WILD Wow, what a SEXLIFE!
Butterf lies with eyes in a VERY private place. Ants that send lonely hearts ads. Stick insects that stick at it for 79 days. As a new book reveals, when it comes to the birds and the bees, bugs are truly bizarre
The scene is like something out of a Mills & Boon novel, with a suitor so besotted by the object of his desire that he chooses a present he knows she will love, and takes the trouble to gift-wrap it himself.
But there is no romantic music or candlelit seduction and the lovers are not human. Rather they are balloon flies, little insects that swarm over water and marshy areas throughout Britain during the summer months and conduct a courtship ritual with a macabre twist.
The males are not predators themselves — they subsist peacefully on a diet of nectar — but they will do anything for their greedy, protein-crazy inamoratas. Trapping other insects, usually smaller flies, as nuptial gifts, they wrap up their prey beautifully in silk produced by special glands on their forelegs.
The bigger the present and the more elaborate the wrapping, the more time the male gets to mate with the female and so pass on his genetic material. But female balloon flies must beware of tricksters.
Like a conman prowling dating websites, there is always the occasional rogue who will try to get the benefits without putting in the effort. Some males give the female an empty ball of silk, then hope to get the mating over with pretty sharpish before the lady discovers she has been duped.
Such cunning is but one example of the drama and intrigue involved in the love lives of insects, those multitudinous little creatures that have got us surrounded.
There are more than 200 million insects for every human being alive today, from Costa Rica’s tiny Tinkerbell wasp, so small it can land on the tip of a human hair, to Chinese stick insects longer than your forearm.
WITH a living population ulation that outnumbers the e grains of sand on all the world’s beaches, they can reprostration reproduce in amazing volume. For an illustration of this, look no farther than the fruit uit flies swarming from your compost bin.
Take two fruit flies and leave them in ideal living conditions for a year. every fruit fly mother lays 100 eggs at a time and it takes just a year for one male and female to give rise to 25 generations, totalling about a tredecillion sweet little red-eyed flies in all.
That’s one followed by 42 zeros — and to comprehend that figure, imagine packing them all tightly together in one enormous fruit-fly ball. You would end up with a sphere whose diameter exceeded the distance between the earth and the Sun: 93 million miles.
They may drive us crazy when we find them in our homes, but the oodles of offspring produced by fruit flies have made them invaluable in genetic research.
Furthering our understanding of inheritance and early development as well as diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s and phenomena such as insomnia and jet-lag, they have been involved in the winning of six Nobel prizes. A bit of respect might be in order.
Around for infinitely longer than we humans, insects saw the dinosaurs come and go, thanks not least to their reproductive capacity, with weird mating rituals and quirks in the most intimate parts of their anatomies.
With their bodies divided into three sections, the head, thorax and abdomen, they derive their name from the Latin verb insecare, meaning ‘ to cut into’, and have their sense organs in places we would find most disconcerting. Take the swallowtail butterfly. Although the UK variety is notable mainly for its size, being our largest native species, the Asian swallowtail stands out because the male has eyes set handily on his manhood. These help him manoeuvre correctly during mating.
The female has eyes on her rear end to check she is laying her eggs in the right place.
For other insects, the most important sense is smell. The scent molecules that allow ants to send each other restaurant recommendations — ‘follow this scent trail to a delicious dollop of jam on the kitchen counter’ — can also convey personal ads, such as ‘lonesome lady seeks handsome fella for good times’.
This sense can be highly acute. The large feathery antennae of certain male butterflies can pick up the scent of a female several miles away. But an alluring fragrance is not always what it seems, as the digger wasp knows.
Britain is home to 110 species of these wasps, which, as their name suggests, burrow into the ground when nesting. And it’s fortunate for them that a plant known as the fly orchid is fairly rare here.
Widespread throughout Central europe, it has beautiful brownishblue flowers that look like, and smell identical to, a female digger wasp on the pull. These trick the newly hatched males into trying to mate with orchid after orchid, aiding the deceitful plants’ reproduction by transferring pollen from one to another but with no benefit to themselves.
Like much of insect reproduction, this floral fraud goes on unnoticed by humans, although we are sometimes party to insect courtship without knowing it — as in the case of death-watch beetles, which live in rotting wood, often in the timbers of old houses.
They attract partners by banging their heads on this wood, creating a ticking that, according to ancient superstition, meant somebody would die soon, like a clock counting down a person’s final hours.
NOISIEST insect paramour of them all is the male of the water boatman species. Faced with the problem of how to serenade your sweetheart when you’re only the size of a coarse- ground peppercorn, the little water boatman does it by playing himself, using his abdomen as a string and his appendage as a bow.
