10 Badass Beetles and the Technology They Inspire

In honor of the International Year of Biodiversity, PM takes a look at the 10 most badass beetles on the planet. They not only look cool, their nifty adaptations are inspiring products that range from autonomous vehicles to next-gen fire extinguishers.

In honor of the International Year of Biodiversity, PM takes a look at the 10 most badass beetles on the planet. They not only look cool, their nifty adaptations are inspiring products that range from autonomous vehicles to next-gen fire extinguishers.
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1. Jewel Beetles
Insect collectors and beetle-wing jewelry artisans prize the glittery, iridescent critters in the family Buprestidae, commonly known as jewel beetles. In the future, carmakers and minters may come to appreciate these beetles as well. A paper published in the journal Science last year described how a species of jewel beetle generates its shiny green color via a lattice of five-, six- and seven-sided cell structures. These cells reflect light like a liquid crystal, making them attractive from a design perspective for optical engineering applications. Potential applications include car paints that change color based on viewing angle and shiny seals for use as currency security measures.
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2.Rhinoceros Beetles
The males in subfamily Dynastinae have protruding, gnarly horns, hence their name, and can grow up to six and a half inches long. In many parts of the world, gamblers pit these beetles in fights, and in Japan people can buy them as pets from roadside vending machines. Rhinoceros beetles also have received popular acclaim as perhaps the proportionally strongest creatures on Earth, with some species said to be able to lift over 800 times their weight. The key to their strength, as well as that of other insects, is their bodily construction. "Unlike vertebrates with a skeleton on the inside and muscles on the outside, invertebrates have their muscles on the inside and an exoskeleton on the outside, so these beetles are almost built like a robot, in a way," University of Nebraska entomologist Brett Ratcliffe says. Research funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to make them downright cyborgs. Scientists at UC Berkeley have implanted electrodes and fitted radio receivers on large scarab beetles—the family that includes rhinoceros beetles—enabling them to be remote-controlled while in flight. These biomechanical beasties could someday aid in surveillance or search-and-rescue missions.
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3. Dung Beetles
As their name implies, dung beetles spend an awful lot of time in, among and consuming dung. "Because of this microbe-rich habitat, dung beetles are likely to possess a highly potent immune system," says Monde Ntwasa, senior lecturer of natural science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. "This habitat is occupied by human pathogens as well, and the dung beetle lives in it comfortably," Ntwasa notes. Accordingly, researchers have studied the dung beetle as a source of new antibiotics and microbe-fighting agents. Ntwasa and his colleagues are building a genetic database for the species Euoniticellus intermedius to isolate and study genes related to infection response. No products from dung beetles are in clinical trials yet, but may be in the near future, Ntwasa says. Besides these potential medicinal payoffs, dung beetles benefit human agriculture. Some species roll the feces they find into balls, while others bury it in tunnels. In this dung-hungry zeal, the beetles keep fields clear of manure that could become home for pest species, and also work fertilizer down into the soil.
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4.Whirligig Beetles
The streamlined black beetles in the family Gyrinidae have divided eyes for seeing both above and below the watery surfaces where they live. But what has really caught researchers' attention is whirligig beetles' habit of swimming in circles when threatened, hunting and performing mating displays. Unlike flexible-bodied creatures such as fish or sea lions, the beetles have fixed, unbending exoskeletons, making them more akin to a rigid-hulled vessel. "They are very much like a boat, with parts of their body above water and parts below water," says William Romey, a biologist at SUNY Potsdam. Yet whirligigs can spin remarkably tight circles using their legs or even their wings for propulsion. "The beetle is not as maneuverable as a flexible organism, but it's better than standard AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles] out there now that don't have very good turning radiuses," says West Chester University biologist Frank Fish, who has studied whirligigs. Down the road, engineers could make dual aquatic/terrestrial vehicles based on whirligig beetles that have the advantage of legs for swimming and for walking about on land, Fish says. The way that swarms of whirligigs organize themselves could also contribute to future innovation: "[N]autical engineers, sailboat racers and perhaps naval tacticians might gain insight into their grouping patterns," Romey says.
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5. Harlequin Beetles
The species Acrocinus longimanus, commonly called a harlequin beetle for its snazzy coloration, can be found in Mexico and South America. The males' oversize forelegs—which are often longer than the beetles' whole bodies—stretch several inches, serving as sexual displays as well as aiding in climbing trees. In 2003, French scientists isolated novel antifungal agents from the harlequin beetle, which must contend with various fungi sharing its living space on tropical tree trunks. These agents could lead to new medicines to fight high-mortality, drug-resistant Candida, or yeast infections that have been on the rise among hospital inpatients.
