But first, arachnids. Some spiders somehow fly by using silken threads. They’ve been detected at altitudes over 4 km, and more than a thousand miles from land. The usual notion is that these threads catch air currents, but that may not be the real explanation. For one thing, they seem to be able to take off fairly rapidly in a dead calm. It looks instead as if these spiders manage to impart a negative charge to these threads and are then propelled upward by the atmospheric electric field – electrostatic levitation, a totally novel mechanism for flight.
Which ought to be a reminder that biomimetics is a useful approach to invention: If you can’t think of anything yourself, steal from the products of evolution. It’s like an an Edisonian approach, only on steroids.
Along those lines, it is well known, to about 0.1% of the population, that some ants have agriculture. Some protect and herd aphids: others gather leaves as the feedstock for an edible fungus. Those leaf-cutting ants also carry symbiotic fungicide-producing bacteria that protect against weed fungi [ herbicides invented well before atrazine or 2-4D] Speaking of, if you really, really want to cause trouble, introduce leaf-cutting ants to Africa.
Some ants even farm themselves. In part of the Southwest, there is a species of ants that has an odd reproductive pattern. The reproductive castes are all AA or BB, while all the workers are AB. It seems that two related species merged: the queens and drones are all one species or the other, but the workers are hybrids. I strongly suspect that those hybrid workers are more productive, just like mules….
The point is that insects were farming before we were: they were using particular strategies useful in agriculture that we only began using fairly recently. For example, the fungus-growing termites of the old-world tropics raise a single fungal clone – which works better, because competition between multiple lineages selects for fungi that are better at competition, rather than being better at turning grass into termite food. In much the same way, rice (and wheat) get taller in order to compete for light with other rice genotypes – being tall doesn’t help produce more rice. On the contrary. So breeding for short strains of wheat and rice – removing useless competition – was an important strategy in the Green Revolution.
There is an obvious metastrategy: if we know of a number of cases in which insect agriculturalists have long pursued useful strategies that we have only figured out recently, they are undoubtedly also pursuing useful agricultural strategies that no human has ever conceived of. Sure, it’s intellectual property theft, but what are the chances that they’ll sue? Even if they do, you can just step on them.