Bioinspiration – crossing interdisciplinary borders

Bioinspiration – crossing interdisciplinary borders

It is really going to happen! We talked about this for YEARS, and now we are finally going to see it come to fruition.


Kate Loudon and I have known each other for a long time. It was kind of inevitable that two women who were part of the leadership of the Entomological Society of America’s Section B, now the Physiology Biochemistry and Toxicology (PBT) section, would become friends. We are actually from THAT era where female leadership in the ESA was a rarity (not anymore!).

Since we both have an interest in insect physiology (broadly) and biomechanics (specifically) we started talking about organizing a bioinspiration symposium. Fundamental insect biomechanics studies have inspired technologies for some time now. For about 5 years I have been teaching courses on bioinspiration and I use Kate’s research on bed bug-killing materials as an example of innovations that can be inspired by nature and benefit society. So the match seemed natural. Also, we really like each other and would use any excuse to collaborate on something.

It took a while but we managed to put together an awesome symposium with prestigious speakers on the biggest entomological stage ever; the 2016 XXV International Congress of Entomology to be held in Orlando, FL (Sept 25th-30th).

We are so thrilled about the line-up. There is a great variety of speakers (topics, nationality, ethnicity, gender) and we can’t wait for them to interact with each other and other interested entomologists. Some of our speakers have never been to an entomological meeting. We expect to get them hooked, or at least speak well of us entomologists once they are back at their home institutions.

We hope that as a result of this symposium new collaborations will develop, be it to delve into new research questions or to explore educational avenues.

Let me first introduce you to the speakers. Hopefully as the symposium draws closer I can share a little bit more about the topics and speakers in follow-up posts.

  • Our first speaker will be Dr. Robert Wood who is the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Prof. Wood is also a founding core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, a power-house in the field of bioinspiration.  The Wood lab is probably most famous among entomologists for their work on robobee – a miniature flying, and now also sensing, robot inspired by biology.

  • The next speaker will be Chen Li from Johns Hopkins University. Prof. Li coined his own research topic: terradynamics. Similar to how aero- and hydrodynamic principles have shaped our knowledge about animal locomotion in air and water it is Prof Li’s goal to better understand animal locomotion on complex (always shifting) terrains, thus his creation of the terradymics lab at JHU.  Cockroaches feature prominently in his research.

  • Next we switch from robotics to bioinspired materials. Kate (Dr. Catherine Loudon, University of California at Irvine) will share her work on how small structures on bean leaves kill bed bugs and how these structures (and their special characteristics) have spurred interest in the development of physical insecticidal bioinspired materials.
  • Faithful readers of this blog will know by now how enamored I am by the insect cuticle. I am therefore glad that we will have Dr. Stevin Gehrke (Fred Kurata Memorial Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Kansas) talk about the physical properties of beetle elytral cuticle and why this type of biomaterial may have many possible applications.

Tenebrio molitor with characteristic elytra covering the hind wings. By gbohne from Berlin, Germany

  • Next I will discuss a relatively new project from my lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in collaboration with Dr. Nenad Miljkovic from Illinois’s Mechanical Science and Engineering Department and Dr. Donald Cropek who is a chemist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over the past few months we have initiated a comparative study of native Illinois cicadas’s wings to determine physical and chemical attributes that make the wings have (super)hydrophobic, self-cleaning and maybe even antimicrobial characteristics. This collaboration has been really fun and I have learned about a lot of new techniques and I hope to share some of my excitement with the symposium’s audience (Bouncing water droplets anyone?!!!!).

Neotibicen dorsatus at Loda Prairie, July 2016. By Marianne Alleyne

  • Another interesting biological material is, of course, spider silk. Dr. Crystal Chaw from Dr. Cheryl Hayashi‘s lab at the University of California at Riverside will explain how studies on the evolution of spider silk have helped in the engineering of artificial silk production.

  • From biological materials we next move to different types of flow in insects. First Hodjat Pendar from Prof Jake Socha’s lab (Virginia Tech) will be talking about how the insect’s tracheal system (which is actually linked to other physiological systems) can serve as inspiration for novel flow control. It is a fascinating topic which I have touched upon previously in a blog post.

  • Flow sensing at a small scale is definitely a topic that is of interest to engineers. And it is something that insects do very well. Dr. Jérôme Casas from the University of Tours (France) will present some of the work he has been doing with Dr. Gijs Krijnen (University of Twente, The Netherlands) on the fluid dynamics of olfaction in insects.
  • Another amazing sensor found in insects is the IR sensor in pyrophilous beetles such as in the genus Melanophila. Will we ever be able to engineer an IR sensor as sophisticated as the ones found in beetles? Dr. Helmut Schmitz (Institute of Zoology of the University of Bonn) will share his work to explain how an understanding of the active amplification mechanism seen in the beetle’s IR sensor might help bring us closer to a robust and sensitive bioinspired IR sensor.

