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Scientists Discover Solar Powered Hornets 177

Posted by samzenpus
from the beware-of-the-electric-bees dept.
adeelarshad82 writes "The oriental hornet is more active during the day, and tends to become even more active as the temperature rises. And now scientists have discovered the reason: the hornets are solar powered. It turns out that the distinctive yellow stripe on the hornet's abdomen is actually full of tiny protrusions that gather sunlight and harness it for energy. The insect also features a special pigment, called xanthopterin, that helps with the process."
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Scientists Discover Solar Powered Hornets

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  • Oh no.... (Score:4, Funny)

    by JDeane (1402533) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:06PM (#34495804) Journal

    I for one welcome our solar powered insect overlords?

  • Chrysler? (Score:2, Offtopic)

    Now in the electric car business, too!?!

  • by mswhippingboy (754599) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:08PM (#34495814)
    Guess that would make one a "green" hornet...

    Sorry, couldn't resist...
  • by plover (150551) * on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:15PM (#34495856) Homepage Journal

    Since xanthopterin converts light directly into electricity, according to the research, what exactly does the wasp do with the electricity produced? Does it directly excite muscles? Is there a tiny capacitor in the abdomen that dumps the energy into pulling the wings down?

    • I scanned the document but it seems to end at the point where the energy is collected. The don't seem to suggest how it could be used.

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:26PM (#34496368) Homepage

      Since xanthopterin converts light directly into electricity, according to the research, what exactly does the wasp do with the electricity produced? Does it directly excite muscles? Is there a tiny capacitor in the abdomen that dumps the energy into pulling the wings down?

      Presumably it would use the electrons generated in a redox [wikipedia.org] reaction which generate ATP [wikipedia.org] which is the basic power supply of the cell.

      Of course, this is all very hypothetical and hand waving at this point. However, if real, it could be a Big Deal - now you have another molecule, aside from the chlorophyll complex that can take photons and use them in cellular reactions. Photosynthesis is quite a bit more efficient that photovoltaic cells - assuming that this really does produce electrons at the end of the reaction and it's similarly efficient, or even just easier to copy / clone / manipulate, we might yet have a decent solar to electricity system.

      One of these days.

      • by plover (150551) *

        Cloning the power cells would be interesting, and was the first thing I thought of when I saw it, too. I'm sure they could find the genes to splice to produce the xanthopterin in another organism, such as a conveniently non-flying and non-stinging pine tree. But without the insect's sophisticated chitin structure to collect the energy I suspect much of it would be wasted; and that's only if there's enough light energy to start the reaction at all.

        But the thought of hooking electrodes up to a Frankentree a

        • by sjames (1099)

          Self powered live Christmas trees? When Christmas is over, plant it by your driveway!

      • by Yvan256 (722131)

        One of these days.

        Bang, zoom, straight to the Moon!

      • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 09, 2010 @01:09AM (#34497228)

        Photosynthesis is quite a bit more efficient that photovoltaic cells

        Uh no. Photosynthesis efficiency varies from 0.1% to 8%. Solar panels go from 6% to 41%. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photosynthesis#Efficiency .

        • by Khyber (864651) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Thursday December 09, 2010 @03:35PM (#34505230) Homepage Journal

          "Photosynthesis efficiency varies from 0.1% to 8%."

          Only in sunlight driven systems, just FYI, following the stated source. In targeted wavelength systems, this is absolutely nowhere near the case.

          In LED driven systems, photosynthetic efficiency jumps double to nearly quadruple that, tested over and over again in multiple of my systems. We can push it as far as nearly 50% efficiency before we hit maximum saturation if we pulse the light instead of a solid steady output.

          See, what mainly limits efficiency is the rate at which chlorophyll degrades and regenerates. When it processes energy, it rips itself apart and gets rebuilt. This is how light bleaching happens, too much light, too much photosynthesis, the plant can't regenerate chlorophyll as fast as it's producing energy, and it 'burns' out.

          Stop relying upon wikipedia. It's so outdated as of now for my field of research that they might as well delete the entire section from their site.

