Defining Biomimicry

Delving into literature for design inspired by nature, one encounters many different words describing different processes. When I had begun writing this post, I had expected to be able to easily determine the differences between the words in the literature so that I could provide clear definitions in this post. However, complicated systems cannot be accurately boiled down into one facet to provide a clear and simple definition. This is true in both defining and practicing biomimicry. If anything, this is the most important lesson I learned in trying to define the terms below. The striking issue I came across, is that the word biomimicry seemed to be used in two different ways, which is a little confusing. In this post I hope to provide a possible resolution to eliminate the confusion in the word biomimicry. I have still tried to produce adequate definitions below to the many other terms in the field, so if you are not familiar with the terms, perhaps you can learn something. After I define the terms, I will discuss in more detail the overall picture that I see.

Biomimicry – Biomimicry really has two definitions: general and specific. The general is the umbrella term for using natural inspiration to innovate new designs, whether tangible (such as spider silk inspired materials) or intangible (such as swarm intelligence inspired business structures). The specific term describes the practice of utilizing the “Life’s Principles” as defined by the organization Biomimicry 3.8, most notably sustainability.1-2 An example of the more specific type of biomimicry is the Land Institute, as highlighted in Janine Benyus’s book. The Land Institute considers the plant growth of grasslands (the local system) to create sustainable agriculture.

Biomimetics – This term stems from the same root words as biomimicry, but is used more in the engineering and technology spheres. For instance, the Aizenberg group at Harvard refers to themselves as the Biomineralization and Biomimetics lab.4 Biomimetics does not depend on the life’s principles as set forth by Biomimicry 3.8, but studies natural systems with varying degrees of systems thinking. Natural processes and functions are examined to understand the underlying aspects. Using this knowledge, synthetic systems are produced which hopefully have similar functions.

Bio-inspired design – The inspiration from nature with respect to a particular function or form. An understanding of the entire system is not necessarily required as long as the technology developed from the idea is improved in some fashion. An example of this is Velcro. To me, bio-inspired design is usually a part of biomimetics, but also falls under the general definition of biomimicry. What makes bio-inspired design its own from the other fields is its particular emphasis on simplifying the natural system into one particular function, such as the kingfisher bird inspired bullet train. The aerodynamics of the beak were really the only important factor necessary from the natural system.

Bioutilization – Integrating natural materials which provide some desired function into design. The easiest example of this is using wool for clothing. The wool provides protection from the elements for the sheep, and provides that same function in clothing. Bioutilization, in a sense, still creates functions in technologies from nature’s designs. A similar term, but subset of bioutilization is bio-assistance. In this case, the organism is domesticated in order to harvest a desired material.5

Biotechnology – ”[Harnessing] cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet.”6

Each of the terms which I defined above has the same overall goal (inspiration from nature), so it would be wise to create a unified word, which may facilitate discussion about the topic of inspiration from nature. This is one place we could apply the general definition of biomimicry. The worry I have in the multiple definitions of biomimicry is that the connotations of sustainability may fall upon designed systems which do not contain sustainability as an aspect. I think connecting all of the fields with a different general word other than biomimicry would provide an overall term which can be used to cover all of the different methods. Perhaps, I think using the term bioinspiration, as used by Dr. Whitesides in his recent review7, will help to provide an overall term for differing fields. The use of a general term will help clear up the definition of the word biomimicry to eliminate this general/specific focus, but give people a word to describe the entire field of inspiration from nature. That way, when discussing biomimicry, we can keep the sustainability embedded within it, and eliminate misunderstandings.

 

[1] http://biomimicry.net/about/biomimicry/

[2] http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/blog/2015/01/biomimicry-bioutilization-biomorphism/

[3] http://www.landinstitute.org/

[4] http://aizenberglab.seas.harvard.edu/index.php?&wh=1366x667x1366x768

[5] http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003625.html

[6] https://www.bio.org/articles/what-biotechnology

[7] Whitesides GM. 2015 Bioinspiration: something for everyone. Interface Focus 5: 20150031. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2015.0031

“Pack Power” in The Economist

There are evolutionary advantages to living in a social group. Groups cooperate to hunt large prey, rear young, and defend territory. Group members experience reduced exposure to predation (safety in numbers), easier access to reproductive partners, and a rich learning environment. There are also evolutionary disadvantages to living in a social group, including increased exposure to disease and parasites…one would think. However, ecologists are learning this might not be a true in all cases.