IR organ of Melanophila acuminata. Schmitz & Bousack (2012) PLoS ONE 7(5): e37627.

  • At this point in the symposium we are shifting gears just a little bit to talk about how to actually DO bioinspired design, and how can we best teach our students to come up with successful bioinspired designs. Most people when they first hear about bioinspiration or biomimicry they immediately think this line of thinking makes total sense. Biologists want to contribute and feel even more justified to delve into fundamental biological questions. Engineers are happy to add bioinspiration into their imaginary toolbox. But for bioinspiration to be successful, to actually have as an end result a bioinspired technology that is based on real biological data, biologists and engineers have to work together. And that is not always so straightforward (Writes the entomologist who has been married to a mechanical engineer for 20+ years. Trust me, it is not straightforward.). Prof. Ashok Goel (Georgia Tech, Co-Director of the  Center for Biologically Inspired Design. will discuss some of the cognitive challenges that he has encountered when working with collaborators and students on biologically inspired design projects. What he has learned about how engineers and biologists approach certain problems is fascinating.
  • The symposium will again switch topics somewhat by next delving into social insect behavior. First up will be Dr. Ted Pavlic (Arizona State University, Associate Director for Research at The Biomimicry Center at ASU) who will talk about how social insects make group decisions and how that knowledge can be transferred to create smart and adaptive teams of robots.

Eciton hamatum workers on the trail, Jatun Sacha reserve, Napo Ecuador. Alexander Wild.

  • We will end the symposium with another social insect talk, this one by Dr. Deborah Gordon (Stanford University). Prof. Gordon will talk about her research on collective behavior in ants and how they have influenced engineered networks.

Kate and I hope you can join us for our symposium, either in person or virtually via Twitter or Instagram (we will use hashtag #ICE2016BioI and #ICE2016) and follow-up blog posts. Feel free to use Twitter to ask questions of the speakers (@Cotesia1).

“See” you on the 29th!


Quorum Sensing On Capitol Hill

Quorum Sensing On Capitol Hill

Last Fall I was selected to be a member of the inaugural class of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Science Policy Fellows. Last week came our first big test – be advocates for entomology and entomological research on Capitol Hill. And guess what? We had a very productive time.

I’ve wanted to write about our Congressional visits from before I even left on my trip, but was struggling to find a hook that would pull together government, politics and bioinspiration. I could go with a story about dominance hierarchies (=pecking order) in both human and animal societies, or one about gift giving and the influence it can buy, or an essay about insects that steal from other insects. Or was this finally going to be the blog post where I could discuss my favorite topic in all of biology: parasitism?

Actually, turns out that the Congressional visits were challenging, exciting, beneficial, fun, inspiring, etc. The most appropriate bioinspired analogy I can make is to quorum sensing seen in social insects.

Now what? We better find the best new nest site quickly. Picture by Eran Finkle via

“Now what? We better find the best new nest site quickly.”
Picture by Eran Finkle via

Honeybees, for instance, use quorum sensing to find a new nest site. A swarm comprised of 10,000+ bees decides on the best spot to start a new nest, not by letting just the queen decide, but by gathering information from different scout bees. A couple of hundred scout bees convey information to others in the swarm about the quality of about a dozen possible nest sites. Nest sites can be superb, mediocre or lousy, or somewhere in between. Based on the information about the possible site’s quality conveyed by the scout bees the swarm as a whole decides which site is most suitable. It is important that all information is freely shared, no bee’s opinion is stifled. Coalitions of scouts that have discovered a certain site will try their best to convince other scouts to go check out a potential site. The better the potential site, the more vigorous the bee will waggle-dance. A more vigorous dance will convince more uncommitted scouts to go check out the site. So there is competition between the coalitions, but what is important is that the uncommitted scout does not blindly follow the information. She will go check out the site but will decide for herself if she will advertise the site when she returns to the swarm. In other words, acceptance of a poor site (through cheating or through the creation of mass hysteria) is impossible. Through quorum sensing many opinions are heard and evaluated, yet this is done rather quickly so that the swarm is not vulnerable for long. Options are not debated “to death”.

Probably not the best nest site.  Picture by By Nino Barbieri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

“Probably not the best nest site.”
Picture by Nino Barbieri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons]

Good group decisions, the bees show us, can be fostered by endowing a group with three key habits:
1. structuring each deliberation as an open competition of ideas,
2. promoting diversity of knowledge and interdependence of opinions among a group’s members
3. and aggregating the opinions in a way that meets time constraints yet wisely exploits the breadth of knowledge with the group.