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6. Bombardier Beetles
When attacked, bombardier beetles—in the ground beetle family Carabidae—blast their assailants with a series of boiling-hot toxic sprays from the tips of their abdomens. To produce these pulsed detonations, which can make an audible "pop" sound, the beetles mix chemicals stored in separate glands in a pair of combustion chambers. The resulting reaction forces hot fluid through an "exhaust valve" in the beetle's exoskeleton. Some African species of the beetle have nozzles that pivot, allowing the bombardier to fire with great accuracy in virtually any direction. The beetle's intricate defensive mechanism has translated into a technology called µMist, licensed by the company Swedish Biomimetics 3000 Ltd, which allows for precise control of spray particle size and temperature. Applications include improved fuel-injection systems in automobiles as well as next-generation fire extinguishers and drug delivery systems such as nebulizers, says Andy McIntosh, a professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory at the University of Leeds in the U.K. Though still in the prototype phase, products could be on the market in five to 10 years.
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7. Great Diving Beetle
The great diving beetle is one of the biggest aquatic beetles in the world, growing as long as an inch and a half. This fierce predator, in the family Dytiscidae, will feast on whatever it can sink its jaws into, including small frogs and fish. Though it can still fly, and does so to find new watery feeding grounds, the great diving beetle spends much of its time underwater. To keep from drowning, the beetles have tiny hairs on their abdomens that keep water away from their spiracles, which are the openings to their respiratory systems. "The analogy is a bed-of-nails effect," says Glen McHale, a physicist at Nottingham Trent University. Whereas a single nail can pierce one's skin, lying on a bed of nails spreads the pressure across many nails, so the skin—in this case, the surface of the water surrounding the bristly beetle—is not broken. This phenomenon forms a thin, silvery-looking layer of air, called a plastron, through which oxygen diffuses in and carbon dioxide diffuses out. McHale and his colleagues in Britain, where the great diving beetle is common, have investigated how to apply this behavior to synthetic materials. The hope is to create artificial gills for human use, but keeping oxygen levels from dipping too low appears tricky. A more likely tech derivative: hydrogen fuel cell–powered submersible devices that could pull oxygen right out of the water to make energy.
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8. Cyphochilus Beetles
Beetles in the Cyphochilus genus have a brilliant white color to camouflage themselves amidst the pearly fungi found in their Southeast Asian habitat. Most animals (and objects) get their hue from pigments and ordered structures that absorb and reflect certain wavelengths, or colors, of light. For its ghostly complexion, however, Cyphochilus relies on chaos: The beetles' scales have filaments that are actually disordered to the point of randomness, which effectively scatters incoming light to produce the color white. "It was truly revelatory seeing this," says Pete Vukusic, a physicist at the University of Exeter and lead author of a 2007 Science study on the findings. Significant from a tech angle, the beetles create this opaque, bright whiteness using structures 100 times thinner than those found in common synthetic whiteners. In research published last year, Vukusic and his colleagues studied this phenomenon for use in manufacturing a new kind of ultra-white coating for office paper. Other potential applications include paints and whitening agents that could be used on everything from billboard displays to teeth.
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9. Namib Desert Beetles
Beetles in the genus Stenocara that dwell in Namibia's Namib Desert have evolved an ingenious method for obtaining water in this arid region. Their wings are textured in super-hydrophilic (extremely water-attracting) bumps as well as super-hydrophobic (water-repellant) valleys that together wick vapor right out of the wind. Beads of vital moisture condense on this surface, eventually growing large enough to overcome the forces pinning them to the superhydrophilic regions. "The droplets then roll down the beetle's arched back to its mouth for a fresh drink of water," explains Michael Rubner, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In a 2006 Nano Letters study, Rubner and fellow MIT scientist Robert Cohen reported mimicking this exquisite water collection and control technique using layers of nanoparticles. Now, the researchers have paired with University of Oxford scientist Andrew Parker to further develop materials based on the Namib Desert beetle that could help harvest moisture from dew and fog for human consumption, especially in underdeveloped countries.
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10. Spanish Fly
Of course, not all beetles are beneficial: Some pests, such as the pine borer and the Asian long-horned beetle, have devastated vast swathes of forest (though as PM reported last year, the latter's stomachs could hold a secret to cheap biofuel). An interesting case of the good with the bad is the infamous Spanish fly. Actually an emerald-colored beetle, the Spanish fly is part of the blister beetle family Meloidae, so named for their defensive secretion of the chemical cantharidin that irritates animal flesh. Physicians use the compound to blister the skin to remove warts, and cantharidin has been proposed as a tumor-fighting agent as well. Spanish fly's far-better known use, however, is as a dicey aphrodisiac. When consumed, cantharidin inflames the urinary tract, and by extension swells genitalia as well. Downing just a bit too much ground-up Spanish fly can cause men to suffer priapisms, or painfully prolonged erections, and in higher doses cantharidin can be outright fatal. For these reasons, potions and powders made from Spanish fly are illegal for human use in the United States, though livestock raisers occasionally dole it out to encourage farm animals to mate.
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