“Communication is key.” Indeed, we see this in action when people talk, dogs bark, snakes hiss, and when frogs croak.
But have you ever wondered how insects communicate?
Unlike most mammals, reptiles, and amphibians that are large enough to be observed and heard, insects are often too tiny to be seen conversing with one another.
So, this begs the question, how do insects communicate?
How do insects communicate?
Insects communicate through their senses. Their sense of smell and taste can detect chemical signals, while colorful markings, and light flashes aid in their survival and mating. Their sense of touch facilitates food or kin recognition, and the sounds they emit produce recognizable patterns for mating calls and threat alarms.
Communication through chemical signals (scent and taste)
Humans may overpower insects when it comes to size, but if there’s one thing insects have over humans, it’s their innate capability to emit and detect chemical substances to and from their immediate environments.
Insects communicate by casting chemical substances around their environment for other organisms to detect.
With the use of specialized receptors found on their antennae, feet, and anywhere else on their body, insects can detect (smell and taste) chemical signals around them and respond by either taking action or emitting their own chemical substances.
However, not all insects are friends. Some take the role of predators while others are considered preys.
So, how do they avoid giving mixed signals?
The answer lies in the fact that these chemical signals can either be pheromones or allelochemicals depending on who the senders and the receivers are.
Pheromones carry messages between members of the same species, while allelochemicals bear information between insects of different species.
Pheromones have many different types, but here’s a list of the main ones used by insects.
- Sex pheromones for attracting possible mates
- Trail pheromones for creating trails that others can follow
- Alarm pheromones to warn other members of danger or threat
- Marking pheromones to mark areas where eggs were laid
Like pheromones, allelochemicals also have types. But these types are grouped depending on who benefits from the signal.
- Kairomones are used by parasites to locate their hosts, so they profit the receiver.
- Allomones prevent predation, so they profit the sender.
- Synomones may be used simultaneously by parasites to find a suitable host, and by other organisms to fend off predators. So, they benefit both the sender and receiver.
Communication through light and color
While chemical communication makes for a type of communication no human can fully understand without instrumental aid, this next mode of insect communication is one that’s easily observable by humans.
Colorful patterns, markings, and flashing lights serve as visual cues for insects when communicating. Prominent examples of which are butterflies and fireflies.
Butterflies are known for their bright and colorful wings. The color patterns on these wings may indicate butterflies of the same species or may be used to attract potential mates.
Unfortunately, their beauty doesn’t only attract mates, they can also catch the attention of predators.
To combat this, some butterflies have bright and colorful upper wing surfaces, while their underside sport a more washed-out surface with protective coloration to conceal their beauty whenever necessary.
Fireflies, on the other hand, use light pulses to instigate and sustain courtship dialogues between the female and the male. Female fireflies are usually perched while the males fly near them.
Similar flashing of lights, although in a different spectrum, can also be observed in some butterflies.
The female cabbage butterfly and the male alfalfa butterfly exhibit ultraviolet-reflecting scales on their wings, so when they fly, they create flickering displays indicating courtship.
In other insects, eyespots, and distinctive patterns are used to mimic less appetizing organisms or to broadcast their ability to bite or sting to put off predators.
Communication through touch
You’ve probably already seen ants walking in a line or honeybees dancing, but did you really know what they were doing?
If you haven’t guessed it yet, yes—they were communicating.
If you look closer at those ants in a line the next time you see them, you’ll notice that the ant behind another establishes a physical connection with the ant in front of it (the leader) by touching its antennae with the abdomen of its leader.
This ensures the leader that its follower is not lost. If the touching stops, the leader stops as well, looks for its follower, and reestablishes connection before moving along. This is called “tandem running.”
Honeybees, on the other hand, perform dances to signal their nestmates of the existence of a nectar source.
Keep in mind that they do this inside their hives—in total darkness. Hence, these dances are not meant to be seen, but to be felt.
The “round dance” is performed when the nectar source is close to the hive—less than 80 feet. As the name suggests, the round dance consists of circular movements with recurring changes in direction.
In contrast, the “waggle dance” is performed when the nectar source is farther from the hive. This dance is a bit more complicated as it entails linear abdominal waggles after every semicircle turn on either side of the superficial line.
Communication through sound
One advantage communicating through sound has over touch is its ability to be used over distances.
Sound waves can travel through different media. Its frequency, amplitude, and periodicity can also be tweaked in a wide variety of ways, allowing for a complex range of signals.
Unlike humans, most insects can detect and produce sounds higher than 20,000 hertz.
Insects detect these sound ranges using their tympanal organs, which are sometimes found in the abdomen, as are with moths and grasshoppers, while others are located in the front legs, like in crickets.
Each species exhibits its own distinct sound pattern that members of the same species easily recognize. Different sound patterns are also used for mating calls, danger warnings, and food presence signals.
Frequently Asked Questions About Insect Communication
Why do insects communicate?
Insects communicate to recognize kin or nestmates, to make their presence known, to look for a mate, or to instruct directions to a food source’s location.
When it comes to survival in their environment, insects also communicate to defend their territory, warn of danger, and camouflage or mimic other organisms.
Can insects learn a new language?
A new study found that insects, specifically fruit flies, can learn new “dialects” using a specific part of their brain.
Researchers observed that while fruit flies of different species exhibit some variations under a common mode of fruit fly communication, after spending ample time together, they learned to pick up scent and visual cues, allowing them to “converse” better.