Since biblical times, the amazing feats of strength of insects have caused astonishment among humans. Early observers noted that ants could carry heavy objects out of proportion to their size, and beetles could drag tremendous loads long distances.
These routine activities of bugs must have caused the early observers to compare the strength of these critters with their own and caused them to speculate on their own rightful place among animals. It has only been in recent times, however, that scientists have looked into the matter of how really strong insects are and devised experiments to measure their muscular abilities.
The late Professor Ross E. Hutchins, a noted student of insect life and lore, once observed a harvester ant lifting a stone up and out of the entrance to its nest. Hutchins weighed both the ant and the stone and determined that the insect weighed 0.0028-gram and the stone 0.145-gram. Simple math revealed that the ant was lifting 52 times its own weight, which is the equivalent to an average man hefting nearly 8,000 pounds.
Tests conducted at Mississippi State University on a miniature dynamometer showed that a common betsy-bug beetle, weighing 1.88 grams, could pull a load of 14 grams, or about 7 1/2 times its own weight. Wheels placed under weights make them much easier to pull, so when a loaded toy truck weighing 175 grams was hitched to the 1.8 grams betsy-bug, the beetle pulled it along with ease. To accomplish the same feat of strength, a man would have to pull a 14,000-pound tractor-trailer truck. Under similar tests, a bumblebee pulled 300 times its weight, the equivalent of a man hauling three such trucks hooked together.
In similar research done some years ago, it was discovered that the appropriately named Hercules beetle could lift tremendous weights that were placed on its back. It was found that this six-legged athlete could lift about 850 times its own weight. At this rate, an elephant theoretically could lumber about with 5 million pounds on its back.
In the jumping field, insects far outdo man and other animals when size is considered. Proportionally, a man could hop over a tall building with ease if he had the ability of a grasshopper. Mans broad jump record would be shattered, if he shared the capability of a hopper, because he would be able to leap about 600 feet, the length of two football fields.
For size, however, no creature can beat a flea in a jumping contest. Mathematically inclined entomologists (bug experts) have found that a flea with legs 1/20th of an inch in length can broad jump about 13 inches. The flea can high jump about 8 inches. This is comparable to a man broad jumping 700 feet and high jumping about 450 feet.
Insects also exhibit remarkable performance rates in the air. Man cannot fly, of course, but the aircraft he has perfected will have to hustle to keep up with insects. The peak of performance for an airplane is to be able to carry a 100 percent payload (its own weight). This figure represents the maximum of aerodynamic efficiency, but many insects do much better.
A female mosquito may suck into her body blood weighing three to four times as much as her body weight. Then, without the benefit of jet-assisted takeoff, she revs up her wings and makes a successful takeoff to a secluded location where the meal can be digested. Many bees and some flies can also airlift many times their own weight.
Some individuals are sure the human species is the most efficient biological machine on earth. As far as intelligence and mental processes go, they are probably correct. But, in many physiological areas, man does not even finish in the money when compared to the insects. If of no other use to the reader, this information may kindle ideas in the minds of some would-be science fiction writers.
Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Marylands eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.