Living and Responsive Systems

Traffic on my way back from Thanksgiving break gave me a block of time to think about biomimicry. In particular, I had time to think about the boring situation in which I had found myself. Car accidents in the rain had caused all of the other cars to stop as emergency services responded. What was interesting is how a setback in the flow of traffic caused delays which lengthened my trip time by quite a few hours. The traffic was not very responsive to difficulties. When I arrived home, my heater was not working. Therefore, I had to go to the closet and grab a few extra blankets so I could sleep without freezing. I was able to respond to a challenge with a manageable enough solution.

One of the fascinating areas of life is its ability to respond to changing conditions. If a person gets too hot when exercising, he or she will begin to sweat to cool themselves down. If he or she gets too cold, he or she can shiver and go grab blankets. If the weather gets too dry, animals can change their behavior to prevent unnecessary water loss. In mimicking aspects of nature, we should not only look towards adapting certain structure-function relationships for one specific use, but also think towards the larger scope of what is possible in nature.

Not only can we think about some sort of feedback which allows for control of the desired property, but we can go one step further and think about the product itself as an extension of the organism in a living manner. In “Beyond biomimicry: What termites can tell us about realizing the living building,” J. Scott Turner and Rupert C. Soar describe the termite mound as an “extended physiology” of the termites themselves. The authors conclude that oxygen concentration is similar throughout many different-sized colonies on account of the primary action not being the regulation of the property of oxygen concentration, but rather the regulation of multiphase processes of the mound structure itself. The structure of the mound is the function which is created.1

So, back to our responsive systems, if we can think about ways to create living systems in which the interactions which dictate the structure are highly regulated, then our function too will thus be highly regulated by nature of the function being our structure. Perhaps then, we could create structures which are responsive by reason of the variations in the interactions which caused the structure in the first place.


1Turner, J. Scott and Rupert C. Soar. “Beyond biomimicry: What termites can tell us about realizing the living building.” First International Conference on Industrialized, Intelligent Construction (I3CON) Loughborough University, 14-16 May 2008.

Finding thanks in a time of turmoil

I feel like this point in time is difficult to write, think about, and process things thoroughly. My mind is at the nexus of 3 huge events that are converging within the same 2-week timeframe. The impending Thanksgiving where I won’t have to worry about food or a roof over my head (but would welcome refugees that had nothing with open arms at our table if they came), the horrible Paris attacks, and the upcoming COP21 Global Climate Talks – in Paris – where the fate of our climate largely rests in coming up with a solid deal.   Have you ever just stopped and thought to yourself lately: Damn – this is a critical point in history!?   Because it is!

In Bill’s latest post, he mentioned hope and optimism. I understand how the word “hope” is often used – in a positive light, but for me, regardless of context, it’s too passive. Hope leaves desire; it has you wishing or willing something will come true, which may lead to failure or falling short of optimal. In this critical point in time, we can all do something to make our world, regardless of scale, a bit better despite recent events.   Let’s be thankful, but let’s do something to “move” the world forward in a positive manner: #optoutside into nature, rather than in retail stores or volunteer – it doesn’t matter if it’s organized; pick up trash on the side of the road.

The social and socio-ecological worlds are not currently in a state of symphonic homeostasis; Rather, many, including myself feel a sense that the world needs to normalize back into its state of constant dynamic equilibrium to feel a bit better on solid ground – the Orchestra is still playing beautiful music, but there’s a screechy violin and the drum is out off beat. The majority of the orchestra is working well and if we all keep doing our small, positive parts, hopefully the other parts will fall harmoniously in line. And if the pressures of family dinner become too much, just remember to play Adele.


TED and TEDx events showcase speakers with “ideas worth spreading.” In September, the University of Akron hosted a TEDx event. The theme of TEDxUniversityofAkron was “Breaking the Mold.” Breaking the Mold means doing things differently in a way that challenges social norms and drives innovation to its true potential.  I was honored to be an invited speaker.

