Beetles to Bees to Bacteria Fighters: Nature’s Teachers

Ever since Leonardo da Vinci drew a flying machine patterned after birds’ wings, humans have looked to nature for good ideas.  And why not, as biologist Janine Benyus says, since Mother Nature has been perfecting her designs for 3.8 billion years while we humans have barely arrived on the planet. This year’s speaker for the 13th annual Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability at the University of Michigan, Janine Benyus’s topic,A Sustainable World Already Exists, was all about looking outdoors.

While the word biomimicry is now a global term, Benyus was the one who coined it with her first book in 1997, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  Benyus has written five more books on the subject since and co-founded the world’s first consultancy bringing nature’s sustainable designs to over 250 clients, many of them Fortune 500 companies.

The many national honors she’s won, including Time Magazine’s Hero for the Planet in 2008, attest to her passion for sustainability by educating people about where the best designs have already been created and tested.  Mimicking the cochlear shape of a calla lily, for instance, led a method for circulating water than cleans it with less chlorine.

Then there are the beetles that teach humans in parched lands how to make water out of fog.  Fireflies have shown LED makers how to make their bulbs produce 55% more light.  And why can appliance manufacturers now make their products talk to each other calling for only the energy needed?  At peek hours there’s enough energy but at down times the appliances reduce their energy draw by mimicking the swarm technology of bees and ants.

Steelcase, Inc., the company founded by Peter Martin Wege, is turning to sharks to make their office furniture healthier.  The microscopic ridged texture of sharkskin rejects bacteria.  By copying the shark’s skin pattern, Steelcase can manufacture their products’ surfaces with germ-resistant finish.

Janine Benyus’s mission is much bigger than new products.  She knows that the more we learn from Mother Nature, the more we’ll want to protect her.

Janine Benyus, the biologist who coined the word ‘biomimicry,’ is pictured at the lectern giving the 13th Annual Peter M. Wege Lecture in Sustainability at the University of Michigan March 31, 2014.
From the left, Jack Hu, U of M Interim V.P. for Research; Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation; Janine Benyus, speaker for the 13th Annual Wege Lecture at the U of M; Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda, Dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment; and Dr. Gregory Keoleian, Director of the Center for Sustainable Systems holding framed posters of Benyus’s lecture on Biomimicry.