The Science & Technology section of the May 30, 2015, issue of The Economist included an article titled Pack Power about grey wolves living in Yellowstone National Park. In 2007, a contagious and potentially deadly disease called mange began spreading through this population. Mange is caused by parasitic mites. Ecologists expected mange to appear more frequently in larger wolf packs because the more group members the greater the chance that one of the group contracts the disease and spreads it to his pack-mates. However, this is not what they found. Infection risk did not vary by pack size. Wolves living in large packs were no more likely to catch mange than wolves living in small packs or solitary wolves.

Still more interesting was the discovery that wolves living in large packs were five times less likely to die of mange compared to wolves that contracted the disease while living alone. Ecologists believe the higher survival rate among sick wolves living in large groups is due to social support. Pack-mates help sick wolves find and catch food, preventing starvation. I wonder if there is another, perhaps even stronger contributing factor. There is mounting evidence for social structuring of the microbiome. The microbiome is the community of bacteria living in an animal’s gut, mouth, skin and elsewhere on its body that help it digest food, make vitamins, and fight disease. Through physical interaction, animals share their microbiomes. For example, baboons that groom each other more frequently have more similar microbiomes. A wolf living in a large pack has more social relationships and presumably more physical contact with other wolves. Therefore, he may have access to a greater variety of health-promoting bacteria, resulting in a more diverse microbiome better suited for combatting illness. This hypothesis warrants testing.

As we learn more about the role of the microbiome in fending off disease, how might this new knowledge inspire biomimetic behavioral preventive therapies?

Project Drawdown

I have a few regrets in life.  One is not eating a cronut in Vegas when I had the chance (I’ve yet to come across the elusive cronut in Northeast Ohio). But I can really only think of one major one (and it’s awesomely nerdy): I regret that I missed being present at the 2014 People’s Climate March. I should have done the completely un-nerdy thing and skipped classes to be a part of this historic occurrence. I even blogged about it here at the time.   We’re at a critical point in history with climate change. We have an opportunity to give up, or fight back. Either way, we determine the climate outcome(s) for future generations.

Reading much of the climate news is depressing, particularly when we know the science and we know there are measures we can take to mitigate, but for various social reasons, things simply don’t get done in an effectual manner. I actually give climate scientists, particularly those that work in the realm of science and policy (Michael Mann of the infamous Hockey Stick comes to mind) huge props for keeping their motivation going. My motivation to continue making a positive difference with climate change was waning – until I found the UA Biomimicry program. The central reason I like biomimicry so much is that we can find innovative solutions to pressing problems, by learning from and working with nature – not just capitalizing from nature. It gives hope and optimism for the future.

This summer, for my own research endeavors, I’m exploring more in depth about urban resilience and climate change adaptation and mitigation techniques, particularly looking at the urban heat island effect and associated biomimetic solutions. At the same time as organizing my research, I came across Project Drawdown – a huge collaborative undertaking of environmentalist/entrepreneur/author/many other hats Paul Hawken and his main co-author Amanda Ravenhill. Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 11.54.48 amProject Drawdown takes a pragmatic, deliberate, measured, systemic approach to climate solutions to “drawdown” atmospheric greenhouse gases. The enterprise calls on a coalition of individuals to contribute to making a positive impact by deploying the technologies that we already have, but figuring out how to do it on the global scale.   Some of the solutions include rotational grazing, smart glass, and (a favorite of mine) educating girls. Each solution will also have a critical policy implementation component, as well.

Just as I’m incredibly pleased to be a part of the University of Akron’s Biomimicry program, I’m delighted to have another “academic family” in Project Drawdown, giving me an opportunity to be surrounded by and learn from even more incredible, optimistic, and talented people. A few weeks ago, I was recently accepted as Drawdown Fellow, working on Green and White Roof solutions. In the summer Drawdown Fellows cohort orientation last week, Paul gave a motivating speech conveying the importance and urgency of our generation to do something about climate change. There was one idiom emphasized that I continue to live by: No Regrets. We have an astounding opportunity to help mitigate climate change before we hit the climate tipping point(s). Working with the people at UA and Project Drawdown certainly gives me hope and keeps me motivated to work my ass off for finding meaningful biomimetic solutions to climate change and drawing down our greenhouse gases for a better, healthier environment for my kid and the rest of those that will inherit the Earth after us. And if in the process of leading the no-regrets-with-climate-change lifestyle, I happen to check “getting arrested in an act of civil disobedience protesting fossil fuels,” off the bucket list, then I know I truly won’t have any regrets. But please send bail money and cronuts.

