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New study finds inspiration for less painful needle in bee and wasp stingers

A new Ohio State study has found a way to design a less painful micro-needle that imitates bee and wasp stingers. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Next time you swat at a bee, remember how it’s painful little stinger is inspiring new medical technology.

A new study has found a way to design a less painful micro-needle that imitates bee and wasp stingers.

Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State and his colleagues from the Indian Institute of Technology collected honeybees and wasps near IIT in Kanpur, India. They examined the stinger using several tools, including 3D imaging technology and a tool used to measure the stingers’ hardness and elasticity.

The researchers discovered the stingers of bees and wasps are about five times softer at the tip than the base, making it easier for the insects to pierce skin, according to a press release.

“Wasps and bees don’t want to create too much pain to start with, and we believe the softer tip makes it less likely that you’ll notice the initial insertion,” Bhushan said in the release. “If you felt the pain right away, you would react and swat the insect away before it finished injecting its venom.”

The study, which began roughly two years ago and was published Oct. 8 in Nature Scientific Reports, also discovered stingers are hollow, allowing it to maintain strength while not being too heavy. In addition, stingers are seven times more elastic at the tip than the base. This design ensures the insects can insert the stingers as deep as possible without breaking.

Researchers may be able to use this new information to create needles that are more comfortable for patients. A softer needle tip, for example, would decrease pain at insertion. This could be beneficial to medical care providers giving injections, as well as patients.

“[A less painful needle] would be useful for people who have pain anxieties and for small kids,” said Dev Gurera, a graduate student working in the Nanoprobe Laboratory at Ohio State.

The study also found honeybees and wasps don’t insert their stinger straight down, but at 6- and 10-degree angles, respectively. This method also supports the integrity of the stinger. Health care providers might be able to use this information to determine the most effective angle to insert a needle into skin.

Bhushan’s engineering career focuses on biomedics which applies some of nature’s most intricate designs to the real world. He has examined an abundance of species from sharks to desert plants, and previously helped conduct a study that examined mosquitoes and the engineering of the “proboscis,” an organ used to draw blood.

“I’ve been working in the field of biomedics for about 15 years, and our goal is to look at nature for species functionality, which could be exploited for commercial applications,” Bhushan said.

He hopes his research on insect stingers will someday be used to design a less painful needle.

According to Bhushan, the next step would be for his team to obtain a grant to continue to work on the design or to pass the idea on to another group to continue to develop it. The idea is still in early stages.

“We’re not suggesting by any means that we have a product,” Bhushan said. “We hope that people in the health care industry will be interested in this work and be able to pursue it.”

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