In my talk, “From a Burning River to Biomimicry,” I describe how Northeast Ohio has shed its Rust Belt reputation, and is becoming a world-renowned hub for sustainable innovation inspired by nature. I relay how I’m contributing to this transformation as a member of the first cohort of University of Akron Biomimicry Fellows. Check it out:


Pickett(ing) a point in urban ecology where systems thinking can help to “close the loop”

In Pickett et al’s review, “Urban Ecological Systems: Linking Terrestrial, Ecological, Physical, and Socioeconomic Components of Metropolitan Areas,” the authors attempt to establish a matrix for assessing and fixing an urban system ecology, from the personal (household) on up to the greater community or region (city). First, the authors must establish the problems faced by cities and urban centers, be they biotic, abiotic, trophic, faunal or socioeconomic.

They review disparate literature that seeks to address the ecological issues in isolation, i.e. single views or lenses that do not give real or complete expectations and predictions. Drawing on specific examples of more complete holistic views, they attempt to adequately address environmental and budgetary city systems through a human ecosystems approach (where socioeconomic, biotic and abiotic processes are combined in and around cities) to give a realistic prediction and understanding of ecological systems.

They point out a great deal of descriptive knowledge has been gathered regarding the unique biota of cities; however, most of the information on the terrestrial components of urban ecological systems comes from views of ecology in cities not the ecology of cities. For instance, we know that deer populations, medium animals like skunks, raccoons, house cats, small animals like mice, rats and squirrels thrive in urban settings. We understand that this is because there are no large predators, but also because the structure of the ecology of a city (flora, fauna, microscopic biota) has all but eliminated the specialist creatures of the ecology. Cities have become foci’s of the best generalist creatures as compared to rural areas, where the sheer quantity of species/varieties of food tend to not allow any one species to become dominant. The soil is unique and varied in cities due to construction, and many areas are reduced to empty lots. The ground, soil and other elements are mixed in unique ways, the dirt in urban areas creates mineral and chemical sinks that would never occur in a rural location. The type of nutrients that are available in cities and the life that can readily feed on them is unique. In many cases, certain plants and organisms have become genetically specific to a harder climate.

The diversity of life (or lack thereof) in a city, however, is not completely uniform across all areas of the same urban center. Pickett et al cites many studies that show floral biota, whether native or non-native, can be greatly diversified in areas of economic wealth compared to that of low-income areas. In general, economically wealthy areas have a greater sink of food available for the local fauna.

However, the paper points out the flaws inherent with pursuing ecological research centered on budgetary studies. This is because such research, especially those that center on material and energy budgets, are often informed by biogeochemical-closed homeostatic (self-dependent, self-sustaining) systems. Pickett et al believes, sadly, that a budgetary approach cannot tell if a system is closed or open (open or closed ecology look the same through a budgetary lens). A solely budgetary view of economics is the equivalent of saying that “since you cannot see a difference there is none, and any social factors that affect a budgetary perspective of ecology are at most on the periphery”. The authors say this is faulty logic since you cannot tell ecological differences from budgetary lenses. This being the case, to adequately address environmental and budgetary city systems, a human ecosystems approach is suggested (where socioeconomic, biotic and abiotic processes are combined in and around cities) to give a realistic prediction and understanding of ecological systems.


This illustration shows the most general larger and nested components of an ecosystem that is affected by humans.

Patch dynamics can be used to address the areas of cities on a social and ecological level to gain predictive examples. The concept of Patch dynamics came into being in the 1940’s as ecologists began to take note of the fact that every ecosystem was made up of smaller ecosystems. So, the heterogeneity of any given system can be examined over a period of time and the causes and effects can be measured. Because of the nature of patch dynamics, a system can be examined from personal (household) to greater community or region (city) depending on how detailed you need to look. Any type of approach that integrates the whole (ecological, social, budgetary in a well analyzed patch dynamic) would be the best approach when trying to develop healthy, self-organizing, self-integrating systems in a metropolitan area.

Perhaps this is a simplified view but it seems to me that if any human/ecological/societal system is treated through the matrix of Patch dynamics, a method for assessing and fixing any given human ecosystem can be easily established.

How should Biomimicry spread? – My own take after SXSW Eco

Early October, Daphne, Emily, Kelly and I had the opportunity to attend the Biomimicy Education Summit and the Biomimicry Track at SXSW Eco in Austin, TX. Both Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, two of the most influential thought leaders in Biomimicry, were there, and we were fortunately enough to be there with them.

Biomimicry is a disease, and you’re not warned that you have been infected.

