Guest Post: A Solar Powered Wasp by Daniel Arneman

If you asked a classroom full of students to name something in nature that is powered by the sun, you’d probably get a long list of plants, trees, and algae.  You MIGHT hear that cold-blooded reptiles also  capture energy from the sun to warm their bodies.

Odds are, though, your students will be surprised to learn that some wasps are solar powered, too!

Recent studies of the Oriental wasp revealed that it can actually make electricity by harvesting the suns rays as described here:

“Previously, entomologists noted that Oriental wasps, unlike other wasps and bees, are active in the afternoon rather than the morning when the sun is just rising. They also noticed that the hornet digs more intensely as the sun’s intensity increases.

The team determined that the brown shell of the hornet was made from grooves that split light into diverging beams. The yellow stripe on the abdomen is made from pinhole depressions, and contains a pigment called xanthopterin. Together, the light diverging grooves, pinhole depressions and xanthopterin change light into electrical energy. The shell traps the light and the pigment does the conversion.”

Isn’t nature amazing?

What’s even more amazing is that nature makes these buzzing solar panels using just a handful of common chemicals found in all forms of life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc.  It does the manufacturing with water-based reactions and at ambient temperatures and pressures.

Contrast that with the typical solar panel manufactured in the United States and abroad.  Though many are made from common and harmless silicon, the wafers must be processed at extremely high temperatures (3,450 degrees F!) to achieve the desired effect, consuming massive amounts of energy and resources.

Newer “thin film” solar cells are made from elements like copper, indium, gallium, and selenium – relatively rare and expensive metals that can be toxic to people.

Next time you sit down to a big salad, or bowl of vegetables, you can appreciate the fact that nature makes solar panels out of non-toxic compounds that are actually good for you.  Who would’ve guessed that a solar panel could taste delicious with Ranch Dressing?


Daniel Arneman, PhD, is an environmental analyst at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Daniel works to measure and manage the campus’s carbon footprint and he also has a passion for learning about biomimicry.


1 Response to “Guest Post: A Solar Powered Wasp by Daniel Arneman”

  1. 1 Paul January 23, 2012 at 5:31 PM

    This could be a great avenue of research for future solar energy research!

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