The adult citrus root weevils feed citrus leaves, but the larvae do the most damage. USDA photo by Keith Weller.

Adult citrus root weevils feed on citrus leaves, but the larvae do the most damage. Can biomimicry help control crop pests? USDA photo by Keith Weller.

I just started a fun and challenging project: Acting as the consulting biological researcher on a project that will use biomimicry. Because part of the reason I’m writing articles for Make: is to tell you about what biomimicry is and how it’s done, you might enjoy a walk through the BioBrainstorming process. If you are looking for innovative or more sustainable ways to do 3D printing, network with other people, incorporate feedback loops into your electronic projects, and more, then you’ll want to try BioBrainstorming to find inspiration.

Yes, BioBrainstorming is a made-up word. It involves coming up with a lot of biological models that might inspire ideas for solving the client’s challenge. And by “a lot,” I mean 30 to 70 potential models, which later I can narrow down to the most valuable strategies for further research. In my first Make: article, I explained biomimicry and talked about how AskNature is organized by function: “Doing biomimicry requires understanding not what your design will be but what it needs to do. Therefore, we organized nature’s strategies according to functions that innovators might want to accomplish. So when people come to AskNature, they’re looking for the answer to ‘How does nature______?’”hownature_frog_make02

Therefore, what I need is a quick list of organisms and ecosystems that are doing what my client wants to do. I can’t share the client’s name or what the challenge is, so I’ve made up a challenge that’s related to the upcoming Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. (I’ll write more about that in January.) What my fictional client wants to do is find ways to control crop pests, specifically insects, without using chemistry that is harmful to life. Here’s how I would approach this challenge.

One of the first things I’ll do is visit AskNature. I’ll want to state my challenge in functional terms, so that I can use the Biomimicry Taxonomy (you can see the Biomimicry Taxonomy when you click on Explore on the AskNature home page).

Biomimicry Taxonomy results from AskNature.org.

Biomimicry Taxonomy results from AskNature.org.

  • How does nature protect from insects? (In AskNature, I’ll have to look for strategies under the function “protect from animals.” That will give me a lot more strategies than just protecting from insects, but that’s OK because sometimes we find inspiration from other organisms’ strategies.)
  • How does nature capture organisms?
  • How does nature do biological control of populations, pests, or diseases? (This is in a section of the Biomimicry Taxonomy on providing ecosystem services.)

OK, simple enough. Next, I want to take some indirect approaches to my question, because those often stimulate ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.

  • How does nature attract insects? (Maybe I can attract insects away from my crops.)
  • How does nature maintain diversity? (As an ecologist, I know that diversity is important for maintaining balance in a system, e.g., a balance between insect pests and their predators.)
Mimulus flower photographed in visible light (left) and ultraviolet light (right) showing a nectar guide visible to bees but not to humans. Photo by Plantsurfer, CC-by-SA.

Mimulus flower in visible light (left) and ultraviolet light (right) showing a nectar guide visible to insects but not humans. Could we learn from insect attractants to lure insects away from crops? Photo by Plantsurfer, CC-by-SA.

Besides using AskNature, I can also do some other things besides sit at the computer. I can go for a walk outside with my challenge and my “How does nature____?” questions in mind. I can visit a botanical garden, find an entomologist who loves to ponder these types of questions, and watch nature videos about insects while I munch on popcorn.

Another trick is to type my function into Google Images and see what photos come up. Here’s what I found when I searched “capture insects”: Spider webs, insect-eating plants, ant lion sand traps, a variety of predators like birds and wasps, and a product called a pheromone trap that uses a chemical that attracts insects. When I entered “attract insects,” I found some other interesting ideas: Glow worms that use light to attract insects, lights in general attract insects (Duh! Even little kids know that. And those swarming insects at lights also attract their predators, like bats.), and that some plants attract insects more than others. Wondering why that is can lead you to look into it more for potential solutions.

Through this process, if I’ve asked the right “How does nature. ____?” questions, I should easily come up with 30 to 70 organisms. From there, it’s a matter of narrowing down the list and organizing it in a way that the client can use to select the best ones for further research.

You can try this BioBrainstorming with your own projects. Let’s say you’re interested in learning about feedback loops in nature. You could start by asking, “How does nature use feedback loops?” However, there is no function in AskNature about feedback loops, so instead you should try searching for the term “feedback” on AskNature. Then, you can get creative on other functions that could fit your challenge, including:

  • How does nature sense signals/environmental cues?
  • How does nature respond to signals?

I’d also try this one:

  • How does nature coordinate activities?

Once you get good at asking the right question, you can find many models in nature to choose among. Here’s one of my favorite strategies, that just happens to fit both of these challenges. It’s about how the leaves of an acacia tree release a distasteful chemical when browsed on by herbivores. Not only that, they send a signal to other trees nearby, which also release the chemical, thus protecting themselves from browsing. How cool is that? Playing around with that strategy could lead to some innovative solutions to the pest control problem.

How acacias signal to each other when browsed on by giraffes. Illustration by Emily Harrington of eh illustration, http://www.ehillustration.com, All rights reserved; used with permission.

How acacias signal to each other when browsed on by giraffes. Illustration by Emily Harrington of eh illustration, http://www.ehillustration.com, all rights reserved; used with permission.