Ants interacting with each other.

How insects are solving our problems in the city

4 September 2017

How can insects, slime mould and other brainless organisms help us plan transport systems and build the smart cities of the future? Dr Tanya Latty explains in this Open for Discussion podcast episode.

Insects make up 75 percent of life on Earth. Can insects and other brainless organisms inform next-generation engineering, optimal transport systems and help us build the smart cities of the future?

An entomologist and head of the Insect Behaviour and Ecology Lab at the University of Sydney, Dr Tanya Latty, joins our host Dr Chris Neff in the latest Open for Discussion episode to explain what we can learn from Nature.

Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: Dr Tanya Latty
Producers: Vivienne Reiner, Verity Leatherdale
Editor: Caitlin Gibson

Dr Tanya Latty
Dr Tanya Latty is an entomologist with a special interest in insect behaviour and ecology. She is a Research and Teaching Fellow at the University's School of Life and Environmental Sciences.
Photo directly above and right sourced from University of Sydney. Top of page: By Vinayaraj CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Photo directly above and right sourced from University of Sydney. Top of page: By Vinayaraj CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To get you prepared for the episode, Dr Latty shares three fascinating facts about insects: 

Ants are architects

Ants run flexible, decentralised societies where no-one is in charge; yet we may be able to learn from them how to build resilient transportation systems. 

There are 5-10 million insect species 

Already one million species of insects have been identified but the vast majority of insects are waiting to be discovered.

People have identified at best potentially 20 percent of the insects in existence.

Most animals are beetles

The vast majority of animals on the planet are insects - and one in four animals is a beetle.

You could say that the humble beetle dominates our world.

Full transcript

(Music plays.)

Chris Neff: You're listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast that discusses research through a personal and critical lens. I'm your host, Chris Neff.

Usually we begin each discussion with a question to our guest but today I'd like to begin with a question to our listeners. What do you know about insects, slime mould and other brainless organisms? Did you know that they comprise the majority of life on earth? Did you know they inform next generation engineering, optimal transport systems and help us build resilient metropolises?

With me today is Dr Tanya Latty, an entomologist and head of the Insect, Behaviour and Ecology Lab at The University of Sydney's School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Thank you for joining us Tanya.

Dr Tanya Latty: Thanks for having me.

Chris Neff: So can I begin by asking how you got into insects? This is a niche within a niche but it's fantastic.

Dr Tanya Latty: Yeah...yeah, it's great. It's a great job. I don't really remember when I got into insects. I've sort of always been that way since I was a little kid catching things and bringing them home to my parents and then they'd escape and they'd freak out.

They're just, they're fascinating organisms. They're hyper diverse, you've got insects that can eat almost anything you can imagine. You know ... some of them have wings, some of them are burrowing in the ground and really if you like animals, insects make up 75 percent of animal life so you kind of have to like insects too.

Chris Neff: Insects make up 75 percent of animal life?

Dr Tanya Latty: At least 75 percent. It's probably higher than that because we haven't actually identified the vast majority of insects on the planet.


Chris Neff: That's brilliant. So how popular is entomology? Do we know much about insects?

Dr Tanya Latty: Well ... I'd say entomology is relatively popular. You get lots of really strong communities of amateurs going out and catching butterflies and bees. But yeah we actually know very, very little about insects in general.

So I'm going to ask you a question, how many many different types of insects do you reckon there are on the planet?

Chris Neff: Oh gosh ...

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs.)

Chris Neff: ... I'm on the spot. A lot. Many.

Dr Tanya Latty: ... A lot.

Chris Neff: ... There are many species.

Dr Tanya Latty: Well there's about 1 million that we've identified but we estimate there's between 5 and 10 million species of insects altogether. That's huge but what should be really striking there is that we don't really know, so between 5 and 10 million is a huge, huge difference.

So we've probably only identified at best maybe 20 percent of them and not just in rainforests and things. There's this neat study a few years ago in LA where they got citizen scientists to put up collectors all over their backyards and they found 30 new species of insects in urban LA. So it's a highly urbanised city, by no means is this like a rainforest of diversity and 30 new species so there's lots of insects and we know almost nothing about most of them.

