Would you want a spider web inside your ear?

Probably not.

But if you're able to put aside the creepy factor, new research shows that fine fibres like spider silk actually improve the quality of microphones for hearing aids.

Scientists from New York's Binghamton University have just published findings that could lead to better microphones for hearing aids than traditional pressure-based systems.


One of the study's authors, Distinguished Professor Ron Miles, has carried out a number of studies looking at what we can learn from insects when it comes to hearing.

"We use our eardrums, which pick up the direction of sound based on pressure, but most insects actually hear with their hairs," he explained.

The spider silk was able to pick up the velocity of the air instead of the pressure of the air.

Mosquitoes, flies and spiders all have fine hairs on their bodies that move with the sounds waves travelling through the air.

Miles wanted to recreate this type of hearing inside a microphone.

Their microphone improves the directional sensing across a wide variety of frequencies that are often too quiet for microphones to pick up on.

For someone with a hearing aid, that means being able to cancel out background noise when having a conversation in a crowded area.

The same concept could be applied to the microphone inside cell phones.


Spider silk was thin enough that it also can move with the air when hit by sound waves.

"This can even happen with infrasound at frequencies as low as 3Hz," he said.

Sound at that frequency was typically inaccessible.

It'd be equivalent to hearing the tectonic plates moving in an earthquake.

The study used spider silk, but Miles explained that any fibre that is thin enough could be used in the same way.

While the spider silk picks up the direction of airflow with great accuracy, that information has to be translated into an electronic signal to be of use.

"We coated the spider silk with gold and put it in a magnetic field to obtain an electronic signal," Miles said.

"It's actually a fairly simple way to make an extremely effective microphone that has better directional capabilities across a wide range of frequencies."

The study was a game-changer for microphones but may also tell us something unique about spiders, he said.

His team speculate that because spider silk is so good at sensing air flow, it's possible spiders can hear through their own web on top of what they are already known to hear through the small hairs on their bodies.

Left or right? Bees decide

A discovery that bees have individual flying direction preferences could lead to strategies for steering drone aircraft fleets. Photo / File
A discovery that bees have individual flying direction preferences could lead to strategies for steering drone aircraft fleets. Photo / File

A discovery that bees have individual flying direction preferences could lead to strategies for steering drone aircraft fleets.

Researchers at the University of Queensland's Queensland Brain Institute have found that honeybees have individually distinct biases in "left-and right-handedness" when flying through obstacles.

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan said the study showed that honeybees displayed handedness that varied from individual to individual.

"Unlike humans, who are mostly right-handed, some bees display a strong left bias, others a strong right bias, and yet others a weak or zero bias," Srinivasan said.

The researchers studied the flying decisions made by foraging honeybees when they encountered a barrier that could be traversed by flying through one of two apertures.

Bees were able to discriminate the widths of oncoming gaps and choose the passage that was presumably safer and quicker to fly through.

"When the apertures were equally wide, both apertures were chosen with equal frequency and about 55 per cent of the bees displayed no side bias in their choices."

Half the remaining 45 per cent preferred the left gap and half preferred the right gap.

When the gaps were of different width, the bees preferred the wider opening, and that preference increased sharply in line with the difference in aperture width.

The researchers confirmed the existence of individual biases by measuring the flight times of biased bees, noting a bee took longer to make a decision if its intrinsic bias was toward the side with the narrower opening.

"We believe these individual biases help to improve the flight efficiency of a swarm of bees through densely cluttered environments," Srinivasan said.

"Flying insects constantly face the challenge of choosing efficient, safe and collision-free routes while navigating through dense foliage.

"This finding could potentially be used as strategy for steering a fleet of drone aircraft," he said.

Srinivasan's laboratory has previously discovered that birds don't crash in flight because they always veer right, in research that has potential implications for aircraft automated anti-crash systems.