    • The big question in my mind: what's the efficiency, and can it be produced in bulk?
    • by mapkinase (958129)

      Abstract
      The Oriental hornet worker correlates its digging activity with solar insolation. Solar radiation passes through the epicuticle, which exhibits a grating-like structure, and continues to pass through layers of the exo-endocuticle until it is absorbed by the pigment melanin in the brown-colored cuticle or xanthopterin in the yellow-colored cuticle. The correlation between digging activity and the ability of the cuticle to absorb part of the solar radiation implies that the Oriental hornet may harvest

    • The little bug uses the electricity to power its microphone, mini camera and micro radio transmitter.
    • by Nikker (749551)
      The yellow energy absorbing area on the "end" of the wasp is known as the "fat body" apparently the converted energy stimulates the metabolism of fat causing the wasp to do more work. The majority of fat on this wasp is stored here. FTA:

      Until now, insects were thought to perform metabolism in an organ known as the fat body, which performs a similar function to the human liver. Most of the fat body is in an insect's abdomen surrounding the gut, where it can quickly take up absorbed nutrients, though some is

    • Since xanthopterin converts light directly into electricity, according to the research, what exactly does the wasp do with the electricity produced?

      The article speculates that it gives them digging energy. I'm going to be more conservative here, and postulate that it only gives them an innate sense of direction and sun intensity. All bees/wasps need to be good navigators, and since these guys dig, they'll be better off digging when the ground is somewhat dry so they don't get buried in mud tunnel collapse

  • journal article (Score:5, Informative)

    by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... org minus author> on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:15PM (#34495858)

    It's unfortunately paywalled, but in case anyone has access to a library with a subscription, the journal article this news article is about is:

    Plotkin et al. (2010). Solar energy harvesting in the epicuticle of the oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis) [springerlink.com]. Naturwissenschaften 97(12): 1067-1076.

    • Re:journal article (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:20PM (#34495912)

      It's unfortunately paywalled, but in case anyone has access to a library with a subscription, the journal article this news article is about is:

      Plotkin et al. (2010). Solar energy harvesting in the epicuticle of the oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis). Naturwissenschaften 97(12): 1067-1076.

      The full text [springerlink.com] works for me and I'm not in a library or anywhere else with a journal subscription.

      • works for me too, I figured it was because I was on campus though...

        From the 'Results' Section:

        "Previous studies have shown diffusion potential across the
        cuticle, with the inside negative with respect to the outside.
        Digby (1965) has suggested that electrons move through the
        semiconductive cuticular layer. This process creates calcium
        carbonate that precipitates in the cuticle. In conclusion, we
        have presented evidence supporting the hypothesis that the
        Oriental hornet has evolved a cuticle design to harvest sol

      • Re:journal article (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... org minus author> on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:58PM (#34496182)

        Oh, interesting, sorry for the mis-labeling then. It worked for me, but I'm on a campus that subscribes to Springer journals, which are usually paywalled, so I assumed it was paywalled.

        It looks like Naturwissenschaften is part of a "Springer OpenChoice" program where authors can choose to make their paper open-access by paying Springer $3,000, which these authors must've done I guess? I rarely see anyone pay those fees in my field (computer science), but I've heard that in biology grants are more willing to pay such fees.

        • by tsa (15680)

          The scientific literature world is pretty strange. Usually you pay around 90$ per page to get your article published in a paid journal. The journal doesn't have to do much for that. The reviewers work for free so they only have to send some letters around and do the typesetting. To have the article 'in the open' you pay a staggering 3000$ for which they do nothing! Amazing

          • The scientific literature world is pretty strange. Usually you pay around 90$ per page to get your article published in a paid journal. The journal doesn't have to do much for that. The reviewers work for free so they only have to send some letters around and do the typesetting. To have the article 'in the open' you pay a staggering 3000$ for which they do nothing! Amazing

            That's pretty short-sighted. I've helped building a system for a well-known publisher which "sends some letters around" as you so succinctly describe. We've worked for it for two years, with a 10+ people team at the project peak.

            But perhaps you can do the job for free.