Seeley, Visscher and Passino

American Scientist May-June 2006

What we can learn from honeybee democracies (yes, there is even a fantastic book on this topic) is that any democratic government can make the best decisions, within a reasonable time period, when it goes through phases of collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. Quorum sensing is a type of decision-making process in any decentralized system – one without a clear boss. Any decision-making group should rely on information of individuals with knowledge about the topic, shared interests (stakeholders) and mutual respect. Debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution. Sound familiar? Too idealistic?

Probably also not the best nest site. Picture by MSgt Todd E. Enderle, 309 AMU/MXACW, 13 Oct 2005, submitted by Wayne Fordham, HQ AFCESA/CESM, Tyndall AFB, FL.

Probably also not the best nest site.
Picture by MSgt Todd E. Enderle, Tyndall AFB, FL. via

I may seem a little idealistic here but while visiting the Senate’s and House of Representative’s offices I definitely had the feeling that constituents, experts, stakeholders and staffers were coming together to share information in an effort to help inform the legislators. All our meetings with staffers, and in my case in person with a Sen. Dick Durbin: D-IL and Rep. Rodney Davis: R-IL, were worthwhile. Staffers seemed interested, if not always knowledgeable about entomology (though many of them were). And it was clear to us that staffers were keen to have access to the best scientific information, preferably written/conveyed by experts using clear terminology and in a concise manner.

The leadership of the Entomological Society of America has put resources into the science policy fellowships, science policy committees and communication about science policy with the understanding that the pay-off may not become obvious until a few years from now. Even what this “pay-off” may be is not clear – it can vary from ESA name recognition, more familiarity with the field of entomology among legislators (beyond pesticide-spraying- or butterfly-net-waving-scientists), more expert entomological input into important policy decisions, job opportunities for entomologists with a science policy interest, more state and federal funding for entomology, etc.

  • In principle the United States government encourages collective fact finding with an open sharing of ideas. Again, I felt that our message was welcomed, but we, ESA members, need to become more proactive in sharing our message. We need to continue to visit State and Federal government offices and explain to them why research on insects is important – why sustained funding is important. We need to be more proactive about sharing our entomological science and expertise. ESA needs to set the agenda, not react to it. If you, the scout bee, are not showing up, or do not have the credibility, then your opinion will not be considered. Over time, with name/research-field recognition, your expert science-based opinion may become more valued (of course, this does not happen in honeybee swarms, and neither does the importance of money in buying name recognition – this is where the bioinspiration model (or is it our current democracy model?) breaks down).
  • On paper a strong democracy should promote diversity of knowledge and vigorous debate among stakeholders. There is, however, a difference between scientific evidence and pseudo-science and the two should not receive equal consideration. Scientific evidence may also not line up with constituent (stakeholder) economic, social and cultural interests. And, again, money and power may outshine solid scientific evidence and stifle debate about the science. By asserting ourselves as the premier source of entomological science we should be able to be part of the debate.
  • The strength of quorum sensing in relation to honeybee swarm nest finding is that in a relatively short time period a consensus is reached. Currently consensus building in Congress on many issues is, let’s just say, difficult. But when it comes to a topic such as Pollinator Health then I am pretty hopeful. (On the issue of the importance of pollinator health we have generally strong bipartisan support.) One of the greatest weaknesses that I see is that even within the ESA itself consensus building is taking too long. For more than 6 months members have been working hard on position statement regarding Pollinator Health and Tick-borne diseases. Meanwhile Congressional hearings have been held, and White House “national strategies” have been set in motion – sometimes with little or no input from ESA. Again, we should help set the agenda, not just react to it!

Our message as entomological experts (7000+ ESA members) will be heard depending on if our information is backed up by good scientific evidence, is supplied in a timely manner and communicated properly. In addition, our representatives in government need to be open to receiving this information. Their willingness to incorporate our advice may depend on their committee assignments, ability to understand the topic, their home districts and states, their constituents, etc. ESA has to start somewhere in gaining more influence and securing sustained research funding for their members. I believe this month’s congressional visits by the science policy fellows was a great beginning.


Now we may be on to something. Picture by Ontheway2it via

Note: I want to thank Lewis-Burke Associates, the government relations firm that is working with ESA to train the Science Policy Fellows. We learn so much from them. Thank goodness for their collective sense of humor and endless patience!

Further reading:

Ariel Rivers also blogged about our DC trip: Entomological Society of America (ESA) Science Policy Fellows do DC!

or the crib notes version

Some more tweets related to our DC trip. Sadly we were unable to self-organize to take a group picture – guess the ESA Science Policy Fellows are more similar to solitary bees.


I met personally with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) (below) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Pictures provided to me by their offices. Also pictured is Karen Mowrer from Lewis-Burke Associates.


