Creature Feature: The Solar-powered Hornet

Our Creature Feature series is brought to you through our partnerships in education and citizen science. In this post, the Biomimicry Institute shares more about what makes the oriental hornet a solar-powered marvel, as part of their mission to bring nature-inspired ideas to modern-day challenges.

Oriental hornet, Vespa orientalis
Oriental hornet in Israel. Photo by Stefano Doglio (CC BY-NC-3.0). Submitted to the Great Nature Project.

By Leon Wang and Jeanette Lim from the Biomimcry Institute

At first glance, the oriental hornet may appear alarming with its stinger and bright yellow warning coloration. This coloring marks the hornet as a venomous insect, but there is more to this pattern than meets the eye! For the oriental hornet, the yellow and brown banded sections of its exoskeleton also play a role in providing energy for daily activities.

Oriental hornets thrive in seasonal colonies in sunny and semi-arid regions from northeast Africa to southwest Asia. They live in underground nests that are built by digging into the mud and clearing out soil. Peculiarly, unlike most wasps that are more active in the early morning, the oriental hornet is most active during the middle of the day. Imagine doing all that work under the sun in that sweltering heat!

As it turns out, being hard at work when the sun is at its brightest can be useful if you’re  harnessing solar energy, which is just what an oriental hornet does.

That yellow-colored band on the hornet’s abdomen actually contains a pigment called xanthopterin that harvests sunlight. In addition, the surface of the exoskeleton above the yellow layer is covered in oval-shaped bumps that increase the effective surface area for absorbing sunlight. The brown areas on the abdomen are covered in grooves that act like a diffraction grating that helps to funnel the sun’s rays inward for better light absorption. Both the yellow and brown areas exhibit antireflection and light-trapping properties – talk about effective sunbathing!

But where does this solar energy go? Evidence shows that the oriental hornet is capable of converting the solar radiation into electrical energy. Shining a light on the hornet’s yellow band generates a small voltage inside just beneath the exoskeleton. It’s been suggested that this energy may be used to aid physical activity (digging or flight) and to help with temperature regulation. The energy may even power enzymes in the cuticle to carry out metabolic functions. No wonder these insects are always out and about in the sun!

So, what can humans learn from this resourceful strategy?

How might we apply the oriental hornet’s enlightening strategy to solve human challenges? Perhaps we could apply it in fields such as energy development, architecture, bioengineering, or mechanical engineering. For example, the adaptations of the hornet that allow it to capture sunlight and convert it to a usable energy source may inform the design of solar-powered medical devices or solar-powered machinery. The oriental hornet may teach us new and more efficient methods to harvest and utilize solar energy.

Have you ever looked to nature for inspiration to solve a problem? You can see more examples of how to learn from nature by browsing the AskNature collection of Great Nature Project photos.

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Submit your photos of oriental hornets you find, or any other living thing to the Great Nature Project. You can keep track of your observations and get community help to identify what you saw. Browse or search the photo stream to see other amazing living things.

More to learn and do:

Read more about how these hornets harness solar energy on AskNature.

Interested in classroom activities related to biomimicry? Find free resources on the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Education Network.

To learn more about the oriental hornet’s energy harvesting strategy and how we might apply it to make our human world more sustainable, check out AskNature.

Interested in contributing to AskNature? Learn more about sharing graphics, interning, and more.

Leon Wang  is obtaining his Master’s in Biomimicry at Arizona State University, and holds a B.S. in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego. He’s been volunteering with the Biomimicry Institute since Spring 2014, when he joined the AskNature team as a biological content curator. Jeanette Lim is the AskNature content coordinator and gets to talk about nature’s wonders and inspiration with other nature lovers. Her favorite animal is the hagfish.

Jeanette Lim works for the Biomimicry Institute and is a frequent guest blogger for the Great Nature Project.LeonWang- Biomimicry Institute

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