Ladybugs’ Wing-Folding Technique Uncovered! New-Style Umbrellas Could Result

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A Ladybug takes flight.  (Photo: U. of Tokyo)

Ladybugs are beautifully colored little creatures that, like bumble bees, seem to defy nature in that they fly with bodies far larger than logic, or perceived aerodynamic rules, would enable a living entity to become airborne under its own power.

Odd as that is, scientists have long pondered another mystery about the ladybug, a type of beetle: How they manage to corral fairly substantial wings into extremely tight folds, making them – the wings – virtually invisible when the, um, bugs are at rest.

Mystery solved! Not only have Japanese scientists at the University of Tokyo figured out how that’s done, they’ve suggested that the ladybug’s wing-folding system could give rise to a change in the shape of umbrellas, the design of which had essentially remained unchanged for more than 1,000 years.

Sarah Knapston, Science Editor at The Telegraph in London, described the finding recently. In a nutshell, it boils down to the fact that the folding wing lies beneath the colorful one that shields and protects the former.

To arrive at their conclusion, the Japanese scientists replaced the spotted forewing, known as an elytron, with a transparent piece of resin. What they learned could help engineers design foldable solar collectors or even a new type of umbrella.

Kazuya Saito, Assistant Professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science, designs foldable structures—so insect wings are a natural interest. “Compared with other beetles, ladybugs are very good at flying and frequently take off,” he tells Bryson Masse at Gizmodo. “I thought their wing transformation systems are excellent and have large potential for engineering.”

He and his team tried several methods to figure out how the ladybug folded its wing. They took high-speed images of the insect opening and closing its wings, but still couldn’t see the actual folding process under the opaque spotted forewings. They attempted to 3D print an artificial wing, but they couldn’t make one that was transparent enough to see thorough.

As Masse reports, the researchers’ secretary was the one who came up with a solution: clear nail art resin. After crafting the wing out of the resin, the team was able to observe how the insect folded and unfolded its wings.

The creatures use the edge of the elytron and abdominal movements to fold the wing along creased lines. Examination of the wings using a CT scan also revealed that they have springy veins similar to a tape measure that are rigid enough to allow the insects to fly, but elastic enough to fold up.

Saito tells Masse that the wings are unusual because “transformable structures” usually involve moving parts and joints. But the ladybug’s wing lacks those complications, completing a relatively complex task through flexibility and elasticity. The paper appears in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

While the structure of ladybug wings may have applications for things like foldable solar panels for satellites and space ships, Saito seems most excited about its application to something much more domestic. “I believe that beetle wing folding has the potential to change the umbrella design that has been basically unchanged for more than 1000 years,” he tells Knapton. Collapsible umbrellas usually have multiple parts and are easily broken at the joints. But the ladybug umbrella could be made from”seamless flexible frames,” he says, making it indestructible in strong wind and quick to deploy using “stored elastic energy.”

Saito admits that he doesn’t have a design for the umbrella yet, but perhaps it will look something like this.


A Worm Enzyme Might Help Rid World of Some Thrown-Away Plastic

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Henderson Island beach. Photo: Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

It is widely believed that is possible to rid ourselves of plastic items we no longer want by throwing them away. A study of Henderson Island, a 14.4 sq mile (37.3 sq km) spit of land in the Pitcairn Islands, which are far from anywhere else in the far reaches of the South Pacific, has demonstrated with frightening certainty that, as an old saying has it, “there’s no such place as away.”

Virtually every available surface, and too many buried ones to count on Henderson Island, are covered with bits of plastic, much of it from China, significant amounts also from Japan and Chile, according to scientists from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Conservation Science, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in the UK. Some 37 million pieces in all have made Henderson Island one of if not the largest homes globally for parted-with plastic.

The scientists’ report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, said the plastics debris density on Henderson Island is higher than anywhere else on earth. While its accumulated 37 million pieces of discarded plastic is but a drop in the proverbial bucket of the 5 trillion plastic pieces – some 250,000 tons worth – littering the world. And its presence in this once pristine piece of property makes a mockery of the island’s status as a UNESCO-designated “World Heritage” site, as “one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence.”

That declaration was made as recently as 1988 – a mere 29 years ago.

