is common enough, yet comparatively little is known about its manner of living. The bat flies at night, and yet their eyes are exceedingly small and deeply sunk in furry sockets. The bat flies rapidly, darting here and there and catching moths and night flying insects. Some have thought that the foreheads of the bat are equipped with fine hairs that are sensitive to sound waves and report the echo of a wing beat.
Experimenters once strung fine, black wires in a darkened room and then released a bat along with some moths. The bat was able to catch the darting moths and did not strike a single wire, although they were close together. The bat indigenous to America sleeps during the winter months suspended by its hooked wings. Before doing so the little creature has stored up food to supply the needs of the body. By some process they empty their stomachs and alimentary canals, their temperature falls to that of the surrounding air, and their circulation and respiration become greatly reduced, their bodies becoming cold and apparently lifeless. They hang that way for four or five months until awakened by the warm air of spring, when by some mysterious process their circulation becomes normal and they awaken to dart off as though they had been asleep just over night.
It is not known just how bats and the whole insect world, too, balance themselves. They never become confused, they do not become dizzy, and they can walk upside down and can cling to smooth surfaces. While some have special adaptions in their feet, others equally as skillful do not. Spiders and ants are in this latter category.
In a laboratory at the Interior Depart- ment in Washington a study was made recently of spiders’ webs. A silken thread spun by a spider was photographed through a microscope that magnified its diameter 2,000 times. Thus enlarged it looked about the size of a horsehair. A human hair magnified on the same scale would be six inches thick. This particular spider thread was measured and found to be thirty-two millionths of an inch in diameter. Yet, for its size, it was wonderfully strong,—comparatively far stronger than that of any cord or rope that man knows how to make.
Spiders antedated man in the solution of the problem of aerial navigation. Many of them are aeronauts. On a warm day, when a slight breeze is blowing, this mystery may be observed. A spider on a fencepost seeks to go by air. She spins and lets loose in the wind a number of threads, and when the wind gives sufficient pull, she lets go and is carried off. As she is carried up she turns herself back-downward and weaves with her feet a tiny cradle to lie in while enjoying her aerial voyage.
Wishing to descend, she pulls in some of the threads and thus reduces the buoyancy of her craft. Finding a suitable place to land she throws out a silken rope and then pulls herself to a leaf or branch and is ready for another adventure. It combines several complicated methods demanding skill and understanding.
Imagine a man walking down to the railroad tracks and, finding there a locomotive in his way, picking it up and carrying it for a mile or two. The ant accomplishes this in proportion, its strength being enormous. Ants studied by scientists of the government lifted a burden represented proportionately at 240,000 pounds. This would be 120 tons for a man.
If a man had the strength of an ant he could build a skyscraper without resorting to complicated derricks and engines. Giant girders would be like toothpicks, and each worker would carry a whole carload of bricks at a time.
Ants, too, Dr. Harlow Shapley of Mount Wilson Observatory discovered, have a mysterious ability to determine the weather. The scientists happened to observe a route of the ants. He noticed that the warmer the day the faster the ants marched. When the temperature was 50 degrees the ants ran at the rate of 52 feet an hour. When the temperature was 100 degrees the ants sped up to 780 feet an hour, or fifteen times as fast. So accurate was this performance that Dr. Shapley could tell how warm the weather was within one degree simply by timing the march of the ants.
Just why the ant’s body registered so unerringly cannot be told. It is another of Nature’s mysteries. But Dr. Shapley believes it is a good illustration of the laws of chemistry and physics. To speed up action heat is administered, to slow up, cold.
Libraries have been written about the ant, yet it is a simple creature, although 140,000 of these tiny insects are necessary to weigh a pound. However the ant was the first creature to form organized societies, with division of labor in industry and complete cooperation in the affairs of life, with populations as large as our largest cities and so stable as to have endured for millions of years.
The flashes of light from the firefly is another mystery of science. If solved it may easily revolutionize the world’s lighting and power systems. Dr. Walter Hough of the Smithsonian Institute says, “We do not know how to classify the chemicals which cause the light, or how to mix them properly if we could classify them.”
The chemicals that bring the glow are called luciferin and luciferease for want of a better name. The tail of the firefly contains two cells. By a nervous action the luciferin goes through a tiny tube to the luciferease. The two materials immediately oxidize and a glow results. The oxidation turns the luciferin and luciferease back to their original states, ready for another twinkle.
Investigators of science are still seeking to unlock the mysteries of Nature. Judging the’ future from the progress of the past, it will be many years before all of the secrets will be known.
There is the ability of the katydid to rival the mechanical equipment of a violin by scraping a file across a membrane. The katydid can keep it up for hours upon hours without any diminution, but just why the little insect insists upon its mechanical chirp no one exactly knows.
There is the mechanical skill of the birds in building their nests to fit every condition. Nothing seems too hard for them. The nests are entirely adequate for their needs, are quickly made and will withstand the hardest storms, and will hold a weight of tremendous proportions considering their size and strength.
The mathematical skill of bees and wasps in laying out the honeycomb is marvelous. No engineer could surpass them. Then, too, the bee’s ability to produce a longer tongue to meet its hunger needs is startling. Placed in a location where a longer tongue is needed the bee proceeds to grow it. Bee scientists are hoping to secure this secret for the general utilization and benefit of man in greater honey production by all bees, securing, thereby more nectar.
The queen bee, too, is able to control the sex of its offspring. Just how this is done is not known. If worker bees are needed, worker bees are hatched; if males, then males are produced. The hive queen is entirely efficient.