Underwater microphones have recorded the resulting din at 79 decibels — equivalent on land to the noise of a freight train rattling by about 50ft away.
Far more soothing is the soft
chirping of the he male grasshopper. A mating call advertising sing his availability to prospective girlfriends, this s is as evocative of a British summer ummer as the surging, intense nse call of the grasshopper’s close relative, the cicada, is of holidays in more exotic climes.
Unfortunately ely for the latter, lovesick fellow w cicadas aren’t the only ones attracted acted by the song: predator wasps asps lie in wait, listening, then n sneak up to lay a little egg on the he soloist. It’s game over for the singer nger as this hatches into a hungry y larva, which eats him from the inside nside out.
This is but one example of the gory turn often en taken by insect sex. You may y have heard that mating is the last earthly act of male drone bees es and this is no old wives’ tale. The he transmission of sperm is nothing short of an explosion, so powerful that t h at the drone’s sex organ is torn loose from his abdomen and he dies shortly afterwards. It is also true that the female praying mantis may gobble up the male once she has finished mating with him (although this happens more often in laboratory surroundings than in nature). However, the femmes fatales of the insect world don’t have it all o un fem sp w pa sh an take fac tion C equippe wit shap T sp ow co plu w vents t p their own way. It’s not unusual for the females of some species to mate with several partners over a short period, and the males takes a dim view of their sperm facing competition in this way. Consequently, many come equipped with a sex organ reminiscent of a Swiss Army knife, complete with all sorts of imaginatively shaped scrapers, ladles and spoons. The purpose? To eliminate any sperm that got there before their own. This toolkit also comes in handy if the previous male has resorted to another trick: plugging up the female’s opening with a kind of home-made chastity belt that prevents her being able to mate again. The gambit is only partially effective, as male number two simply uses his scrapers, pike poles and hooks to remove the bung and gain access for his own equipment. So much for tender caresses.
To ensure that as much sperm as possible is delivered, males often make mating as lengthy as possible. The southern green shield bug can keep at it for ten days, while Indian stick insects have been known to stay stuck together for 79 days in an extreme- sport version of tantric sex.
As we are in the realm of the bizarre, there’s no getting away from bedbugs, those bloodthirsty rascals that poke their sucking snouts into you as you sleep. Skipping anything resembling foreplay, they can’t even be bothered to find the female’s genitals, so simply stick their sex organ into her belly and leave the sperm to find their way to the egg cells.
This deliberately brutal act often injures the female, preventing her being able to mate with any other partners — and so ensuring that the male responsible will be the father of her child.
Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that some insects opt for the single life and some are even practitioners of virgin birth, like the aphids common in British gardens.
They give birth to living babies, from egg cells that develop into new individuals without being fertilised. And that’s not all: in some aphid species, the females can be like Russian dolls — they contain baby aphids that are themselves already carrying new female aphids. No wonder your rose bush is teeming with life.
Once their eggs have been laid, insect mums generally consider their job done and dusted. But some, such as earwigs, provide the equivalent of both bottle feeds and nappy changes by watching over their young and feeding them, as well as washing them with a substance thought to inhibit the growth of mould.
Other species delegate childcare in a horrifying way. Remember the dementors in Harry Potter, those flapping black monsters that suck out people’s souls? That’s what gave the orange- and- black Ampulex dementor wasp, a native of Thailand, its name.
AfemAle of this species will perform high-level brain surgery on a cockroach, injecting it with nerve poison that leaves it still mobile but unable to initiate movement. She will then bite into the cockroach’s antenna so it is forced to follow her like a dog on a lead, and attach an egg to one of its legs before burying it in a hole in the ground.
The little larva child spends the next month fattening itself, boring into the cockroach and gobbling it up, intestines and all.
eventually the larvae have eaten their fill and are ready for adult life. By that time their zombie babysitter is usually long dead.
But the cockroach will probably have had offspring of its own, and they in turn will provide food for future generations of parasite wasps. And so the sometimes strange, often cruel but always wondrous cycle of insect reproduction continues.
AdApted from extraordinary Insects, by Anne Sverdrup-thygeson, published by Mudlark, £14.99. © Anne Sverdrup-thygeson 2019. to order a copy for £11.99 (20 per cent discount) visit www. mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. p&p free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FRee premium delivery. Offer valid until 10/05/2019.
Pictures: RIZA ARIF PRATAMA/EYEEM; TIM GAINEY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO; JACKY PARKER PHOTOGRAPHY; GETTY IMAGES; BOB GIBBONS/ALAMY
Weird bodies, vile habits: Left to right, the Asian swallowtail, a green shield bug, praying mantises, a native swallowtail and a male digger wasp trying to mate with a fly orchid