skip to content

Biomechanics of insect cleaning devices

Supervisor: Dr Walter Federle, Co-supervisor: Professor Kristian Franze

Project summary:

Cleaning is of major importance for animals and helps them to maintain essential functions such as sensing the environment, removing microbial parasites, distributing secretions, and being able to climb or fly. Insects spend a major part of their life grooming themselves. The complex devices that they use for cleaning have only been studied morphologically but how they work is still largely unknown. As the function of cleaning devices is largely based on their mechanical properties, this project will investigate the micromechanics of insect cleaning structures, most of which contain regular bristles, combs and brush arrays. Dirt particles can be removed from surfaces both by mechanical interlocking and adhesion and the arrays can work as filters for different-sized particles.

Contamination of functional surfaces is a problem for many technical applications, and cleaning surfaces from microscopic particles is still an unresolved engineering challenge. Learning from the highly efficient cleaning systems that nature has evolved will therefore provide inspiration for biomimetics.

What the student will be doing:

This project aims to clarify the biomechanical function of insect cleaning structures. The micromechanical properties of cleaning combs and hairs in different insects will be analysed by combining atomic force microscopy (AFM), electron microscopy (SEM/TEM) and modelling. AFM will be used to quantify flexural stiffness of hairs and combs as well as adhesion forces between particles and cleaning hairs. Electron microscopy will produce detailed three-dimensional information about the hairs, allowing mechanical responses to be modelled quantitatively.

Insect cleaning movements will be analysed three-dimensionally by filming them with multiple video cameras. Cleaning performance will be quantified for different types of cleaning systems and contaminating particles.

Experiments will also test physical models, with the aim to develop biomimetic synthetic cleaning systems.


Amador, G.J. & Hu, D.L. (2015) Cleanliness is next to godliness: mechanisms for staying clean. Journal of Experimental Biology, 218, 3164-3174.

Hackmann, A., Delacave, H., Robinson, A., Labonte, D. & Federle, W. (2015) Functional morphology and efficiency of the antenna cleaner in Camponotus rufifemur ants. Royal Society Open Science, 2, 150129.

Böröczky, K., Wada-Katsumata, A., Batchelor, D., Zhukovskaya, M. & Schal, C. (2013) Insects groom their antennae to enhance olfactory acuity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 110, 3615–3620.

Specific qualifications desirable for this particular project:

The project will suit student with a background in (bio)physics, engineering or biology, who are excited about working at the interface of these fields.