Meet the 2015 Biomimicry Fellows

This coming Fall will start a very exciting school year! Because we’re expecting the largest cohort of Biomimicry Fellows (7 new fellows) since Daphne, Emily, and I started the Biomimicry Fellowship Program in The University of Akron in 2012. Yes, you read that right! It’s already been three full years since I first came to North East Ohio and experienced my first white winter. It’s hard to believe how fast time has passed. It’s also a bit scary to admit that I’m a “senior” student in the PhD program now. I can almost still remember the excitement that I felt when I started this journey.

Speaking of excitement~ I asked the new fellows to send me some blurbs to describe their feelings about becoming a Biomimicry Fellow. Read along, to see who they are, and how they feel in their own words.


Stephen Howe (CA, USA) | Bendix

Stephen Howe

For me the process of selection felt a little drawn out. I got to the point where I had to just let go and not worry about it. My acceptance email came unexpectedly on a Friday at lunch. I quite literally jumped out of my seat and took a little while to regain my composure and explain what was happening to a bewildered friend sitting with me. I then took the rest of the day to find all of my friends call my family and tell everyone the good news. In short it was a good day.

 


Ariana Rupp (Portugal) | Nottingham Spirk

Ariana RuppI am still processing what it means to be a Biomimicry Fellow. The majority of my acquaintances find the word “Biomimicry” extraterrestrial. This makes me feel too out-of-the-box sometimes, especially when I try to explain the excitement I get from being granted such unique opportunity.

Now that we are about to explore a complex research area, it is true that my first reaction was apprehension, just like an awkward fledgling suddenly pushed out of the nest. However, not knowing which skies we will be discovering in the future definitely turns the flying test into an amusing experience.


Derek Miller (IA, USA) | MC2 STEM

Derek Miller

I was incredibly thrilled to know that I’m going to be taking part in this biomimicry fellowship! I’m excited to be a part of something that can combine all areas of discipline with the wisdom of nature, and turn it into something that promotes sustainability for our future. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with the teachers at MC2 High School on integrating this way of thinking into their curriculum, and look forward to collaborating with the students as they come up with their own innovative solutions.

 


 Banafsheh Khakipoor (Iran) | TBD

Banafsheh Khakipoor

I had been thinking about becoming a biomimicry fellow for the past two years, it was one of those super satisfaction moments, to know am going to be part of something that has a meaning for me!

 

 


Sarah Han (CA, USA) | Goodyear

Sarah Han

Hi, I’m Sarah Han, an entomologist from California ready to start a whole new adventure. I was thrilled to learn that I had been accepted into UA as a Biomimicry fellow since it was exactly the kind of program that I had been looking for but wasn’t sure existed. 

 I’m very grateful that I will have the unique experience that being in this program entails, and can’t wait to start learning new things, meeting people, and spreading the practice of biomimicry.

 


Rebecca Eagle-Malone (OH, USA) | Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

4

“After much anticipation, finding out that I was going to be a Biomimicry fellow was very exciting! I admit that I feel a bit nervous at this new adventure, but I always love to take a challenge! Working with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo will fulfill a lifelong dream for me; I strongly believe in the mission of Cleveland Metroparks and look forward to continuing to be a part of that! “

 

 


Lamalani Siverts (CA, USA) | TBD

Lamalani SivertsI am thrilled to join the University of Akron as a Biomimicry Fellow.  The grad students and faculty generated more excitement with every interaction during the admissions process and I felt an overwhelming sense of joy when I read the admissions offer.  The Biomimicry team values were what I was seeking in a lab and I know that I will thrive with their support.  I felt comforted knowing that my future will be secure and that my career will help in making a more sustainable planet.  I’m very excited to utilize my diverse experience in biology, business, and education in a program that feels like the perfect fit for me.


Last but not least, an honorable mention (the +1, since you already read some of his blogposts here).
Started in Spring 2015, we have ……

Michael Wilson (TN, USA) | Lubrizol

Michael Wilson“I was thrilled the day when everything was settled, and I finally became a biomimicry fellow. It is something that I never would have expected when I began my undergraduate career, but I am very glad that my graduate school path has taken me here. The interdisciplinary aspect of the field leaves me very excited about the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives. I am optimistic that these perspectives will help guide my research into something that is worthwhile not only with respect to my own enjoyment, but worthwhile in helping to create a more sustainable future.”

