How busy bees and ants could help save our cities

By studying the behaviour of bees, town planners may learn a thing of two. Photo: Ben Rushton Ants may provide some of the answers that elude our best minds. Photo: SMH contributor
Nanjing Night Net

Much can be learnt from bees at work. Photo: magic1278南京夜网419论坛

Insect researcher Eliza Middleton of Sydney University. Photo: Rex Walton

Next time you’re stuck in a frustrating traffic jam, spare a thought for the humble ant. The behaviour of these tiny but tenacious creatures might hold the key to better traffic management systems.

Ants, along with bees and other social insects, could help town planners solve bottlenecks in city infrastructure and urban renewal, Australian scientists have revealed.

The business of foraging for food, building nests and trails and growing colonies were all skills from which city planners could learn.

“I think of insects as efficient, almost intelligent, in some ways,” Sydney University biologist Eliza Middleton said. “We could use the lessons from these creatures to inform and improve our town planning.”

An ant colony, for example, might be trading off between the costs of efficiency and redundancy, said Dr Middleton, who reviewed a range of insect studies for an upcoming publication.

In the ant known as Lasius niger, traffic congestion was prevented by actively redirecting traffic to additional trails, she explained.

“If humans could develop a similar strategy, perhaps as a part of our online navigation systems – think of Google Maps – we could achieve a more even spread of traffic across our road networks,” Dr Middleton said. “In this way, we could potentially lower or prevent congestion in some areas.”

The lessons to be learnt from the social insect realm did not end there.

Several species have inactive workers with the potential to replace lost workers, for instance.

In honeybees, when working members are lost, the remaining individuals can switch tasks to fill the labour gaps.

“In honeybees, individuals can mature faster to help with foraging tasks earlier in life if workers are lost,” Dr Middleton said. “This could be useful in human infrastructure if our systems had a level of flexibility that allowed units to be temporarily reassigned to other tasks in the event of a disturbance.”

Honeybees resist the degradation of their communication networks using anything from a waggle dance to auditory, vibrational, tactile and olfactory cues.

“In a human system, the presence of inactive servers or power grids would allow us to better respond to disturbances, such as a natural disaster, as the inactive units become activated,” Dr Middleton said.

This comes at a price. The high cost of building and maintaining such technologies needed to be weighed against the potential benefit of such systems, she cautioned.

“With the rise of ‘smart’ electronics and appliances that can collect and exchange data, our infrastructure systems are becoming more self-organised and less centralised,” she said. This is also observed in social insect systems.

“These smart systems have the potential to revolutionise sustainable energy, but they pose unique problems that, perhaps, insect systems can answer,” Dr Middleton said.

So how do we build self-healing systems that respond quickly to damage? The answer, she believes, might lie in the self-healing nature of ant trails of pheromones, chemical substances used in communicating.

“Argentine ants constantly lay new pheromone trails as they walk, allowing them to repair broken trails,” Dr Middleton said.

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