You know, 25 percent of animal life are beetles. They're the biggest group of organisms that we have.

Chris Neff: So 75 percent of the animal life was insects and then 25 percent of that is beetles alone?

Dr Tanya Latty: No: 25 percent of animals are beetles, not 25 percent of insects ... 25 percent of basically everything.

Chris Neff: Ohhhh ...

Dr Tanya Latty: So most animals are beetles really. Beatles are in charge of the world.

Chris Neff: OK. Very interesting. Now can I ask you about slime mould?

Dr Tanya Latty: Yeah, of course.

Chris Neff: OK. ‘Cause I'm wondering what they are and why they're important?

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs.) Well slime moulds are probably the closest thing we have to aliens on the planet. They are so bizarre ... they're like ... if you imagine just a gigantic blob of moving mucus, that's pretty much what a slime mould is.

So they have no brain, they have no neurons, they have no central information processing of any kind, but we know from experiments by some of my collaborators in Japan that they can solve mazes for example.

And more than that, if you take a map of a metro system, so in this case it's the Tokyo metro system, and you put little bits of food over all the stations and then let the slime mould connect up those points however it wants to, it typically will be able to connect those exactly like the metro system that we actually use.

So this takes engineers and computers lots of time to come up with these yet the slime mould’s able to do it despite the fact it has no brain. And so a lot of the research I've been doing in my group is to try to understand first of all how slime moulds are able to do anything at all really given that they have no brains, but also to start to look at the huge numbers of different behaviours and problems that slime moulds can solve despite the fact they have no brain. But most people don't even know that they exist.

Chris Neff: So where should we look to find a slime mould?

Dr Tanya Latty: …weirdly ...

Chris Neff: I've probably been missing slime moulds my whole life and I didn't know it.

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs.) Well you're not alone. So I've got a student currently who's going out and sampling to try to learn a bit about slime mould ecology and she just goes out and finds leaf litter. So leaf litters in the city and it's basically anywhere and she's starting to find slime moulds there. Weirdly one of the best sources of slime moulds I've found are dried banana peels. No idea why.

Chris Neff: Ohh ... OK, very interesting. Now can I ask you a personal question?

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs.) That's worrying. Yes.

Chris Neff: What is your favourite insect and why?

Dr Tanya Latty: That's a really hard question to answer because some days I love praying mantises ... today I'd say probably my favourite is a species of ant called a meat ant. Meat ants are all over Australia. They're pretty aggressive so if you harass them they all come running out and try to bite you. But they build really cool transportation networks by cutting all the grass along their path, their trails. So right now I'm kind of fascinated by meat ants so I'd say that they're my favourite but some days it's cockroaches, some days it's mantises ... it's kind of all over the map. There's so much to like in the insects, it's hard to pick.

Chris Neff: How much of your work focuses on ants?

Dr Tanya Latty: Yeah a lot of it. It depends ... it sort of varies year to year but ants are super important for a lot of ecosystems. They also have really cool behaviour so ... for example ants have evolved agricultures. So there are several different species of ants that actually have what are very similar to farms.


In some of them it's these little tiny sap-sucking insects called aphids that suck out plant juices. And they secrete this sort of sugary food source that the ants harvest. Kind of the way human farmers look after cows, dairy cows. And they'll protect those herds of aphids from predators, they'll move them to better places if they need to. In some species those aphids are so important for the colony that when a new queen is born and she's flying off to go start her own colony, she'll actually take one of the little aphids with her to start a new herd.

It's amazing when you think that most species of ants have brains smaller than the head of a pin yet they've got these sophisticated colonies, sophisticated systems that they're able to run.

Chris Neff: Can I ask what is the research application of the work that you're doing, so when you're dealing with ants or when you're dealing with slime moulds?

Dr Tanya Latty: Well one of the things that we're really interested in is trying to take ideas from these natural systems and then apply them to human systems. So ... for example we know that ants are running these amazing, decentralised societies where you know ... nobody is in charge and there's no blueprint yet; they're able to run all these things and it would be great if we could take some of that and use it to apply to our increasingly decentralised computer systems for example.