Abuja City Project

Nigeria celebrated 100 years of unity in January 2014. On this momentous occasion a number of future projects were announced by the presidency. One of those projects is the design of a biomimetic city that will be built from scratch on a 1000ha unpopulated area close to the Nigerian capital Abuja. The project will be funded by the private sector and involves companies and agencies such as Biomimicry South Africa, In/formal South and Smartland International. The goal of the project is to build a city that demonstrates the harmony of nature and humankind but also to show how we can learn from nature and embed nature’s design principles in our everyday life. The city is supposed to function as an ecosystem including principles such as circular metabolism, weblike food chains, a great diversity of species and functions, adaptive and modular decentralized infrastructure, cooperative relationships across socio-economic boundaries, quality information feedback loops, and development integrated with growth.

 

 

A team of designers will take a look at natural systems and structures that can inform principles for a revolutionary city design. The key insight is to realize a natural, non-static system with constant flows of energy, nutrients, materials and information. The focus will be on the utilization of available resources that can be reused to eliminate the exploitation of habitat. Furthermore, the city will be built as a cluster of self-sufficient and independent cells that can grow and divide. The cells will be designed as self-organized and decentralized structures that can adapt and respond to their needs and the needs of the units around them. The same principles will also be incorporated into the individual building structures throughout the city. Water will flow freely throughout the city embedded into green belts that will follow the natural hydrology. This will allow for urban agriculture, reducing the need to import resources from outside the cell. The edges of the waterways will serve as bio-filters where wastewater will be turned into clean drinking water. Also, the transportation system of the proposed city will be inspired by nature. First priority will be given to pedestrians and non-motorized transport. Pubic transport will connect the residents with other locations outside of their cell. Motorized vehicles will only be introduced where absolutely necessary to achieve the goal of a zero emission transportation system. More information is available on the website of Biomimicry South Africa.

Looking at eggs differently makes them much more than just tasty

Getting a paper published isn’t easy, so when you succeed it’s one of those days that you’re fulfilled being a PhD student. You hope more of those days will come.

This paper, freely accessible on Biology Open’s website, has been a long effort. For the biology-centered journals the paper was too technical, and for the more engineering ones it was too biological. Not wanting to admit this might be a problem particular to this paper, I think it might be a general challenge for Biomimicry-focused research. The goal isn’t necessarily to answer a very in-depth biological question, nor to engineer an entirely new system, but rather to understand biological strategies well enough that they can inspire new designs. I believe with the growing Biomimicry community, there either needs to be a broadened focus of current journals or the formation of new, biomimicry-centered journals that realize the interdisciplinary nature of biomimicry research.

Figure1-pessFor the study titled “The cuticle modulates ultraviolet reflectance of avian eggshells” hidden patterns of eggshells were visualized with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and UV reflectance was measured before and after etching the cuticle, the outer most layer present on some eggshells. What triggered this research was the observation that some eggshells have very high UV reflectance, and the interest in how this could lead to new UV-protective materials.

The high energy of UV radiation hurts; we’ve all suffered from sunburn after a sunny, summer day. Many materials, including our skin, are UV-sensitive and need to be protected from high sun exposure. This is also true for avian eggshells, as the developing embryo can be damaged by UV light. It has been speculated that the colours of eggshells can act as a sun barrier because the pigments can absorb UV light. But what about white eggshells that lack pigmentation? This study shows that the cuticle absorbs UV light. This outer layer has a different chemical composition than the rest of the eggshell, and includes proteins and calcium phosphates that can selectively absorb UV light.

Eggshells are a great model system for inspiring innovative materials, because they are almost entirely made of calcium carbonate, a material that is totally harmless and naturally available in abundance. Next time you eat an egg, you might look at it differently.

Evolution and Biomimetics

Summer weather has finally made its way to northeast Ohio, and with it, another semester of classes has drawn to a close. One of the classes which most of the fellows took this semester was titled “Evolution and Biomimetics.” In the class, we read and discussed the ramifications of two books on how we understand biomimicry. The first was The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, and the second was Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptional Foundations of Evolutionary Biology by Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan.