This is the analogy that Dayna used in her SXSW Eco Talk; perhaps not word for word, but you get the idea. Indeed, like a pathogen, the biomimicry revolution started by only infecting individuals prone to the disease. The MEME alone attracted people who love Mother Nature and our planet; people who are deeply moved by “The Blue Marble,” a famous photo of Earth taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972.

Similar to a pathogen, when an initiative is still small and weak, all the resources should be used to grow bigger and stronger quickly to minimized the risk of being wiped out completely. The path of least resistance promises the most success. In this case, it means to attract like-minded people, people who get Biomimicry. When the PhD in Biomimicry first started at The University of Akron, we didn’t promote the opportunity extensively because we wanted to attract students really passionate about Biomimicry who made an effort to find out about this opportunity.

However, if a pathogen of a disease stays this way, the disease will never be pandemic. At some point, the pathogen has to evolve to become more potent, starts to attack more resistant individuals, and infect them even if they initially fight back. Only then, does the pathogenic disease have a chance to become pandemic. Since Biomimicry is now evolving from a MEME to a movement, I believe the timing is right for us to make this kind of strategic change. The question is: Are we (the Biomimicry community) prepared for the change? Let’s read along to find out!

The environmentalist vs. technologist dichotomy

Honestly, this dichotomy doesn’t make sense to me. However, for the purpose of illustrating the point, let’s stick with it for now.

I already mentioned that most people in the current Biomimicry community share a similar mindset. We care about environmental issues: sustainability, global warming, carbon footprints, conservation, food, water, etc. When we get together, we talk about our connection with nature, share our childhood stories of running in the woods/fields or whatever our local biome is. And we believe that if we don’t take actions immediately, altering the trajectory of where we’re heading as a species, our civilization is doomed to self-destruct soon. Those are all important issues and urgent action items, I get it. But it’s a little too pessimistic, isn’t it? Nobody likes to hear bad news all day long. No wonder outsiders tend to see us as a bunch of tree huggers, or people who want to revert back to Stone Age life. It’s a distorted perception, but we cannot deny the fact that that is how some people out there see us.

When the CEO of Biomimicry 3.8, Chris Allen, visited The University of Akron with Janine three years ago. We asked him the question: which group of people, in his opinion, don’t mix with Biomimicry people? “The Singularity* people,” he answered, “because they’re all about technology.” I didn’t really understand what he meant, since I also considered myself as a techie. I always think of Biomimicry as a perfect bridge to bring the technological way and the environmental heart together. I envision that one day, human civilization will become Nox-like. Nox is a member of the Alliance of Four Great Races in the sci-fi TV series: Stargate SG-1. At first the Nok look primitive and helpless, but that’s only because their technology has evolved to work in harmony with its surroundings, therefore merging with the environment and becoming invisible. However, after SXSW Eco, now I clearly understand why Chris would acknowledge the tension between the Biomimicry and Singularity movements back then.

Outside of the Biomimicry track at SXSW Eco, you can say there was another “technology” track: ideas about harvesting asteroids, tissue engineering meat, the Hyperloop, electric and autonomous vehicles, …, etc. This “technology” track was most prominent at the conference. Since I’m a techie, I’m familiar with those ideas (though not completely convinced by them yet) and see them as potential and reasonable options. However, to my surprise, though not totally unexpected, many people in the Biomimicry community were upset (or even a little mad) about the idea of harvesting asteroids. Janine even made a little fun about it in the opening of her speech. Of course, I knew why they were mad. Since Biomimicry is all about learning from, rather than extracting/taking from nature, people in the Biomimicry community tend to shy away from using natural resources (or “bioutilization”). Although I agree completely that we should treat Nature with respect, and see it as our teacher rather than as a property to claim, the line between Biomimicry and bioutilization, to me, is not that clear cut. For me, all resources are natural; there are no unnatural resources. And unless we’re trying to recreate Big Bang, we can’t create something from nothing! We have to USE resources. Other life forms use natural resources as well, but use them respectfully, mindfully, and only taking what’s needed. Human civilization became greedy and misused natural resources since the Industrial Revolution – and that’s the true problem! Hence, Life Principles tell us to be “resource (material and energy) efficient”.