            • by tsa (15680)

              They don't have to do it for free, considering the outrageous fees they collect for subscriptions to their journals. The way I see it, having a popular scientific journal is just raking in money. But maybe someone can convince me that that is not the case.

  • Not a unique ability (Score:5, Interesting)

    by scdeimos (632778) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:18PM (#34495874)
    From TFA:

    The Oriental hornet has a unique ability to harvest solar energy, scientists have discovered.

    Not true. Many marine organisms use Zooanthella [wikipedia.org] to harvest solar energy. This is why a number of corals and anemone are very difficult to keep in marine aquariums - the spectrum and power of artificial light has to be "just right" otherwise the organisms eject their zooantehlla cells and as a result starve to death over the following weeks or months.

  • ...which will then be promptly shot down by patent trolls.
  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:21PM (#34495916)
    This will clearly have influence on future solar power research. I know that there are research groups trying to use insights from plant photosynthesis for building solar cells, and having another natural system that is not plant (or bacterium) based will inspire a lot of new work.

    One of the things that is most interesting is the nano-structures that are used to make light gathering more efficient. Understanding these structures could improve the efficiency of existing solar power collectors. With current genetic techniques it might even be possible to grow these structures, and perhaps even used grown material in real world applications.

    Another point is that the wasp's collection structures are yellow, not green like plant chlorophyll. The green color results from chlorophyll not using green light, but absorbing more blue end light. If the wasps look yellow, that might mean that they are efficient in a different part of the visible light spectrum.

    • by blai (1380673)
      Maximum efficiency of a solar panel is achieved when it is black (harvesting all visible light frequencies, and possibly UV/IR), so I don't see the point of making a yellow panels because we found yellow hornets.
      • I don't see the point of making a yellow panels because we found yellow hornets.

        Combine technology that absorbs everything but green with technology that absorbs everything but yellow, perhaps?

      • by pspahn (1175617)
        I have absolutly no amount of expertise in this, but I would guess that the yellow pigments are chosen because yellow is a color of warning. Maybe it also suffers from less photodegradation as well? A combination of the two possibly makes yellow the ideal choice. I dunno, but either way I'm guess it has something to do with how yellow pigments react to light.
        • by tsa (15680)

          They weren't chosen. They turned out to work. Evolution is a random process, remember?

          • by pspahn (1175617)

            I'm sorry, you're right. I tend to think of the evolutionary process as a series of choices between random (but somehow predetermined) events that are likely to occur.

            It's all science, and science is kind of logical sometimes.

        • by rjstanford (69735)

          I have absolutly no amount of expertise in this, but I would guess that the yellow pigments are chosen because yellow is a color of warning. Maybe it also suffers from less photodegradation as well? A combination of the two possibly makes yellow the ideal choice. I dunno, but either way I'm guess it has something to do with how yellow pigments react to light.

          From our perspective, we (humans) chose yellow as a color of warning because there were lots of nasty critters with yellow/red on them that killed us. Well, technically, that killed other people while we (as a species) watched, since the dead make very few social color recommendations.

        • by sjames (1099)

          I have absolutly no amount of expertise in this, but I would guess that the yellow pigments are chosen because yellow is a color of warning.

          That is quite plausible. The pigment may have been just a pigment at one time and ended up dual purposed through evolution.

    • by c0lo (1497653) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:49PM (#34496130)
      Ideas, yes (e.g. use of patterned capture surfaces, possible multiple reflections to increase the efficiency of a cell? Maybe not quite new).

      New materials? The full text [springerlink.com] version of the article (posted by someone above), mentions a measured the conversion efficiency of a xanthopterin-sensitized TiO2 solar cell to 0.335% - clearly some more work needs to be done (e.g. other substate to senzitize?).

    • No they just don't absorb all that much energy. The efficiency is like 0.335%.

    • "Another point is that the wasp's collection structures are yellow, not green like plant chlorophyll. The green color results from chlorophyll not using green light, but absorbing more blue end light. If the wasps look yellow, that might mean that they are efficient in a different part of the visible light spectrum."