We can also learn about how to build better transportation systems for example. So ... we're trying to apply that and to do that I work with a lot with computer scientists and people in civil engineering, mathematicians to try to make that transition from things we learn about the natural world and put it on human systems.

Chris Neff: So how often do you see the behaviour of ... you know ants or a bee swarm and you think OK ... this is a group of people or I've seen this behaviour?

Dr Tanya Latty: Well that ... that part happens all the time so there's lots of times when I'm watching a natural system and I go ahh ... that's brilliant! We can use that. The difficulty then though is really taking it and making it something that works for humans because of course ants aren't humans. They're optimising different things.

It's more that if we figure out how brainless systems are able to do these kinds of problems, we can take those algorithms that are driving their behaviour and then we can use those to optimise our systems instead. Especially for these really large scale, optimisation problems where our current computer algorithms struggle a little bit. So we're not asking the systems directly, we're using them as inspiration to extract algorithms that we can then use.

One of the best examples is something called an ant colony optimisation algorithm based on the way ants harvest foods. So when an ant finds a really nice food source, she lays this chemical trail back to her nest and the other ants will find that trail and it allows them to focus on food sources.

They took that general idea and then started using it to optimise computer systems. So ... we're just trying to find other versions of that and new examples that we can use.

Chris Neff: What do you think ... what would be the dream application of the work that you're doing based on what you know?

Dr Tanya Latty: OK. I think if everything went exactly the way I'd like it to go, I'd love to be able to look back in say 5 years and say here's an algorithm that we developed from watching say the meat ants optimise their transportation networks. Or now we're using it to help coordinate autonomous vehicles so that we reduce traffic load. That would be kind of the dream application.

Chris Neff: It seems like there's a lot that we can learn from the resilience of these different insects or different creatures. What are some examples of the bio-inspired engineering that are built in our cities?

Dr Tanya Latty: Well one of the really good examples is architecture. So there's a building in Harare, Zimbabwe that was inspired by the termite mounds you get in the deserts. Because it gets so hot and so dry in the desert, these termite mounds have this passive cooling system that allows them to expel heat and keep the middle of the colony at a nice constant temperature, no matter how hot ... well within certain ranges of temperatures outside.

And so architects took that general idea of passive cooling and built buildings that can now do the same thing. So they're able to use a lot less air conditioning, even on hot days, than a normal building would be able to.

So it's really about looking at all of these systems, figuring out what they do really well and then picking and choosing our inspiration because at the end of the day we know very, very, very little about the vast majority of ants and the species out there. So there could be all sorts of inspiration just hiding there that we're just missing because we haven't started to study them. So we really need to start looking and embracing that huge diversity of solutions that could be out there.

(Music plays.)

Chris Neff: You're listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast that discusses research through a personal and critical lens. I'm your host, Chris Neff. Today I'm having a fascinating discussion with entomologist, Dr Tanya Latty.

Tanya can I ask about some of the other areas that you work in and what some of the other applications of your research are?

Dr Tanya Latty: Sure. So we currently have a student looking at how we can rear insects as a form of protein. So not only for livestock but potentially for humans.

Insects are really high in protein, they're low in fat, you can rear heaps of them with a very small environmental footprint and you can rear them anywhere. So you can imagine having skyscrapers of mealworm farms in the middle of your city without using any new agricultural land.

But in particular we're super interested about being able to develop techniques for rearing insects on waste streams. So for example all the things that get thrown out during agriculture, all the things that people throw out – so food scraps, things that we normally compost – we might be able to use those to rear insects that we can then feed either to our livestock or potentially even to ourselves. So it's a nice way of being able to close that loop and make everything more efficient and more sustainable.

Chris Neff: Can we just pause on the food...

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs.)

Chris Neff: ... insect food...

Dr Tanya Latty: Yum! (Laughs.)

Chris Neff: I mean ... cause I am totally ... I mean put it in a bar. I mean that's all I'm saying is if you're going to do insect protein, put it in a bar. I'll eat anything...

