Because of their unique anatomies, insects communicate in very different ways than humans. In contrast to humans, insects rarely rely on sight to communicate. Insects are particularly reliant on smell and taste and are attuned to the fine chemical differences in their environment. Also, they often sense sounds and vibrations that we humans cannot.
Why do insects need to communicate, and what kind of things are they communicating? Many insects communicate to defend themselves either with warnings to potential predators, or to scare away threats. They will also communicate to attract a mate of the same species. For example, fireflies all talk to each other by flashing, but they need a way to stand out from all the other fireflies so they don’t all get mixed up (more on that below!). Insects will also communicate to convey location information, specifically when it comes to sharing the location of a prime food source, or simply the location of another individual.
This winter (Dec 27 2019 – January 31 2020), join us for Holiday Activities for Kids to learn about five different insects and the unique ways in which they communicate.
Fireflies are not actually flies – they are beetles that glow! Males (and some females) can flash to communicate with each other. Each species has its own flash pattern, kind of like Morse code: some use several quick flashes of light, whereas others are slower with longer time intervals between. Males generally flash or glow to attract females, but some females have turned the tables by imitating other male patterns. When an unsuspecting female flies in, she becomes the meal of the impostor firefly!
Grab a flashlight and try your hand at speaking their special version of “flash Morse code.” Check out this great website where you can download a guide to firefly flash patterns.
You can also participate in citizen science projects helping to document population status of North American fireflies.
Many insects communicate by emitting smells that are unique to their species. These smells are called pheromones. Using smell to talk to each other can be useful for insects that are awake at night (nocturnal), or travel over long distances since smell can easily travel. Many insects use their antennae for sensing smell (two noses instead of one!). Male silk moths win the award for largest and most effective smelling antennae: their antennae can sometimes be twice the size of their body, and very plumose (lots of filaments or segments). Amazingly, if a single molecule of a female’s pheromone lands on one of their antennal segments, the male can start tracking the female. Males can smell female pheromones up to six kilometres away!
For insects that have superb eyesight, a great way to communicate is through sight! By using colour and patterns, species can talk to each other to attract mates, defend territory, fight off other intruders, camouflage, and ward off predators. Did you know that butterflies see different colours than we do? Often they have colours “hidden” on their wings that humans can’t see, but other butterflies can. It’s because these patterns reflect ultraviolet (UV) light, which humans can’t detect. This means that butterflies can communicate “hidden messages” to each other.
Check out this website for more.
Some groups of insects are masters at making sound! Katydids and crickets belong to the same insect order as grasshoppers (Orthoptera), and this group gets the prize for having the best singers. Males can “sing” by rubbing two wings together (called stridulation). One wing is like a comb that scrapes against the other one, and this produces trills and chirps that are used to attract mates or defend territories. The size and shape of the comb & scraper affect the quality of the sound, and the speed of the trill depends on how fast the cricket or katydid rubs its wings together.
If you’d like to hear some Ontario cricket and katydid choruses, and learn some more, visit this great online resource.
Honeybees have developed a very unique way of talking to each other: by dancing! When a forager honeybee finds a great new flower patch with food, she tells the other bees by dancing a certain pattern. Her waggle dance relays all the information about distance and direction so that other bees can also locate the flower patch.
Can you imagine if we “talked” to each other by dancing? You can read more and try playing a game of waggle dance yourself on this website.