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Everything Counts in Large Amounts 

11 secrets of swarm success

Thursday, Apr 27 2006

When individual units combine to form complicated, intelligent structures with well-coordinated divisions of labor, command hierarchies, and problem-solving skills — that’s a swarm. More than just strength in numbers, the swarm is an emergent property: the whole can achieve what the parts alone cannot; but paradoxically, without the parts the whole does not exist. A nest of wasps. The antibodies in our immune system. Data moving through a network. WTO protesters in Seattle. This is why swarm theory is resonating these days throughout many disciplines, from biology to computer science to politics. The superorganism potential seems to exist everywhere. Here are some examples:

1. Autonomous NanoTechnology Robots. Soon, many tiny robots may go to Mars. A whole lot of nanobots — part of NASA’s Autonomous NanoTechnology Swarms, or ANTS project — were shipped to McMurdo Station in Antarctica for testing in harsh climates. Eventually, the miniaturized robots will unite into one giant mass. That mass will be able to alter shape — Wonder Twin powers, Activate! — and form a shield, say, when entering a planet’s atmosphere, then shift into snake mode to slither away on rocky terrain upon landing. When ANTS discovers something interesting, it can grow an antenna and transmit data back to Earth. If a meteor punctures a hole in the swarm, it will heal itself by rejoining the undamaged parts. The tiny robots will revolutionize space travel, or, if the implications of the Star Trek oeuvre are to be believed, obliterate life as we know it.

2. Killer Bees. Still swarming with gusto, Apis mellifera adansonii, also called “Africanized” honeybees, were created in 1956 when scientists in Brazil imported colonies of studly African bees for crossbreeding experiments. The downside: 26 African queens escaped to produce aggressive hybrid hives in the wild with drones that are cantankerous, attack in greater numbers, sting 10 times more, and give chase for longer distances. Ground zero was Brazil, where the bees allegedly killed 1,000 people before they started spreading. By 1990, they breached Texas, then Arizona, then California. The upside to angry bees — more coffee: A recent study by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute discovered coffee plants in Mexico pollinated by Africanized bees saw 50 percent yield increases. Where was adansonii in 2005 when California’s almond orchards suffered a silent spring from a bee shortage? Note to bees: Quit terrorizing old ladies in Riverside and head to the San Joaquin Valley. We need more avocados.

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3. Locusts. A.k.a. spam from God. Traditionally a plague upon Egypt, locusts are currently prophesying doom Down Under. “Let my people go that they may serve me” said the Lord, in Exodus 8:20-21. “If you do not .?.?. behold, I will send swarms of flies on you, and on your servants and into your houses.” Australia’s Department of Primary Industries says that, this year, baby locusts have hatched at 470 sites across the state of Victoria. Normally, locusts are shy, solitary insects. But when one locust brushes against another’s touch-sensitive hind-leg hairs (i.e., the locust G-spot), they switch from solitary behavior to gregarious. Next comes the swarming, the devastating cloud, the menacing of crops, the death of the firstborn, the day dark as night. Did I mention that the G-spot was discovered by researchers tickling locust legs with paintbrushes?

4. Grunions. Every year, the watery critters run onto our shores, squeaking merrily and spawning as the female digs her tail into the sand and the male spills his milt all over her. And every year, fish-happy picnickers flip them into a bucket and onto the grill. This is wrong! Because grunions are best when rolled in cornmeal, deep-fried in olive oil, and sprinkled with a touch of lemon. (Mmm!) This year, grunions were at the center of the never-ending war between wealthy, waterfront homeowners and the California Coastal Commission. But don’t fuck with the CCC: The Malibu homeowners who bulldozed sand into a wall meant to keep “riffraff” off their property also disrupted the grunions’ spawning grounds and were promptly sued.

5. Bats. Each night, 2 million free-tailed bats exit the Gua Payau Cave in Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park, writhing in a long, sinuous ribbon across the dusk, headed for unknown feeding grounds. The floor of their cave chamber is covered in guano, which seethes with cockroaches and earwigs. Sometimes, an undigested seed in the mess of bat poop germinates and a ghostly plant sprouts amid the decay.

6. Sharks. There always seems to be Shark Summer news packages in Florida, but this year the normal migratory pattern turned swarm when thousands of blacktip sharks suddenly appeared off the coast. The spectacle was especially dramatic because the water was unusually clear and beach patrols reported more shore incursions than ever. But the blacktips get a bad rap: They mostly eat schooling fish, including sardines and anchovies.

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