Now, let’s go back to the idea of harvesting asteroids. What’s wrong with it? Is it really that bad? The main reason that people would want to harvest asteroids is that our technologies depend on rare earth metals (e.g., platinum). They are called rare earth metals for a reason… not only they are scarce, but they are also hidden in the earth’s crust, far from our reach. In order to get to them, we need to drill deeply into the crust. Mining, extracting and purifying rare earth metals uses a lot of energy and creates heavy pollution. On the other hand, rare earth metals are abundant on many asteroids, and now we have the technology to get to them. If harvesting rare earth metals from asteroids uses comparable energy to mining them from earth, and the asteroid harvesting doesn’t create pollution on Earth, then wouldn’t utilizing rare earth metals from asteroids be a no-brainer? I think the lesson here is that we must keep reminding ourselves to keep an open mind for different ideas.

Hope vs. Crisis

My last point is what my friend J (an architect and a Biomimicry Specialist) brought up during the Hyperloop session. There is a common thread among Silicon Valley Tech Startups: optimism, hope. In their presentations/pitches, they’re selling their vision, their dream. And that makes people feel good and attracted to it with little effort. Biomimicry can be a hard sell because often times, we act as a warning bell, urging people to change the status quo to avoid crisis. This deters people. Of course, selling dreams has its own pitfalls, but we have rung enough warning bells. Now it’s time to change the strategy to disseminate the idea of Biomimicry even further. It’s a coincidence that J brought up this point. Because recently, I submitted an application with Biomimicry (You’ll hear about it if it gets selected. :p ) that was reviewed by Peter (the director of Biomimicry PhD Fellowships here at UAkron) before submission. One of his comments on my application brought up exactly the same point as J had!

– “Why not turn the perspective around on this one and emphasize your point from a positive perspective. …… If that is a reasonable point of view, then you can make your point as forcibly, maybe more to the people you really need to convince … The people you need to convince are those that are most likely to reject the idea that we need to save our planet….but if you give them a reason to see how it would help us explore beyond, you would have more supporters, instead of just singing to the choir.

The Biomimicry community is changing, Janine brought up the “aspirational goals” in her SXSW Eco Talk, and this Biomimicry video of Janine is full of hope. If we keep moving this direction, Biomimicry will become viral in no time!!

* The singularity as in the book “The Singularity Is Near” written by Ray Kurzweil.

PAPs water channels for biomimetic membrane applications

Since I am working on bio-inspired membranes for water purification such as aquaporin containing membranes, I would like to share the main findings of a related and recently published paper.

An international research team comprising scientists from the Pennsylvania State University, the Harvard Medical School and other institutions published a paper on the utilization of peptide-appended pillar[5]arenes (PAPs) in artificial bilayer membranes useful for several application such as water purification. The water permeability of those structures comes very close to those of aquaporins, which are protein channels that are known for their remarkable water transport properties and thus have been in focus of membrane scientists during the last decade. The drawback of embedding actual aquaporins in artificial membranes are the high costs of production, their low stability and the complicated membrane manufacturing process. PAPs, in contrast, are easier to manufacture and are also more stable than aquaporins. Like aquaporins, PAPs also have the characteristics allowing them to self assemble in the right orientation in artificial membranes. When using carbon nanotubes for instance, which are also stable materials that mimic the water transport characteristics of aquaporins, the biggest problem is aligning them vertically to allow water transport across the membrane. This problem could be solved when using self-orienting PAPs in artificial membranes. While the first generation of PAPs showed a six order of magnitude lower water permeability in comparison to aquaporins, new generation PAPs contain more hydrophobic regions improving their water permeability. Another advantage of using PAPs is the high packing density that is even higher than when aquaporins are inserted into artificial membranes. However, the biggest drawback of using PAP channels is their low selectivity towards small solutes such as salts. A narrow constriction of around 30 pm such as the width of the aquaporin pore can not be manufactured by any technology yet, thus, impermeability of solutes that are only slightly larger than a single water molecule is difficult to achieve. So, for desalination devices, the direct utilization of aquaporins still seems to be the most promising route. However, for other purification processes, involving larger solutes, PAPs could be an effective alternative. More details can be found in the referenced paper by Kumar et al.

Reference: Kumar et al., 2015: Highly permeable artificial water channels that can self-assemble into two-dimensional arrays. PNAS, vol. 112, no. 32, 9810-9815.

Some Casual Philosophy on Biomimicry

The premise of this post is to illustrate the thought process of Biomimicry. Like when you sit down in a chain and wonder about things, like what to eat, or why a pixel works.