So meta: A blog post about my poster about blogging.

Last week I attended the Annual Meetings of the (other) ESA in Austin, TX. Actually, I kinda helped organize that meeting. (More about that in my next post, which will focus on my time on the Program Committee.)

When I first submitted the title for the poster in June I had only just started this blog and I thought it would be a great idea to cover the numerous posts I would have written by November.

So, yeah, about that….

Still, it was a great exercise to go through and it helped keep me sane during the weeks leading up to the meeting.


Click here for the pdf version of the poster

Below is a picture of what it looked like at the conference. I was unable to spend much time with it since the official social hour for the poster session was right at the time of various committee meetings (obviously poor planning on the part of the Program Committee). Judging by the bump in views at my blog some people did find it interesting.

As I mention on the poster, social media has enriched my scientific life. One of the best parts of the meeting was therefore to meet, or catch-up, with some of my ento-tweeps. (Bummed that I had to miss the “official” tweetup).

One of my major “accomplishments” as Program Co-Chair was to get ESA to provide these twitter stickers for name-badges:

Even people not at the conference were represented via a Twitter fall (The stream did not always work correctly, something to improve for next year.)

For more details on why twitter (and, in my opinion, other social media outlets) can be useful to entomologists please read @derekhennen‘s take at EntomologyToday.

To end this short post I’ll just include a tweet from @bug_girl because it reflects my sentiments exactly! Ento Bloggers Rule!

I did not do it first.

I did not do it first.

To some of my entomology friends the title of this blog may not seem particularly original.  That is probably because they are familiar with the book “Insects Did It First” by Roger D. Akre, Gregory S. Paulson and E. Paul Catts (1992). I had my heart set on this blog title (with the subtitle “Can Engineers Do It Better?”) before I was aware of the book.

My used-copy of the book of the same name as this blog. (Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

My copy of the book with the same name as this blog. (Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

All three authors were entomologists and associated with Washington State University (Dr. Paulson now teaches at Schippenburg University of Pennsylvania). The book “Insects Did It First” is a collection of ideas, started in 1964 by Akre, that linked an “advanced” human technology to insects. The book is a perfect example of how to get the general public to become more interested in the natural history of insects. The book is even more endearing because of the wonderful, often humorous, drawings by Catts.


Typically whimsical drawing by E. Paul Catts from “Insects Did It First”. – picture featured on Gregory Paulson’s website (click drawing).

All 81 short “chapters” of the book cover an achievement in which insects were far ahead of humans. Some examples are obvious and famous (e.g. insects as builders of energy efficient structures), other are less well known to non-entomologists (e.g. preserving and storing food without freezing).

In some ways this blog is similar to the Akre, Paulson and Catts book – but using a media that may be more accessible to more people. Just like the author-trio my ultimate goal is to promote insects as inspirational to those outside of entomology. I hope to especially reach engineers, designers and entrepreneurs. I may cover some of the same topics, but since the book was last published in 1992 (Dr. Akre passed away in 1994 and Dr. Catts in 1996) I will be able to give more updated information. The blog will also be different in that I want to go beyond natural history and delve a little bit deeper into the topics of technology and innovation. In addition, there are characteristics of insects bodies, their behaviors, the ecosystems they live in, etc. that I think have not yet been considered in depth by engineers. I will promote those topics too. For instance, the Akre book does not cover the springing mechanism of Collembola which I covered in my previous post (maybe because Collembola are not insects?).

Ultimately I hope that my blog will be thought of as fondly as the Akre book.

See Dr. Paulson’s website for some sample chapters and drawings.

And then get your copy of the book at Amazon. The book is out of print now but there are still some used copies available.

(Stay tuned for next week’s blog post (also on a topic not covered by the Akre book) on how insect-inspired robots evolved between famous X-files episode and now.)

Jump! Go Ahead, Jump, Little Springtail.

Jump! Go Ahead, Jump, Little Springtail.

And here it is. Behold the best blog-banner ever – created by Nils Cordes*! 

Of course, the premiere of such a great banner also requires a blog post that explains it. So let me try.

The animal featured in this blog’s banner is a springtail from the hexapod lineage Collembola. Collembola are not insects but entomologists are an inclusive bunch so we gladly incorporate spiders and entognathous creatures into our studies and teachings.

Springtails are very likely the most abundant arthropods on earth. They occur in the soil (different species at different depths), in leaf litter, moss, under logs, etc. One of the most distinguishing features, if you can consider anything on an animal that is only 0.12 to 17 mm long distinguishing, is the forked furca at the posterior end of the animal. The furca is present in a lot of species, but not all. Those that live deeper in the soil usually lack the structure because they do not need it since its main function is for jumping.