Not only is the accumulated plastic an eyesore to those rare souls who approach close enough to uninhabitable Henderson to see it, it’s a real risk to wildlife on and near the island. As the plastic drifts closer to Henderson, which sits amidst what’s called the South Pacific’s ocean gyre, an enormous area comprising one of half a dozen major circulating areas for ocean currents, water from vast areas on either side of the Pacific contribute trash as well as water from diverse sources. (That’s why Henderson’s plastic comes from so far afield.) Sea creatures ingest or get tangled in plastic materials, which either kill them quickly or slowly choke the life out of them. Land animals, too, often become victims of plastic materials eaten because they smelled or appeared edible.

These problems are destined to become more widespread unless mankind, collectively, takes steps to reduce the creation and use of plastic materials.

That and finding, in the guts of a certain species of wax worms, the enzyme that enables it to “eat” plastic:That such an enzyme exists stems from findings of a part-time Spanish beekeeper, a day-job researcher who found that the worms, whose caterpillar parents like to munch on beeswax inside his hives, were able to eat their way out a plastic bag he’d put some in.

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A hole eaten through a plastic bag by a wax worm. (Photo: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli, and Chris Howe

Great scientific answers, and solutions, have been launched from less auspicious starts than that! Who knows? In time a wax worm enzyme could, if replicated on a large enough scale, take a bite out of the world’s plastic waste problem. But don’t hold your breath: That kind of advance isn’t likely to happen with this, or even the next, decade or three.


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Child- and Gang-Rapes Are Running Rampant in India

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The family of a five-year-old girl who was raped stage a protest on Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road seeking treatment for her at a private hospital in Gurgaon, India, and fast disposal of the case.

Of all the many and oh-so-varied cultures in the world, India’s seems to be among the least appreciative of the concept enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence, that: “All men are created equal.” Women there, only second to the second-class treatment of women in predominantly Moslem countries, far too often are made victims of brutal rapes. Even, even more sadly, when they are but children.

Two recent reports on Newser (and here) paint a horrid picture of the problem: A 10-year-old being raped, made pregnant, then having to struggle to get (as she finally did) permission to get aborted, and another couple of women getting gang raped – one in a moving car (the mind boggles!) – in a culture that, in too many instances, still also accepts revenge killings.

I am not a religious person, and I have trouble getting my mind about how, and why, practitioners of various religions – any of them – faithfully accepting, as they do, what they do.

My wife and I watched a “Law & Order” show recently about a case where a super-religious girl was taken advantage of – raped, in short – by a fellow believer in her ‘faith’ that him having sex with her – “curative sex” – would free her of her desire for another woman. Guess what? The spiritual leader who encouraged his flock to so behave, ended up, as the encourager of illegal actions, in prison. So, of course, did the rapist. And the saddest news what, they both believed they did nothing wrong.

What’s Swimming In The Pool YOU Use?

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A little known fact: 19% of American adults have admitted to peeing at least once in a swimming pool. The share of children doing so is undoubtedly much higher than that.

If you’re wondering, ‘and this is important to know for what reason?’ the reason is simple: Though urine is sterile, it contains various chemicals – urea, ammonia, amino acids and creatinine among them – that can react with such pool sterilizers as chlorine to form volatile disinfectant byproducts (DBPs) that can lead to eye and respiratory irritation and even a form of asthma.

How much pee might there be in a pool? A team of scientists at Canada’s University of Alberta (the Division of Analytical and Environmental Toxicology, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry) found some in 100% of the sizab le sampling of pools and hot tubs they studied last year, with a 110,000 gallon (416, 395 l) pool containing 7.9 gallons (26.5 l) of urine and a 220.000 gallon pool (832,790 l) included close to 20 gallons (75 l) of liquid human waste.

It’s hard to avoid ‘absorbing’ some pool water when you find it streaming down your face when you emerge from beneath it. Even if you don’t swallow, but blow it out, you could be taking in some urine, albeit diluted. But that’s what the pool water samples were in the tests done by the Canadian researchers.

That tinkle of pee you may have absorbed on a single pool visit is hardly like to hurt you. But if you are a regular pool user, this is a fact to keep in mind: That person next to you – yes, that one – just did a bladder dump, and the splasher on the far side of that person is pushing “it”| toward you.