Biomimicry can be nebulous. Biomimicry can be straight forward. The reason this is the case is because in theory Biomimicry is actually too simple: find an organism, study it, implement the knowledge.

But the nebulous part is that it’s very hard to apply creativity to this—perhaps due to my lack of knowledge of the animal kingdom. For me this is precisely the reasons why Biomimicry seems hard to think about abstractly. In order to imagine the biomimetic process from start to finish one must have knowledge from biology to engineering.

Thus, in order to apply creativity to all aspects of Biomimicry—selection to application—one must know about the biological world and why it works! Thankfully it is interdisciplinary. And on a side note, I do believe research into a function/structure/behavior of an organism is biomimetic research, i.e. will aid in doing Biomimicry.

How does one correctly choose an organism though—aside from the philosophical wonderment of what it means to correctly choose anything? Ultimately the organism needs to display some form of semblance with the problem that required its research, how ever many layers of abstraction. I can only imagine aliens at the moment for my model organisms… the more productive creativity (for me) comes in the application of the knowledge.

For perspective, Biomimicry does have a theory, but it’s not about force, or chemistry, or anything like that; the theory is simply stated: life has solutions to our problems. Other than that theory, Biomimicry doesn’t have its own unique theory. It is rather a perspective. Perhaps a tool. But at the very least a theory that says life has a solution.

So the question remains: is there always an organism that can help solve a problem?

Related questions that aim to satisfy the same end are as follows: can our problems be solved by building on our current technology? Will our problems be solved with the next big technology boom?

And maybe you were also wondering: what qualities will the solutions embody? Which solution is of higher value? Which is more likely? Which is more feasible?

The real answer doesn’t have to be one. In order to have any of the above come true all are required. Biomimicry wouldn’t be possible without the various technological solutions invented thus far—thank you computers, nano-scale imaging, and more. So the question isn’t which strategy is better or what hope is most important, but rather that technology has finally made Biomimicry feasible.

Indeed as well, Biomimicry may even make some technology that makes executing Biomimicry easier.

And on a side note, perhaps more controversial: humans have not invented a solution that can’t be found in nature. What came first: a rolling apple or a wheel, our perception or atoms? Application is the heart of creativity. And we finally have the senses to probe into the depths of biology. So maybe this is a boom for creativity.

The Force of Words

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.”

The University of Akron’s Integrated Bioscience (IB) Biomimicry program is at the forefront of a new discipline. However, the principles of biomimicry have been practiced long before humankind had a spoken language. Examples of early biomimicry can be seen in primitive tools shaped like teeth and man copying hunting tactics of pack animals. Biomimicry continued to be practiced after humans civilized the planet but the act of looking to nature as inspiration was not assigned a specific name.   The works of Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci is a prime example of biomimicry driving invention and art but we do not call him a biomimicist. The University of Akron will release the first Biomimicry PhDs to the world in the near future and in order to give meaning to this degree, we must know how biomimicry is defined.

People can agree that the principles of biomimicry have been practiced for a long time and most people can recognize examples of biomimicry in action. Even though people are familiar with the idea when presented to them, the majority of people cannot state a definition of biomimicry. The idea of biomimicry has been in and out of fashion over time and different regions and existing disciplines assign different names to the practice.   The general idea of biomimicry is really a simple concept but the application can look differently across existing disciplines and at times, can be quite difficult to recognize in practice. No wonder the public has difficulty understanding what biomimicry means! This post is a compilation of efforts conducted by biomimicry fellows in the University of Akron’s IB Biomimicry program to record the history of terms used for looking to nature for inspiration and to define biomimicry for today.

Bionic or bionik is an early term for looking to nature for inspiration in engineering. In America, bionic was coined in 1960 by Jack E. Steele during a seminar at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Soon afterwards, bionik came to be used in Europe merging the words biologie and technik and is still in popular use today. Bionic was traditionally an engineering-focused term in the United States whereas bionic had a broader scope of application with the transfer of biological ideas to technology as a core element.

Biomimetics, as defined by bioengineer and biophysicist Otto Schmitt in 1969, is the study of the physical principles of biological systems in order to produce an artificial mimic. This definition is biomimetics is narrow and does not encompass the broad scope of applications that are not just an artificial mimic. Nature can inform invention and the inspiring element may not be directly mimicked. Chimpanzees were observed to seek out specific trees when ill and researchers found chemical compounds in the trees that may treat parasites in humans.