      That reminds me of the time I was a college freshman and, during orientation, saw some woman giving a presentation. I've forgotten most of it by now (including the original purpose of it all),

  • One thing that puzzles me about this claim is that the light absorbing area is a relatively small part of the abdomen. If one looks at trees, you see that the leaves grow in a way that collects light rather well, with a high surface area for the infrastructure (stem, trunk, roots, etc) involved.

    Given that this is Slashdot and we're obligated by the terms of the EULA to speculate obsessively on such things, I have a few guesses. I'll assume here that the research turns out to be true (and that there's som
    • there's some chemical pathway from sunlight to [...] ATP

      Got to get my hands on that gene!

      • by khallow (566160)

        Got to get my hands on that gene!

        I'm game as long as I don't end up bright yellow.

        • by dgatwood (11270)

          Maybe this explains the Simpsons.

        • by wierd_w (1375923)

          Humans already synthesize a biomolecule that interacts with light sources. It's called Melanin. [sciencedirect.com]

          Genetic engineering to utilize melanin to produce ATP would create natural evolutionary pressure to make humans darker colored, which might piss off certain "Ethnic purity" [cough, sputter] groups, but considering that being darkly colored is widely considered normal, and even attractive, I don't see this as being a problem.

      • Because what we need in the Western world is a greater energy intake into our bodies...

        • Meanwhile in Africa...

          • Because genetically engineering your population to gather solar energy is cheaper than feeding them.

            • by rjstanford (69735)

              Because genetically engineering your population to gather solar energy is cheaper than feeding them.

              You could look at it as the ultimate application of the "teach a man to fish" principle, I suppose.

            • by sjames (1099)

              Certainly not cheaper, but more resistant to the whims of government.

    • by c0lo (1497653)
      TFA is puzzling in this respect:

      Until now, insects were thought to perform metabolism in an organ known as the fat body, which performs a similar function to the human liver.
      Most of the fat body is in an insect's abdomen surrounding the gut, where it can quickly take up absorbed nutrients, though some is scattered elsewhere.
      "We have found that the main metabolic activity in the Oriental hornet is actually in the yellow pigment layer," says Dr Plotkin.

      The full-text article [springerlink.com], makes no mention of the "fat body" and doesn't get a hint by what reasoning this conclusion is to be derived? The correlation between sunny conditions and hornet's digging activity is not quite a strong indication to me - I mean: ants are most active when the weather is hot, yet they apparently don't relly on capturing the solar radiation.

  • I wonder how they would go on Mars? Should we give it a go?

    Maybe not. Hard to see what we would send to kill the hornets if they got out of control.

  • by lennier (44736) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:53PM (#34496158) Homepage

    Soon every suburban house will have its own massive angry hornet array and all our problems will be over.

    • Soon every suburban house will have its own massive angry hornet array and all our problems will be over.

      "Hello (*ow*) Power Company? (*ow*) Yes, we have a slight (*ow*) problem here. I think our (*ow*) MAHA is leaking. Sure, I'll hold. (*OWWWWWWWWW*)"

  • Waspinator (Score:4, Funny)

    by hort_wort (1401963) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:55PM (#34496166)

    Terrorize!

    *gets modded down*
    "Waspinator has a headache in his whole body!"

  • It's hot as hell here, I could use some solar-powered cells on my skin.
    • by gknoy (899301)

      I think the wasps have already developed an implantation procedure, but animal human trials have met with some resistance. The implant donors have had some nasty side effects, too.

  • If the wasp gets energy directly from the Sun, does that mean it is technically a plant? (See Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan [wikipedia.org] on Farscape.)

    • by hedwards (940851)

      No. What might have to happen is an adjustment to the classification system used, but they wouldn't be plants.

      These would almost certainly still be some form of animal, they might end up being moved around, but in general plants don't relocate themselves at will in search of food.

      • They actively grow in the direction of and seek out sunlight. Does that not count?
        • Not as relocation, no.
  • To tell you the truth I wonder why doesn't every non-nocturnal anymal do this, it's sounds like something very obvious prone to evolve early in multicelular animals.

  • >The oriental hornet
    Are you telling all other hornets and wasps that have that yellow stripe is not solar linked....maybe they just never thought to look close enough, maybe they are all solar linked.

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