Generalized “elongate” (top) and “globular” (bottom) Collembola. Furca (springing mechanism) in red – the springtail at the top has the mechanism partly retracted and the springtail in the bottom picture has the furca extended. (Marianne Alleyne)

Collembola species can have varying body shapes, but generally there are those with elongated bodies and those with more globular bodies. Collembola can walk, run and climb, but the locomotory specialty that they are best known for (and which seems to be rather ancestral) is jumping.

Globular Springtail Dicyrtomina saundersi. Body length = 1.7mm. Picture by Lord V. Used with permission.

Globular springtail Dicyrtomina saundersi. Body length = 1.7mm. Picture by Lord V. (Used with permission.)

Picture by Lord V. Used with permission.

Elongate springtail. Body length = 2.3 mm. Picture by Lord V. (Used with permission.)

This excellent picture by Lord V is of a picture walking over a glass slide. Clearly visible is the forked furca that can prope the springtail into the air.

This excellent picture is of a springtail’s underbelly. The picture was taken by Lord V as a springtail walked over a glass slide. Clearly visible is the forked furca that can propel the animal into the air. (Used with permission.)

Collembola can jump multiple times in a row, those with globular bodies and more advanced tracheal systems more often (1). In general, springtails tire easily so that jumping is usually only used as an escape mechanism. The jump can take the animal in any direction. Since the furca is located at the extremity of the body, directly beneath the center of gravity, the dynamics of the jump cause the body to rotate head over end. Some Collembola species can jump very high, others take a shallower trajectory but land far away from point of takeoff.

This jumping escape response is quite successful but it does require modifications of the entire body plan. The cuticle, the (hydrostatic) endoskeleton, tendons, and muscles all work together to manipulate the body in such a way that the propulsion is optimal.  How exactly this happens is not very well understood, yet this system holds inspirational lessons for passively compliant locomotory structures.

At rest the furca is held within a ventral groove of the abdomen. At the time of the jump the furca moves from this resting (retracted) position to the extended position. Based on morphological and kinematic observations (there is no direct experimental evidence) it appears that as the furca moves it compresses a “spring”. After it passes a critical point of extension the spring releases all the energy, which in turn causes the springing organ to snap out at high speed. If this happens as the springing organ hits a substrate a force is created that propels the animal upward.

The springing mechanism of a generalized springtail; partially retracted (left) and extended (right).

The springing mechanism of a generalized springtail; partially retracted (left) and extended (right). (Marianne Alleyne)

What exactly comprises this “spring” is not clear. Earliest experiments done by Manton (2) in the early 1970s concluded that to evert the springing organ the body’s hydraulics (pressure on the fluid that makes up most of inside of the body = hemocoel) was important. However, later in the 1970s, Christian (3) concluded that direct muscle action, and not necessarily hydraulics, was the main force inducer. In the 1990s, when high-speed photography had advanced greatly, Brackenbury and Hunt (4) concluded from their experiments that hydraulic forces created by pressurizing the hemocoel increases tension on abdominal sclerites (the exoskeletal plates) that results in a click mechanism that propels the animal into the air. All these studies do agree that elastic elements within the base of the springing organ and within the exoskeleton, as well as the body as whole, are important too. To what extent is not known.

Click mechanism model of the furca. The furca, at rest, is retracted into an abdominal ventral groove. A pair of "basal rods" (springs) are embedded in ventral and lateral parts of the abdominal sclerites 4 & 5, these springs also attach to the apex of the furca. The spring/click mechanism gets help from muscle and active dorsiflexion of the body, which both help release to spring organ from the groove)

Click mechanism model of the furca (red) and distal end of abdomen. The furca, at rest, is retracted into an abdominal ventral groove. A pair of “basal rods” (springs, in blue) are embedded in ventral and lateral parts of the abdominal sclerites 4 & 5, these springs also attach to the apex of the furca. The spring/click mechanism gets help from muscle and active dorsiflexion of the body (in orange), to release the spring organ from the groove. After the furca passes a critical point of extension the spring releases all the energy. (Drawing by Marianne Alleyne based on Brackenbury & Hunt, 1993)

Imagine a beam or a chopstick that’s flexible transversally but somewhat stiff longitudinally. If you compress it, it doesn’t change…up to a point. Then it ‘snaps’ out and buckles. You get a rapid displacement as all the strain energy is released. The exoskeleton of the springtail does a similar thing. It stores the strain energy and then goes through a snap-through buckling phenomenon to produce large strain motion which is then amplified by the tail and presto…springtail in motion.