Bio-inspiration is used in many disciplines, and is especially popular in design. Bio-inspired as a term took off in the 1990’s and the definition was slightly different depending on which discipline used the term. Engineers saw bio-inspired as design or operation based on or inspired from the engineering principles underlying its biological counterpart whereas biologists draw on E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia, or the tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.

Janine Benyus brought biomimicry into current popular use with the publication of her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997. In a Center for Biologically Inspired Design interview, Janine Benyus states “biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new science that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example. I think of it as innovation inspired by nature.” (The Center for Biologically Inspired Design. Biomimicry Defined: Interview with Janine Benyus. Web. 12 Oct. 2015). Her definition embraces cross-discipline thinking and application of inspiration from nature. People can have a common understanding of the broad concept of biomimicry. When society understands the force of biomimicry, our knowledge will see no boundaries.

Permaculture polyculture


My family… we’re country folk. We know a lot about plants and soil, bugs and birds, and animals. So when my dad said to me this summer that he thought his garden was doing better this year, it was really nothing new. It was surprising, however, because my dad has been really sick this year and unable to do much with the garden, short of getting it planted in the ground. I went over and looked at it. It was covered in ‘weeds.’ Things were growing: vegetables, flowers, herbs. No nice, neat, orderly rows that one would expect in a “typical” garden, but it was working, nonetheless. After a nice visit, my son and I took some vegetables and drove back to suburbia.

A few weeks later, I was reading Janine Benyus’ book, Innovation Inspired by Nature. The first few chapters discuss the land, feeding the world, and growing things; the term “polyculture” came up several times.  The definition, according to Oxford Dictionary, is the simultaneous cultivation or exploitation of several crops or kinds of animals.  Growing multiple species in a garden plot is actually beneficial. We’ll talk about the why and how later, but…my dad was right!! (And yes, I told him!) He said he had always had an inclination that there might be something to the idea of not weeding a garden, but he did not have anything to tell him why it would work. In the book, Janine talks with The Land Institute and describes in detail how polyculture works: ‘farmers’ are transforming agriculture by using nature the natural way.

What do I mean by “using nature the natural way?” Shouldn’t nature BE natural?! The words are derivatives of each other, after all. We have to consider the impacts that humans have had on the natural world over the years. It has been a long time since we have allowed nature to just ‘be.’ Humans sometimes have a tendency to think that, as a superior species, we know best. We want bigger. We want better. We want it faster. The Industrial Revolution has given us the means to achieve these things, but it has been at the cost of our air, soil, and water health. We grow acres of corn in nice, neat, orderly rows; acres of fields are covered with soybeans; and pastures are filled with one species of grass (hay). Lines and lines of monotonous crops. We don’t see this is nature. When we go hiking in the woods, we see varieties of species growing in what appears to be chaotic disarray—but it is actually a carefully calculated design. We have deviated very far from what nature intended. After billions of successful years, why do humans think we know better?

Agriculture that is led by a polyculture plan is sustainable, easier, and healthier for humans and the environment. Let me make sense of this. Someone who likes cake goes to a bakery that serves only cake; the bakery has cases and cases of baked cakes ready to eat, but they also have a small table in the corner that offers salad greens in a small bowl. The cake-lover will most-likely choose to eat cake. She loves cake, and it’s in abundance. She knows salad is a better choice, and, if it was her only option, she would choose it, but she doesn’t want to walk way over to the corner when all this goodness is right here in front of her! This is how herbivores thinks, (in anthropomorphic terms). A rabbit comes across a cabbage crop on Mr. MacGregor’s farm. This is her ‘cake shop.’ Cabbages everywhere! Of course there are other yummy treats in the woods a few meters away, but why waste time and resources hopping from here to there and everywhere in between to sporadically hope to find her choice food. If Mr. MacGregor used the technique of polyculture, the rabbit would not have a buffet smorgasbord of cabbage. He would have planted a diversity of plants, making it more difficult for the rabbit to find her favorites. While she might find a plant or two, it will be more difficult to take out an entire row of cabbages. It is more likely that the rabbit would move on to Farmer Jones’ garden: a monoculture where she doesn’t have to try very hard to find treats. An added benefit of polyculture is the ability to intersperse species that are unpleasant to problem herbivores. This will lessen the interest in the garden even more.

