Love is in the air this Valentine’s Day! Similar to humans, insects have their own unique techniques for finding and selecting the perfect Valentine. Forget flowers and chocolates, insects tap into their natural instincts when searching for love and engage in some pretty unique rituals in the process of trying to attract the right mate. While the mating habits of insects appear relatively simple from a human perspective, it can actually be quite the opposite. Insect mating rituals can be complicated and full of both romance and rejection.
The search for a mate can be a daunting task for humans and insects alike. Unlike humans (loosely speaking), insects have as specific wish list of requirements when it comes to determining what they want and need from a potential mate. With each type of insect using their own unique tactics for attracting the attention and affection of worthy suitors, first the insects must find each other and agree to mate. Insects typically engage in the widespread human practice of gift exchange prior to mating. However, instead of flowers or chocolate, male dance flies for example, are known to give prospective female mates an elaborate silk ball. Some species of insects will even go that extra mile and include edible prey within their gift, or fill the air with sweet smells in order seduce a potential mate.
In the world of insects, the search for love isn’t always a case of males pursuing females. Sometimes the females take love into their own hands. Female termites for instance, release mating pheromones that act as a sweet-smelling perfume intended to entice male termites. Once the male termite acknowledges the female working hard to allure him, they both break off their wings in order to symbolize that they are now a couple. Female fire flies on the other hand, use visual cues and glow to get the male’s attention. Males attracted by the female’s glow, use their sense of smell to locate the female and then mate. Female scorpion flies have very particular mating habits. These particular females choose their mates based on saliva-secretion ability. As the female waits patiently the male scorpion fly basically produces a large ball of saliva that serves as a nutritious nuptial gift for his new sweetheart.
The honeybee’s mating ritual is truly fascinating. Queen honeybees are selectively bred in a special “queen cell” in the hive. Queen bees are fed royal jelly by worker bees in an attempt to induce them to become sexually mature. Virgin honeybee queens that survive to see adulthood, without being killed by rivals, will take to flight mating with only a dozen or so male drones out of tens of thousands of eligible bachelors in the hive. Females also run the show in the world of fire ant colonies. The queen ant is in charge of laying eggs and even has control over the number of male and female eggs she decides to lay. The queen’s only priority is to produce a replacement queen. Worker ants on the contrary, have no use for males after mating and shortly afterwards they typically die off. If the queen needs males, she can just simply lay more male eggs replenishing the male population.
The females aren’t the only ones initiating mating calls in the wild, some male insects have their own unique ways of seducing the lucky ladies that cross their paths as well. Male grasshoppers are all about serenading their potential mate. There are over 400 songs male grasshoppers sing to females, each with its own meaning. Some species of male grasshoppers also incorporate elaborate courtship routines. The Syrbula Admirabilis species for example, displays 18 different poses that involve using their palp, legs, and wings. Other species of male grasshoppers flash brilliantly colored wings while pursuing the female, whereas some remaining species relinquish dating entirely. While male grasshoppers are focused on winning over their female counterparts, male water striders use aggressive tactics to ensure that their mates don’t reject them. The male water strider creates tiny ripples in the water that actually lure predatory fish towards prospective female mates. The male will continue tapping his legs against the water’s surface until the female either agrees to mate with him, or ends up becoming fish’s prey. Resorting to a more coercive copulation, the male mounts the floating female from above, so the female is more at risk from predators since she’s on the water’s surface. This menacing pick-up tactic likely started after females evolved a “genital shield” resembling a chastity belt. The evolution of this “chastity belt” meant that mating could only happen with female consent. Unfortunately, female water striders don’t have much of a choice when it comes to mating, considering it’s either mate or deal with advancing predatory fish. Perhaps fire ants could provide some evolutionary tips to these ladies!
After each species of insect has identified with whom they want to partner with, they must work to make the magic happen, something we commonly refer to as “courtship” or “dating”. Many insects use extensive courtship rituals to choose their partners. Insect mating and breeding rituals, for the most part, are similar to that of humans however, the focus is primarily on reproducing and less on romance.
While most animals mate simply for the livelihood of their species, there are some mating rituals that are actually in fact a bit romantic (the male grasshoppers’ serenading for example). Some will argue that nothing speaks to the beauty of reproduction better than nature’s vast collection of intricate and sophisticated mating rituals, uniform only to one another in their beauty.