Many insects, and other animals, use musculoskeletal springs that are incorporated into the complete body plan.  These springs help achieve a high rate of acceleration, or a further jumping distance, and help save metabolic energy. Based on these findings compliant structures and materials have been incorporated into bioinspired legged robots (5). Compliant legged robots achieve a few important things: increased energy efficiency, increased speed, ability to avoid obstacles (in case of jumping robots), and the ability to use more simplified controls to enable enhanced gait control and shock absorption. Springs in bioinspired robots have used elements such as airsprings (e.g. compressed air) and compliant materials, but improvement is still possible. Airsprings, for instance, are not very efficient because they end up converting much of the energy they store into heat. In addition, some of the compliant materials are better than others. Rubbery materials, like elastomers, tend to have a fair bit of viscosity in them and so some (maybe lots) of the energy that it stores is lost to heat as well. For high efficiency, most robotic-type systems currently use mechanical springs (i.e. metals). Bioinspired robots also incorporate series elastic actuators that have linear springs intentionally placed in series between the motor and actuator output, which results in the actuator being bulky.

The variety of jumping mechanisms among insects is great (think: click beetle, flea, grasshoppers, treehoppers, etc.). The intriguing aspect of the jumping mechanism in springtails is that it operates so efficiently at a very small scale, much smaller than any bioinspired robot that has been developed. In the future we will be able to manufacture almost microscopic devices incorporating different characteristics into small structures using “springs” and compliant materials.

Maybe we can incorporate locomotory mechanisms that propel the object, using very little energy. Inspiration for what materials to use and how to construct the object can be found through further study of the springtail’s click mechanism. Somewhat surprisingly not much research has been published on this system since the 1990s. Yet with help from today’s high-speed cameras and microscopy techniques we should be better able to understand how the springtail propels itself. Advanced computer aided engineering (CAE) tools, like finite element analysis (FEA), could be used to augment the visual data and elicit some fundamental internal characteristics that are not visibly detectable.

By researching this topic I thought of a few applications for technologies based on the Collembola’s spring mechanisms. Click mechanisms at the scale of a springtail’s springing mechanism could possibly aid stent design or inspire development of other deployable structures that snap open or closed based on certain environmental conditions. Maybe small springing mechanisms can be incorporated in groups and serve as strain sensors on bigger structures. And who wouldn’t welcome millimeter-sized robots that can perform in a futuristic “flea circus”?



(1) B. Ruhfus and D. Zinkler, Investigations on the sources utilized for the energy supply fueling the jump of springtails, Journal of Insect Physiology, Volume 41, Issue 4, April 1995, Pages 297-301, ISSN 0022-1910, 10.1016/0022-1910(94)00122-W.

(2) S. M. Manton. The Arthropoda: Habits, functional morphology, and evolution. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977. ISBN: 019857391X

(3) E. Christian. The jump of the springtails. Naturwissenschaften, Volume 65, Issue 9, 1978, Pages 495-496, 10.1007/BF00702849

(4) J. Brackenbury and H. Hunt. Jumping in springtails: mechanism and dynamics. Journal of Zoology, Volume 229, Issue 2, 1993, Pages 217-236, ISSN 1469-7998, 10.1111/j.1469-7998.1993.tb02632.x

(5) Z. Zhou and S. Bi. A survey of bio-inspired compliant legged robot designs. Bioinspiration and Biomimetics,Volume 7, Issue 4, 2012, 20 pages 10.1088/1748-3182/7/4/041001




*My friends can attest to the fact that I have been talking for a long, long time about starting a blog about how we can use insects to inspire new technologies. One of these friends who had to humor me for so long is Nils Cordes. I met Nils when he was a student at Illinois, but he is currently finishing up his PhD at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. Nils is a great scientist, and a great communicator. He is also a wonderful artist. He offered, those many years ago, to create some art work for this (then still imaginary) blog that I was going to use to communicate my love of insects. And he did…behold the best blog banner EVAH!



The many feathers in all my caps.

The many feathers in all my caps.

Last week I was reminded multiple times of my love of hats. I don’t wear them too often myself, due to the large cranium I prefer not to boast about. But I do like to try on hats, and I wonder why we do not wear them more often.

The first reminder occurred when Dutch Queen Beatrix announced last week that she will abdicate the throne in April. I immediately felt a loss; no more awesome hats (“Hoedjes van de Koningin”). The new King Willem-Alexander will probably not wear something as awesome as this:

Den Haag, 18 september 2012: de Koningin leest in de Ridderzaal de Troonrede voor © ANP

Queen Beatrix. Den Haag, 18 september 2012:© ANP.
Check out all those feathers in her hat.

But I wasn’t sad too long, since I am really a “Republikein” at heart.  And apparently I have, figuratively, quite an extensive hat collection myself – even some with fancy feathers in them. Let me explain.

The second reminder of my love of hats happened  during the #Venn13 session at the ScienceOnline conference I attended this week. The session was organized/moderated by Ed Yong (@edyong209) and Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics). The whole session is storified here.

Between the two of them Ed and Jonathan wear many hats: scientist, journalist, open-access promoter, administrator, writer, teacher, public information officer, etc. They challenged the attendees of the session to think about the many hats they themselves they wear. I may not don as many hats as Jonathan, even though we are both at a public university (JE at UC Davis, myself at University of Illinois), but I can show you of a couple of stylish hats I have accumulated for myself: entomologist/researcher/advisor, instructor/instructional designer, Entomological Society mover-and-shaker.  And all this while my official title is “Research Scientist”.

In recent years I have also become a promoter of Bioinspiration (or Biomimicry) within the Department of Entomology and the School of Integrative Biology, but also beyond my home department into the College of Engineering and the College of Education. This means that my hats have collected quite a bit of plumage. The point is probably best made by leaving the hat-analogy for a little while and to make the point by describing three completely different scientific conferences I have attended in the past six months.

Biomimicry Europe Innovation and Finance Summit (Zurich, Switzerland, August 2012)

In August 2012 I attended a summit in Zurich, Switzerland, that was organized by the Foundation For Global Sustainability and SwissCleanTech. These two entities brought together people from all over Europe who were interested in the topic of Biomimicry. The summit featured workshop sessions led by Dayna Baumeister who is one of the founders of Biomimicry 3.8. I have been interested in the Biomimicry Institute for quite a few years now and it was a pleasure to meet Dayna and talk to her.


Participants of the Biomimicry Workshop socializing while enjoying the view of Lake Zurich and the Alps beyond.
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

The conference was mainly about how to innovate with biomimicry principles, and what tools are available to us to accomplish this. The speakers included scientists I greatly admire such as: Thomas Speck and André Studart. I hope to blog about their work soon.  The workshop/conference was special because I came in contact with not only  biologists and engineers who feel strongly about bioinspiration, but also with the people who are working on a more sustainable future; policy makers and business leaders, for the good of the environment but also because of the company’s bottom line. It was great to feel that my input as a researcher and instructor was appreciated and I myself learned a lot from people I rarely come in contact with.


During the Biomimicry Conference we went on tours through the Zurich Zoo. One night we had dinner in the Zoo’s Masoala Rainforest exhibit.
Can you pick out the business men?
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

As someone who was promoting insects as inspiration for innovation I wore my “researcher in entomology” and “instructor” hats at this conference, but I also tried to imagine walking in the shoes of an engineer, a sustainability innovator, a biomimicry practicioner, and a business person. I definitely felt most comfortable wearing the entomologist’s cap, and learned to appreciate this old hat even more as I convinced others that nature in general, and insect in particular, need more study for the good of our own society. The future focus of this blog.

Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America (Knoxville, TN, November 2012)

I have been a member of the premier insect-society (ha!), the Entomological Society of America (ESA), for almost 20 years. First as a grad student, then as a post-doc, and now as a research scientist (=faculty-let).  Through the years I have served at different levels of leadership, for instance as the President of the Physiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology section during a major ESA reorganization.  Currently I am on the Program Committee, which is a 3 year term. At the Annual Meeting in Knoxville this past year it was my task to organize the large student competition – which means keeping hundreds of presenting-students and judging-judges happy and on time. Luckily I get to do this with a co-chair, my good friend Luis Canas from Ohio State University. Luis and I were asked to be Program co-chairs because the current ESA President, Rob Wiedenmann (my former PhD advisor) wants to put forth an international face. So here we are, Luis from El Salvador, myself from the Netherlands, representing the rest of the world as the face of a very, very American scientific society.

At the meeting in Knoxville I gave a talk about BioInspiration as part of a bitter-sweet symposium. The symposium was in memory of my graduate (MS) advisor Dr. Nancy Beckage who passed away earlier in 2012. Dr. Beckage was a professor of Entomology, Cell Biology and Neuroscience at the University of California at Riverside. She studied the physiological responses of insects to immune challenges such as pathogens and parasitoids. She did important research and was a great writer. Her review articles are wonderful introductions to immunology and parasitology. In fact, she once considered a career in science journalism.


My friend Nancy Beckage at my wedding in 1995. She looks so incredibly happy here, probably because she received such great pleasure from the happiness of others.
I miss her.
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

Nancy was a mentor, a friend, and a role-model for me. But also a cautionary tale. I feel that Nancy did not get the support that she needed at important times in her life, in large part because she would never ever ask for help as she was a very private person. Mental illness in academia is not uncommon, but for women getting support is often rather difficult, especially for a woman in a discipline/department where women are underrepresented. Again, this is a topic for a blog post I hope to come back to in the future.