Insect pests can also be kept in check. Companion planting causes a combination of floral scents that olfactory-relying organisms cannot recognize. Unlike in traditional gardens that give away aromatic cues to what they have available.  Camouflage helps plants hide each other in plain sight. Species that grow low to the ground are covered by grasses and other tall companions. Native organisms on native plant species will keep pests down via their presence. This is not to say that pests will never affect farms. However, we are now looking at a lower likelihood that complete infestations occur, and all of this would happen without the use of expensive and dangerous pesticides.

High quality soil and clean water are essential for all life on Earth to be successful and sustainable. Polyculture addresses these issues, as well. Plantings in a polyculture are mimetic of the growing that actually occurs on nature’s timeline. This is critical for success. Plants that need heavy watering will grow during the seasons with most of the rain; plants that require less water will grow during the hotter seasons. Root types will vary, having some that hold water longer than others. They will hold the soil steady, lessening chances for erosion issues. They filter the water and fertilize the soil in different ways. All these things are done at the times of year when nature needs them to be done… one right after another. One species that soaks up the nitrogen will come to the end of its season just as another one that replaces the nitrogen starts to mature. It is a wonderful cycle that reduces the need for chemical “fixers,” like fertilizers, to replenish lost soil nutrients and to keep the water safe.

This all sounds like common sense. It probably seems to some that a blog post should not even be necessary to say all this and that these things should just happen. To you, I would remind you that it takes a long time to change mindsets that have been on one track for centuries. It might seem to some that this theory is bogus because our hungry world needs Big Ag to provide us with heaping bounties of corn. To you, I suggest considering the advantages of teaching polyculture to small, under-developed areas so that the poor may learn to feed themselves healthy food adapted to each specific environment.

For the sake of brevity, I leave you with this quote from The Land Institute. The term used, perennial, refers to crops that return each year without replanting. This quote is also given in the context of polyculture/permaculture, as this is the practice of the Institute.  “Compared with annual counterparts, perennial crops tend to have longer growing seasons and deeper rooting depths, and they intercept, retain, and utilize more precipitation. Longer photosynthetic seasons resulting from earlier canopy development and longer green leaf duration increase seasonal light interception efficiencies, an important factor in plant productivity. Greater root mass reduces erosion risks and maintains more soil carbon compared with annual crops. Annual grain crops can lose five times as much water and 35 times as much nitrate as perennial crops. Perennial crops require fewer passes of farm equipment and less fertilizer and herbicide, important attributes in regions most needing agricultural advancement.” (…)

Ask Nature

Lights and Landing Gear

Moving to Ohio from California has been a big transition. It’s more humid, people are very talkative to strangers, and there are all kinds of new insects. As someone who is very fond of bugs, this is pretty exciting for me. Since I arrived in late August, I missed the fireflies, but am eagerly looking forward to next year.

Insects are an incredibly diverse group of animals, with adaptations that many fields can benefit from studying. People look at beetles and butterflies for insights into structural color, at flies and dragonflies for flight techniques, and to ants and other hive-minded insects for social behavior interactions.  

Researchers in Korea have looked at the nanostructures of a firefly’s abdomen to determine how it affects the passage of the beetle’s bioluminescene from its photogenic layer to the outside world. By testing various heights of artificial nanostuctures, they were able to create their own lens that permitted an easier transmission of internal light.

DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) recently released a video demonstrating robotic landing legs on a helicopter. These legs, which resemble a many-jointed grasshopper’s, can be used by aircraft during takeoff and landing on unstable and uneven surfaces. Sensors guide the extension of each leg as the helicopter touches down, keeping the aircraft level.

These are just a few examples of insect-inspired biomimicry. I expect this trend will continue as people look to this amazing group of animals for biomimetic concepts in many scientific disciplines.


Kim, Jae-Jun, Youngseop Lee, Ha Gon Kim, Ki-Ju Choi, Hee-Seok Kweon, Seongchong Park, and Ki-Hun Jeong. 2012. “Biologically Inspired LED Lens from Cuticular Nanostructures of Firefly Lantern.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (46): 18674–78.

Darpa news site: