Evolution of Insect Communication: From Signaling to Songs

Evolution of insect communication

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Unlike humans, insects aren’t able to communicate by talking. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to pass messages to one another regarding food sources, mating, defending their territory, and much more. While their methods of communication may seem strange, they’re definitely effective.

Types of Insect Communication

Types of insect communication

Insects communicate in many different ways and for many different reasons. One of the most important things that insects communicate is a desire to mate, and they use some pretty impressive methods. Bright colors, chemical signals, and bold displays are just some of the ways they try to find a partner.

What’s more, many insects, like bees and ants, will use communication to tell others within their colonies that food is nearby. They’ll also use things like chemical signals to tell their peers that there’s an incoming threat and this is a great way to avoid predation.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the ways insects pass messages between themselves.

Visual Communication

Many insects use visual cues to provide information to others regarding food, mating, danger, and to establish territory.

For example, some insects will use mimicry and camouflage to ward off predators. The red admiral butterfly has brightly colored wings with eyespots which serve as a way of communicating mating needs to others of the same species. However, when under threat, this same butterfly has a brown underside to the wing which allows it to hide among the foliage.

Another great example of visual communication is demonstrated by the firefly. These insects use bioluminescence to emit light which flashes and pulses during mating rituals. There are even insects, like the cabbage butterfly that have UV-reflecting patches to help them find a mate.

Acoustic Communication

Acoustic, or sound communication, is another method that those in the insect kingdom use to ‘talk’ to one another. In fact, it’s believed that insects were one of the first types of animals to develop sounds and hearing. Scientists think that there have been as many as 19 evolutions of hearing within insect species over the years. There are various ways that they can do this including vibrations.

One of the great things about using vibrations is that these ‘sounds’ can pass through various mediums, including water, air, and even hard surfaces such as the frames in a beehive. Bees will perform a dance that causes vibrations and this sends signals through the hive to others that food is near. They are even able to communicate the distance, direction, and quality of the food source all through vibrations.

Treehoppers are another excellent example of how insects use vibration to communicate. They’ll create vibrations that travel through plant tissues to let others know of impending danger.

Stridulation is another way that insects communicate using sounds and it’s something that we see in creatures like crickets and grasshoppers. They produce sounds by rubbing certain body parts together. For example, the legs on the abdomen. This is what produces that characteristic sound we’re all familiar with and it’s usually the males making it in order to attract a female.

Chemical Communication

Even humans use chemical communication, only we’re not really even aware that we’re doing it. It’s all down to pheromones which are chemicals involuntarily released by humans designed to attract a mate. Ever wondered why you love the smell of your spouse but can’t put your finger on why? That’ll be their pheromones. Human mothers and babies also use pheromone communication, especially during the infant years when breastfeeding is necessary.

And insects are among some of the most adept pheromone users in the animal kingdom. Honeybees release an alarm pheromone when they sting. While stinging means certain death for the individual, it also means that their pheromones attract the attention of others in the colony who will rush to defend the nest.

Pheromones are designed to carry information between individuals, so they’re also used for mating purposes, bringing two individuals together to breed. In ant, wasp, and bee colonies, the queen will release pheromones that influence the behavior of the rest of the group.

Another type of chemical communication comes in the form of allelochemicals which, rather than transmitting messages between two members of the same species, are able to send information between two different species.

They are types of semiochemicals and are often used by insects to avoid predation. When these allelochemicals are released, they serve to benefit the insect releasing them but not the one on the receiving end. Some insect species will also use allelochemicals to catch prey or to hinder the attempts of any competing predatory species.

Some types of beetles and cockroaches will use this form of communication to mimic the pheromones produced by ants. When the ants sense this, they’ll head back to the nest, meaning that the cockroach has time to get away and avoid being eaten by the ants.

Tactile Communication

By using their antenna to tap, many insects are able to find a mate. One example of this is the blister beetle, the male of which will tap his antenna on either side of the female to let her know that he wishes to mate. If she’s receptive, she’ll lift her wings and allow him to mount her. But to keep the interaction going, the male must continue tapping her on either side.

Antennation is another form of tactile communication coupled with chemical communication. Insects will use their antenna to groom a potential mate which also allows them to pick up on pheromones.

Honeybees perform a dance within the hive which sends out signals to others about the location of a food source. Even in total darkness, the bees can pick up on the speed, direction, and frequencies given off by the dance.

Since the nervous system, and therefore sense of touch, in insects is not as developed as other animals, most tactile communication has to be done by either direct touch or indirect physical contact.

Different Ways Insects Communicate

I find it truly fascinating to look at the ways in which insects communicate with each other. What’s more, it’s amazing how different species have different methods yet they’re all equally effective. With that in mind, I’d like to take a closer look at a few species and how they transmit information between themselves.