The first book centers on the idea that science has reached a point in its knowledge where it must begin to consider problems from a more holistic, systemic view. The paradigm presented speaks to a vastly different culture of thought than is currently employed. The first chapters explain reductionist thought, which states that a large problem can be split into smaller problems which when individually solved will add up to a solution to the larger problem. Capra and Luisi suggest that many problems are non-linear, and must be consider as a whole. “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” The authors then extend the idea to redefine the words life and cognition, and then examine how these new definitions changes the social sciences and economics.

With respect to biomimicry, the book prompts a question, which to me seems to be at the crux of how I personally define bioinspiration and biomimicry. To what degree must a practitioner adhere to the natural system which he or she examines in order to retain the benefit for the systemic problems which he or she solved? Nature solves the problems of material selection, processing, property optimization, and cradle to cradle sustainability. If we take an idea from nature but reduce it down to just one aspect, will we miss something very important? Not only on the matter of materials, but perhaps also from the standpoint of the function we are trying to mimic. The aspect which we study is part of the organism, which could have an interplay of structures and behaviors which produce the desired effect. This question leads perfectly to the discussion of the second book.

In Making Sense of Evolution, the authors claim that evolutionary biology is a much more complicated matter than the way it is currently treated, with respect to very common ideas such as G-matrices and fitness landscapes. The authors give the analogy of Indonesian Shadow Theater. We see the projection of shadows on the screen, but we do not know the shapes and structures which create what we see. We can create theories to describe what we see, but ultimately, we cannot look behind the curtain. The authors do not suggest that evolution is wrong. However, there are some specific aspects which need to be further examined so that the experiments and the knowledge derived from them can be properly understood.

One aspect of evolutionary biology which I learned about in the class was the idea of spandrels and “just so stories.” The spandrel is the flat decorated area of an arch in cathedral domes. We could claim that the spandrel was created to provide a place for more art. With the decoration that we see on all of the spandrels, that seems like a pretty likely answer. Of course, it could provide some structural factor as well, and would have been created as such. The analogy leads over to the complicated changing of traits over time. An organism is not one trait, but is the totality of all of its traits and the relations between its individual aspects. When we see a trait with some function, we could say that that trait was evolved for the function it currently has, but perhaps it was formed for something else first, and then began to be used for the function we see today.

The complicated nature of evolution leads to some questions which would be interesting and important for the biomimicry community to explore. For example, if we see a structure performing some function, does it matter if that structure was evolved by pressures selecting towards the function we see or by pressures which originally evolved the function for some other purpose? In other words, if that structure performs a function we desire, then we have an answer from nature on how to solve that problem. But it may not be the best solution to the problem if it was not originally selected for that function. Therefore, what examples from nature should we examine if we want to solve a problem? Should we look to the extreme examples from which we can hopefully be surer of the selective pressure? Or should we examine a local example for our application, which will see a similar environment? How does the interplay between informal selection (one trait interacting with one situation) and formal selection (the comparative growth rates of traits in a population) affect the solutions by which we should desire to examine? Would it be better to follow traits which grow faster in a population or choose traits which seem to better serve the function we desire (a single selective pressure), regardless of the growth rate in populations (a more systemic view)?

The questions go on and on. I will close with one more question which I think sums up the main idea from the class. Since we study 3.8 billion of years of R&D from nature in order to produce better solutions to the challenges we face, to what degree should we understand the process by which nature forms these traits and functions?

Biomimicry: What About the Why?

In her article, “Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry,” Freya Mathews argues that biomimicry is philosophically under-developed. The current objective of biomimicry is to reorganize what and how we make things, instead of why we make things. Focusing on the what and how presumes a shift in why (i.e. a shift in the maker’s mindset) will follow. It presumes that the act of emulating natural forms and processes delivers increased consciousness of the principles of natural systems, and eventually, behavioral alignment with those principles. But it is dangerous to presume a shift in why. Given the current state of our environment we assume far too great a risk by delaying attention to the why. To accelerate a mindset shift, we must address the following questions: Why do we make things? What optimal future state are we pursuing through biomimetic innovation? Answers to these questions will help us develop a more robust biomimicry philosophy.