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs.)

Chris Neff: ... I'm American. I'll eat anything you put in a chocolate bar.

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs.) Yep there's lots of chocolate covered insects. Actually dry roasted with chilli powder crickets, pretty good.

Chris Neff: OK, alright, noted.

Dr Tanya Latty: My recommendation to you!

Chris Neff: Can I follow up for a moment ... you said bioconverters to deal with waste streams. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? Is this something that you're doing with the behaviour and ecology lab?

Dr Tanya Latty: Yes this is pretty cool stuff because we generate heaps and heaps of waste, most of it goes to landfill and it turns out that insects are really good ... ah some species of insect are really good at breaking down that food waste and turning it into protein which we can then use to feed livestock or people.

So we've got projects on a species of insect called a black soldier fly. They're really good at breaking down food wastes and they end up being very high in proteins so you can feed them to things.

There's research in other labs, really exciting, new research that shows that this little caterpillar called a wax worm can degrade plastics. Other experiments have shown that say mealworms can break down Styrofoam.

So there's this huge potential that we could be using insects to break down all of these products rapidly and then hopefully we can actually use the insects themselves for protein so it's kind of a new area we've started getting into. We've got a few students working on different aspects of getting those types of bio-conversion systems up and running for waste management and protein production.

Chris Neff: Well this sounds like very exciting research and we're lucky to have you here at The University of Sydney ...

Dr Tanya Latty: (Laughs)

Chris Neff: ... to learn more about sort of animal systems and the way that they impact human systems. Can I ask about bees? What can bees tell us?

Dr Tanya Latty: Yeah so we've studied a few different aspects of bee behaviour. On one hand it's interesting to watch how bees choose amongst lots of different flowers because in a bee colony ... or in an environment there's lots of different patches of flowers and the bees are very, very good at selecting the most rewarding patches.

They do this by this really incredible communication mechanism they have called a waggle dance. And so a bee, by waggle dancing, it's able to tell the bees following that dance the direction of a food source relative to the sun; so the bees know exactly where to go; the length of a waggle tells the observing bees how far to travel; and how excitedly they kind of do that dance and how many circuits they do tells them how good that resource is.

So they have this really neat communication system that lets them exploit patches of good food really quickly and so again part of what we do is trying to understand how resilient that system is in terms of what happens when you disrupt the communication system, what happens when the environment changes and then trying to get a sense of the algorithms that those bee colonies are using.

And of course bees are super important for pollination so 75 percent of our crops are pollinated by bees and almost everything that we like to eat, all the delicious crops are insect pollinated so we really need to get a handle on bee systems. So our work is partly learning about bees and other systems that we can use what we learn from them and technology systems but another strand of our research is trying to understand say the resilience of honey bee colonies so we can understand why they collapse sometimes and then we can prevent that.

Chris Neff: The conservationist in me asks one overall question which is if any of this is going to work, if you're going to learn from them, be inspired by them, be able to apply it to any kind of human activity, then you have to appreciate it ...

Dr Tanya Latty: (Mmmm.)

Chris Neff: ... and then not treat it as a pest species that you want to eradicate or that you let passively or actively go extinct. To what extent is that an issue ‘cause you sort of mention that we know about millions of species but there's lots that we don't know.

Dr Tanya Latty: Yeah I think the big risk is that we are starting to lose species at a really alarming rate. Some of those species will never have had names and most of them will never have been studied. So even if from a totally selfish sort of, not thinking about bio-diversity angle, we are losing all of that information, we are losing all of that potential inspiration and we don't even know that it exists.

So it's a huge problem I think and yeah ... it's not that it's the only reason that we should consider biodiversity but again from a selfish perspective, it's a good reason. We need to look after the planet a lot better than we are.

Chris Neff: That's a great note to leave it on ...

(Music plays.)

... ahh but thank you so much for joining us on Open for Discussion Dr Tanya Latty.

Dr Tanya Latty: Oh thank you.

Chris Neff: Thank you for joining us on Open for Discussion. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud and you can find me on Twitter @christopherneff. If you'd like to know more about our research be sure to visit our website

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