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

Daily Mail - - Life - By Anne Sver­drup-Thyge­son

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.


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

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