If we derive inspiration for what and how we make from biological models, we should also derive inspiration for why we make by looking at principles of organization in biological systems. In her article, Mathews identifies two such principles. First is the principle of conativity, according to which biological beings strive to prolong their existence. Second is the principle of least resistance, whereby biological beings expend the least amount of energy in pursuit of conative ends by avoiding energy-intensive actions that impede the conativity of others. Most biological beings follow the path of least resistance instinctually, but humans, as uniquely reflexive beings, must make a conscious decision to pursue that which is beneficial to us in the short term AND conducive to life on Earth over the long term. We must choose NOT to pursue what is beneficial to us in the short term but threatens the livelihood of our biological brethren. Our choices cannot solely be based on strategic, market-driven imitation of natural forms and processes (current tenet of biomimicry), but also a commitment to ecological integration (future tenet of biomimicry), through alignment with the two principles of organization in biological systems that Mathews identifies. Generally speaking, our current behaviors embody the principle of conativity, but not the principle of least resistance, so the latter should be our focus.

Eastern philosophies like Taoism revere nature as mentor, and thus are a logical source to pull from as we devise a behavioral code of ethics that will support eco-integration. Taoism encourages alignment with natural energy flows – in other words, adherence to the principle of least resistance. Some modern Western environmental philosophies, like deep ecology, could also inform further development of biomimicry philosophy. Deep Ecology prescribes a widened concept of self, to include nature. When the concept of self includes nature, the principles of conativity and least resistance are inseparable, because caring for yourself is caring for nature as a whole, which implies avoiding actions that impede the conativity of others.

Permaculture is an example of an approach that adheres to both the principles of conativity and least resistance. Permaculturalists codesign with the land, creating resilient, self-sustaining agricultural systems that harmonize with the sun/shade, wind, and weather patterns of a particular place (least resistance). Permaculturalists facilitate biotic exchanges that lead to incredibly productivity (including food productivity – conativity), all without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. A scene in the documentary Inhabitat: A Permaculture Perspective shows one permaculturalist growing shitake mushrooms from the branches of a fallen tree. As he explains, the fallen tree will decompose anyway, so that decomposition process might as well be orchestrated in such a way that it produces a nutritious food source.

For biomimicry to make its greatest impact, it is essential that we begin approaching its practice with a deep understanding of and sensitivity towards the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of nature. Can we borrow from the realms of Taoism, Deep Ecology, Permaculture, etc. to develop this capacity so that our actions better embody both the principle of conativity and the principle of least resistance?

 

A Weaving Of Thought

After a very difficult day where I’ve been up working way too late I find myself having to deal with a surprise sugar ant migration in my daughter’s bedroom by her bed. Apparently something clear, sticky and sweet had fallen between my daughter’s bed and the wall and lay forgotten to all but the most diminutive of explorers. Bringing in soapy water and vinegar to destroy pheromone trails I moved the bed out into the hall and wiped down the entire area. This was not the sort of conclusion to my day for which I had been hoping; I really don’t have any warm fuzzy feelings for ants. I remember being quite young when I first saw Disney’s The Jungle Book, and being oh so very relieved when Mowgli was unsuccessful in eating his first ant.

I was a big public T.V. (National Geographic’s nature documentaries) watcher. Growing up, Saturday morning cartoons always competed with African Safari adventures; however, when the documentaries on ants came up I realized very young that if I valued not jumping at every sudden itch and feeling like scrubbing my skin multiple hours long explorations of ant colonies was not meant to be in my future. This was added to by the fact that at one point around the age of six I came into the room while my parents were watching the Naked Jungle at the most optimally wrong moment (the mention of the Movie “Naked Jungle” and parents in the living room may bring to mind many possible uncomfortable moments but the movie is about hoards of army ants attacking Charlton Heston; “sadly the ants don’t wield guns”). Needless to say swarming ants were never one of my fascinations.

“Why” you should be asking “do you keep coming back to fun facts about insects?” This is a great question and one I found myself asking repeatedly as I was once again neck deep in insects, specifically, ants. I realized that it all boiled down to incomplete cycles, and insects’ ability to again and again offer the opportunity to close the loop.

Inherent in any developed society is the need and obtainment of a reliable, significant source of protein. More sources than I could possibly ever quote have established this. Knowing this, it can’t help but strike me as peculiar that in many cases we would choose a source and a method of obtaining protein that is not only inferior to another, less reliably available, but also so incredibly resource intensive. For instance, cows take “6 pounds of corn for one pound of beef”1 yet as mentioned in one of my previous blogs soldier fly larva are fed wastes i.e. slaughterhouse leftovers (degraded organic matter).

In place of consuming waste, imagine a source of protein that could aid in several types of crop production and save 408 million dollars a year in maintenance cost. The reality of these imaginings leads you to a species of my “Oh so favorite insect.” Weaver ants. Over the last thousand years in China the cultivation of weaver ants has led to an effective method of pest control and seasonal boom of an additional protein rich crop. The methods have been adopted by Thailand, some parts of Africa, and Australia.

