Scientists Study How Ladybugs Fold Wings: Discovery Could Lead To More Advanced Umbrellas

A team of Japanese scientists has made some interesting discoveries about ladybug wings. And based on these findings, the unusual way in which these insects fold their wings could have a wide range of potential applications, from aeronautic and engineering advances to improved umbrellas.

According to the Telegraph, researchers have long been fascinated by the peculiar mannerisms of ladybugs. As it is impossible to see through the insects’ elytra, or spotty forewings, no one had been able to understand how ladybugs fold their wings, which involves hiding the wings in “complex origami-like folds beneath its carapace,” then opening them once again into a “fixed, strong membrane” as they fly.

That all changed with the new study, which involved a novel way for researchers to see through ladybug wings. The scientists involved were able to come up with a see-through forewing made up of transparent resin, which they then transplanted onto ladybugs, allowing them to see how the folding and unfolding of the wings actually takes place. In particular, the researchers were interested in finding out how these wings remain strong and firm while ladybugs are in flight.

What could be especially interesting is the potential of the new findings to lead to the creation of more advanced umbrellas, according to University of Tokyo Institute of Industrial Science assistant professor Kazuya Saito, who led the study.

“I believe that beetle wing folding has the potential to change the umbrella design that has been basically unchanged for more than 1,000 years.”

Although it may be odd to correlate ladybug wings to umbrellas and how they work, Saito explained that ladybugs are so unusual because their wings are flexible and elastic, yet able to transform so easily despite the complexity involved. This is in contrast to the traditional transformable structures that would normally need joints and other rigid features to work like they do.

“Frames of collapsible umbrellas have many parts and easily to be broken at joints. The ladybug umbrella will be made by seamless flexible frames therefore indestructible even in strong wind, and able to be deployed very quickly by using stored elastic energy.”

A report from NPR further explained how Saito and his team had created the ersatz ladybug wings — in short, it was a matter of replacing the original red and black wing elytra with a transparent case made out of ultraviolet-cured resin. Saito noted that the material is typically used for nail art, and while he had his doubts at first as to whether he would be able to view the wing action behind the artificial elytra, everything turned out as planned, much to his surprise.

With that one key obstacle out of the way, the researchers then recorded their observations on the ladybug wings with high-speed cameras, and made use of CT scans of the folded and unfolded wings to see how the whole mechanism works. As it turns out, the process works a lot like origami does, something that Saito’s team was able to back up when they used origami paper to recreate some of the wing folds.

It seems well and good that the new breakthrough could be the key to creating better umbrellas. But as Saito explained, there’s more to it than just umbrellas when it comes to the peculiar and now less mysterious way in which ladybugs fold and unfold their wings.

“The ladybugs’ technique for achieving complex folding is quite fascinating and novel, particularly for researchers in the fields of robotics, mechanics, aerospace and mechanical engineering.”

Saito also explained that ladybug wing mechanisms could specifically inspire the design of advanced aircraft wings, folding antennas, and solar arrays for spacecraft, and, as mentioned above, better and more useful umbrellas.

[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]