Solar-powered hornet is the Superman of the animal kingdom

Plants use photosynthesis to turn sunlight into energy every single day. This ability appeared to be completely unknown in the animal kingdom, leaving the living solar battery that is Superman as the only animal to ever harness the sun's rays for power. But now we've discovered that a type of hornet is doing its own homegrown photosynthesis, absorbing sunlight and turning it into useful energy. It's the first animal we've ever discovered that possesses this ability...and we might be able to harness our own version of it for alternative energy.

Researchers at Israel's Tel Aviv University decided to follow up on earlier observations that the Oriental hornet had unusual work patterns relative to its wasp and bee cousins. This particular hornet preferred to be active during the afternoon, as opposed to the morning when the sun still hasn't completely risen. And, as sunlight gets more intense, the hornet works harder and faster, suggesting it has more energy to spare.

The researchers tested out a number of factors on the hornet, including temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation to what effect they had on their work patterns. They discovered that the radiation alone dictated how hard the hornets worked. They then discovered that the brown and yellow markings on the hornet's rear functioned as a little solar energy powerhouse. These stripes can absorb solar radiation, and then the yellow pigment is able to turn that into electric power that the hornet can use to do work.

The shell of the hornet has clearly evolved to maximize the amount of light it can take in. Its exoskeleton is made of tiny grooves that force light into diverging beams, and then the yellow stripe on the abdomen is spotted with tons of tiny pinhole depressions. Inside these little holes is the yellow pigment known as xanthopterin, which possesses the photo-voltaic ability to convert sunlight into energy. The grooves and pinholes are able to maximize the amount of light this pigment has to work with.

But that's not even the only remarkable energy process that the hornet has evolved. Its body features a heat pump system that's a lot like those found in air conditioners or refrigerators. This system is able to keep the hornet's insides cooler than its surroundings, which is crucial when the hornet spends so much time foraging in the greater heat of the afternoon sun.

The researchers hope to adapt the hornet's solar collecting abilities for human use. So far, they haven't had much luck copying the bio-mechanisms that make the solar processing possible, but it's still early days and this is pretty much a completely new energy collection mechanism. There's still hope that a little "bio-mimicry" could open the door to new forms of solar energy collection...or possibly open the door to a whole new breed of superhumans, Krypton-style.

Via Tel Aviv University.