Why? To illustrate let’s play a game; in this game you are a farmer, in front of you are two possible boards in which to play. For your pieces on these boards you may choose among the various citrus fruits, rice, or cashews. The rules should be fairly self explanatory.

Boards and pieces are displayed below feel free to print and cut out the boards and pieces so that you can get the full experience “you will have to provide the coin I’m not including that.”:

Use a coin on every flip move forward 1 space

cashew Rice lemonfile-page1page-0

After playing the games a few times it would seem that the game boards tend to be fairly one sided. Since these boards are roughly modeled on the real world cycles I can’t claim too much credit for that. If you notice however one cycle propagates and continues and the the other simply breaks, one has been trial tested for thousands of years the other is a product of the 20th century. Taking that into account which is the superior system? If Charlton Heston had known could he have saved his farm by utilizing the invading force? “Probably not because he was battling super army ants not weavers.” The point remains, why not try the alternatives? If you’re not sure how to prepare your ants here is a favored Taiwanese recipe:

Stir Fried Weaver Ants Eggs Recipe2

Ingredients:

2 Tablespoon of vegetable oil
1 clove of garlic
1 stick of lemongrass, finely chopped
5-10 small Thai chilies
1 large mild red chili chopped into medium size pieces
3 chopped green onions
3 Thai eggplants
3 small red onions, (shallots)
2 handfuls of ant eggs (Kai Mod Daeng) Click here to order
Approx 1 to 2 teaspoon of fish sauce
1 kaffir lime leaf rolled and sliced thinly into slivers

Method:

Over the hot embers of a charcoal BBQ fire, place the egg plant, garlic, and chili to roast. You can use a standard home oven if you wish but BBQ’s taste better.
When they are cooked remove them from the BBQ or oven and allow them to cool.
Remove any black burnt pieces from the vegetables, then pound them to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, this paste is called ‘kheuang’ in Thailand.
Prepare the red onions by chopping them into regular pieces.
Place half of the cut onions, three crushed and diced garlic cloves, chopped lemon grass and 2 tablespoons of oil into a skillet or wok. Stir fry until the garlic starts to turn brown.
Add the fish sauce, ant eggs, three quarters of the green onions and the roasted pulp (kheuang) and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the kaffir lime leaf pieces and give the dish a final stir over high heat, then transfer to a serving bowl.
Add the remaining red and green onion and mix it together or simply throw them on the top of the dish as a fresh garnish.
Serve immediately with glutinous (sticky) rice. It is eaten by rolling small balls of sticky rice and dipping them in the stir fried ant’s eggs.

This dish shouldn’t be over-cooked after the ant eggs are added.  The texture of the eggs should be comparable to a soft boiled chicken egg.

***

Still not sure about eating ants? I get that, I’m a vegetarian “And very grateful to be one.” Mostly though I think it’s long past time that we should look at the bigger picture and seriously consider what we are doing before we do it.

References

1 On average, how many pounds of corn make one pound of beef? … (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.extension.org/pages/35850/on-average-how-many-pounds-of-corn-make-one-pound-of-beef-assuming-an-all-grain-diet-from-background#.VT5eTiFVikp

2 Menu. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.thailandunique.com/weaver-ants-eggs-recipe

3 PENG, R. (2014). Weaver Ant Role in Cashew Orchards in Vietnam. JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC ENTOMOLOGY,107(4), 1330-1338.

4 CHAO, W. (2014, December 19). Spreading seeds of knowledge – Asia Weekly – China Daily. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://epaper.chinadailyasia.com/asia-weekly/article-3776.html

5 Roser, M. (2014, January 1). Fertilizer and Pesticides. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from http://ourworldindata.org/data/food-agriculture/fertilizer-and-pesticides/

6 Materu, C. (2014). Assessment of Oecophylla longinoda (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in the Control of Mango Seed Weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae) in Mkuranga District Tanzania. Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Healthcare, 4(8), 44-48. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/gd6000/Downloads/12284-14636-1-PB.pdf

7 Siriamornpun, S. (2008). Insects as a Delicacy and a Nutritious Food in Thailand. In Using Food Science and Technology to Improve Nutrition and Promote National Development,. Mahasarakham: Department of Food Technology Faculty of Technology Mahasarakham University.