During my talk at ESA I made the case that Nancy had a great love for insects. She also appreciated that insect parasitoids can teach a lot about animal physiology.

This type of thinking was passed on to me and now I have come to appreciate the diversity of insects immensely. Insects have adapted to almost all of earth’s habitats, except maybe the open ocean. Insects have a lot to teach us as long as we open ourselves to creative thinking and let ourselves be inspired to innovate.

Participating in this symposium was difficult, there were lots of tears and regrets, but also great camaraderie among those who Nancy influenced during her life.  She inspired me. She still influences my research, my teaching, and most importantly, she influences my interactions with those around me since she taught me that nothing is more important than meaningful personal relationships.

So what hats was I wearing at the ESA Annual Meeting? Definitely the “Entomology researcher” hat (my grad student Gwyn Puckett presented her work at ESA), but also the “Service” hat with the fancy feathers bestowed to a promoter of curiosity, respect, generosity, acceptance, compassion in entomology and academia – because if we do not adhere to these principles then there will be devastating consequences to our (or our colleagues) personal lives, but also to science research and understanding.

Again, I definitely felt most comfortable wearing the hat of an “Entomologist”, the one promoting insects as inspiration for learning about science and for  innovation. At this ESA meeting the “Service” hat with all its feathers (=responsibilities) weighed heavy on me. I had to try to put myself in the shoes of other ESA members, many of whom are in a field far outside of insect physiology or bioinspiration, in the shoes of students, in the shoes of ESA staff and leadership, in the shoes of those women who came before me and who’s legacy I proudly carry on my shoulders.

(NB: at this meeting I had to pleasure to meet many of my “new” online ento friends. Two of them: @BioInFocus and @GeekInQuestion even recorded a Breaking Bio Episode from there: Episode 10)

Science Online 2013 (Raleigh, NC, January 2013)

And now for my third meeting in 6 months. For the second year in a row I attended the Science Online meeting in Raleigh, NC. I cannot say enough about this un-conference, the organizers, the attendees. It is absolutely my favorite work-related event of the year. For a taste of what the conference is like just visit this link and start clicking through all the awesomeness.

It was at this conference that I was first reminded of all the hats I wear, and that each hat is adorned with many feathers. The hats that brought with me to Raleigh is the science instructor hat. Next to my bread&butter Insect Physiology graduate course I teach a few courses in the Online Master of Science in Teaching of Biological Science Program at the University of Illinois (a team effort with @sciencegoddess). In all the courses that I teach for this program insects are heavily featured, because there so many aspects of their biology are interesting and important. The students in the courses are themselves high-school teachers and they are very eager to learn the latest about biology and how to teach it. The Science Online conference put me in contact with journalists and writers who help me explain the content of my courses – which is then passed on to the high-school students. In addition, I met high school teachers who are very active online and serve as teachers for me too (@lalsox, @2footgiraffe, @paleoromano etc.). All three use social media in their science courses, something I am trying to encourage my students to do too.


Entomologists/Naturalists, Wilson and Lowman,who have figured out that instead of wearing many hats it is just better to wear vests with lots of pockets that can hold all your tricks and keep them accessible
E.O. Wilson’s Global Town Hall moderated by NRC Director Meg Lowman.
Raleigh, NC, December 2012 (I ‘attended’ this event remotely)
Photo by Karen Swain, NCMNS

At ScienceOnline I did not really unpack my “Entomology/researcher” hat (except during Friday dinner). But I did juggle both my “Instructor” hat and my “Service/Outreach” hat. It was at first a little uncomfortable since it put me, as a communicator, front and center, and not my cool study animals. As was the case last year, the conference did force me to imagine myself in the shoes of journalists, writers and bloggers who are trying to work with scientists and/or the public to make science accessible to many different types of people.

I have to thank all the attendees at all the conferences covered here for inspiring me, for giving me the confidence to wear all my hats and to try out new things so I can add more feathers to my caps.

But now that I see all these ornate hats all lined up in front of me I wonder if it would be wise to invest in a Collecting Vest. This garment is one of those accessories worn by only the most serious of entomologists. Surely investing in a vest like the one E.O. Wilson often wears can help me do my job even better. All my research, teaching, and outreach tricks would be easily accessible, and the vest, together with a “pooter“, would make me look professional in whatever setting I find myself. Then again, there is a thin line between looking professional and looking goofy.  It might also be wise to invest time in revising my job description.

A special thanks to the Scio13 attendees for helping me celebrate Queen Beatrix’ birthday (January 31st)…which happens to be my birthday too (and I covet her hats).

Thanks to all of you I have renewed faith in my abilities…look… I finished my first real blog post 😉 (A blog post which is not really about the topic that will be the focus of this blog…but oh well, baby steps).