8 Mele, V. (2007). A historical review of research on the weaver ant Oecophylla in biological control Agricultural and Forest Entomology.

9 Holland, J. (2014, May 13). U.N. Urges Eating Insects; 8 Popular Bugs to Try. Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130514-edible-insects-entomophagy-science-food-bugs-beetles/

10 On average, how many pounds of corn make one pound of beef? (n.d.). Retrieved November 1, 2014, from http://www.extension.org/pages/35850/on-average-how-many-pounds-of-corn-make-one-pound-of-beef-assuming-an-all-grain-diet-from-background#.VT5YhiFViko

11 China Spends $2.4 Billion…On Pesticides? (2011, January 11). Retrieved April 6, 2015, from http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2011/01/11/china-spends-24-billionon-pesticides/

12 Mele, Paul. (2007). Ants as friends (2nd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 1-68). Modern Lithographic & Cab International.

Trademarking Nature

Science is an awesome thing, by which I am continually amazed. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the natural sciences I’m most drawn to, and what we learn from nature is sometimes beyond imaginable.   In fact, I just found out about a human who has redefined what it means to be clinically dead. This dying man’s heart was replaced by twin turbines, effectively rendering him still alive, but without a heartbeat or pulse.   I often assess each of these amazing technologies on the basis of ethics. I don’t often go deeply into the theoretical ethics (I get a headache reading too much Foucault and Kant), but I do like to think of the basic ethical ramifications (either positive or not) as to how it affects the environment and future generations.

One scientific advancement that’s been at the fore of the ethical debate is patenting DNA. The implications of privatizing genomic DNA would ostensibly have rendered a huge potential windfall for private companies that would have patented the natural DNA. Thankfully (or perhaps not to some), the US Supreme Court struck that down in 2013. Yet, within the writing, there are some other “gray” areas whereby if the genetic DNA is altered, then that can be patented, as can certain methods of genetic disease screening.

But that brings up another point: is there a line we should not cross in terms of “owning” or “patenting”, “copyrighting”, or “trademarking” nature? A few years ago, I learned of a movement (not sure if it’s still growing or become stagnant) whereby any company that uses nature for its profitable gain, should then give back to the natural entity from which it is benefiting. There are few examples, but I’d like to think this is a growing trend. As a positive example, General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios uses a bee mascot to sell its cereal, yet as a result of collapsing hives, the company is starting to work with farms and the Xerces Society.

In another sense, some sounds and smells are being increasingly trademarked. Harley Davidson famously tried to patent its loud exhaust sputter, which ended in corporate legal fatigue where Harley Davidson pulled out of the battle and dropped its case.   But what if a company tried to trademark sounds such as a certain bird chirp, or the sound of the rushing wind? Technically, the main idea that needs to be conveyed is that the sound is inextricably linked with a company’s product. That is to say, as soon as a consumer hears the sound, it is immediately linked to that particular product – much like Pavlov’s famous drooling dog.

In some cases, natural smells have already been trademarked (also called Olfactory Marks).   “The Smell of Fresh Cut Grass”, for instance, is officially trademarked by a tennis ball company; United Airlines has a trademarked “Landing Scent”; and a Ukulele company has the only instruments that smell of Piña Colada.   These are all quite benign examples of “Non-Conventional Trademarks,” which in addition to smells and sounds also include shape and color. Toblerone candies are pretty unmistakable with their shape, and you probably wouldn’t find another candy bar shaped like the chocolaty peaks and valleys of the bar.

The filing of Non-Conventional Trademarks (particularly in the US) are increasing based on an ever more competitive market (whatever that may be) – companies are looking for new ways to get ahead. Recently, a company filed an olfactory trademark for the fresh scent of oranges some liken to the smell of orange juice. Even the liquid looked an appetizing and refreshing orange color. Except this liquid is far from one you’d want to ingest.; it’s developed by Flotek Industries – a Fracking corporation out of Texas – for its Fracking Chemicals.

So where is the line drawn? Can companies patent natural shapes if consumers have come to liken its product to a certain shape that appears in nature, like that of the ubiquitous golden spiral? Or the fractals that are so pervasive in our natural world?   There have been a few examples of trademarking nature’s smells, yet it’s the first in the world of fracking chemicals, which is decidedly quite a harmful practice for the environment and human health.  Hence, it’ll be interesting to see the ruling on this and if it does go through, if there will be other companies in these types of these industrial niches that will employ this technique.