1. Bees

Bees have complex social structures within the hive and use various methods of communication.

Honey bees are some of the most intelligent and fascinating creatures in the insect world. Not only are they incredibly important to humans, but they have complex social structures within the hive and use various methods of communication.

For example, the waggle dance. This is a special dance where honey bees move their bodies in a figure of eight to signal to others where the best food sources are. Their intelligence is perfectly demonstrated when we look at how younger bees observe their elders to learn how to perform this intricate dance.

The amazing thing about the waggle dance is that bees can transmit information on not only the precise location of the food but which direction to fly, how far the food is, and its quality.

And if that wasn’t enough, honey bees also use chemical signals to alert other members of the hive to danger. As I mentioned earlier in this article, when they sting, honey bees automatically release an alarm pheromone. This tells others in the colony that there is a threat and they’ll group together to go into battle and protect their home. 

The queen also relies on pheromone communication to attract drones since she’s the only female member of the hive able to breed. She’ll also use these cues to stop the hive from swarming and to stop other females’ reproductive systems from developing.

2. Fireflies

It’s usually the male fireflies that will emit the first flashes and different species have different patterns.

You’ll probably be familiar with the evening glow emitted by fireflies and while they look beautiful, this display isn’t just for aesthetic purposes. In fact, these tiny creatures use their light flashes primarily to attract a mate.

It’s usually the males that will emit the first flashes and different species have different patterns. For example, the Photinus macdermotti emits one to two short, slow flashes every two minutes, whereas the Photinus marginellus has much shorter flashes of around half a second which it produces every three seconds.

When the females spot a flash that attracts them, they’ll wait a certain amount of time (this is dependent on the species) before emitting a response flash to let the male know she’s willing to mate.

But how do fireflies manage to produce these light signals? Well, it all starts in an organ on the underside of the base of the abdomen called the lantern. It’s here that bioluminescence takes place which is a chemical reaction that produces light and a phenomenon observed in many species, particularly aquatic life in deep water.

3. Crickets

Crickets produce the sound through a process known as stridulation, which involves the insect rubbing their front wings together.

It’s very common to hear crickets chirping, and it’s one of nature’s most beautiful sounds. These insects produce the sound through a process known as stridulation, which involves the insect rubbing their front wings together.

Primarily, it’s the males that perform this process, as females do not chirp, which sees the ridges on the wings rubbing against a scraper and therefore producing sound. They do this to attract a female however, males will also use a more aggressive and loud chirping sound to repel other males and improve their chances of bagging the girl.

Funnily enough, while this is a type of acoustic communication, crickets don’t actually have ears. Instead, they have tympanal organs that vibrate when they detect a vibration in the environment. Another organ, known as the chordotonal organ then sends this through the nerves and to the brain.

Since crickets are predated by many animals, they will only chirp when they consider it to be safe. This means they’ll often be heard at night when their predators are inactive, but if you approach them, they’ll sense this and the chirping will stop.

4. Cicadas

The song of the cicada is considered to be the loudest in all of the insect world.

The song of the cicada is considered to be the loudest in all of the insect world! In fact, there is one species, Hemiptera, that produces sounds that exceed 100 decibels; that’s louder than a petrol lawnmower!

While it might sound deafening, these sounds are essential in cicada mating and, just like crickets, it’s only the males that produce them in order to attract a female. However, they make the sounds a little differently from their cricket cousins. They have what are known as tymbals, located on the first portion of the abdomen.

These ribbed membranes are contracted and relaxed which results in a clicking sound. Scientists say that this is the equivalent of drawing your ribs in to the point of deformation! The reason that it sounds so loud is that there is a hollow cavity in the abdomen that serves to amplify the sound so it also travels over huge distances; up to a mile and a half away!

5. Ants

Ants have a variety of methods of communication including the use of pheromones.

Ants are highly social animals that live in huge colonies with complex social structures. The beauty of this is that they are able to work closely together but without effective communication, this would be extremely difficult.

For this reason, ants have a variety of methods of communication including the use of pheromones. Every ant colony has its very own smell, held in the outer shell of each member,  so individuals are able to detect if there is an intruder among them. What’s more, should an ant lose its way to the nest, a chemical trail signal left by others will lead it back. They can also use this method to lead others to food.

Another way that ants communicate is with their antenna. These are incredibly important sensory organs in ants, and they’re used in many different ways. For example, ants that are meeting will touch each other with their antenna in a form of two-way communication. This shows that not only are the antennae able to detect information but also convey it through social signals. 

While pheromones are often used to tell other members of the colony that a predator is nearby, this isn’t always the most reliable method, as it takes time for the chemicals to spread throughout the nest. However, in some ant species, individuals will also use their mouth parts to bang on the ground, sending vibrations as a warning.

6. Butterflies

One of the primary ways that butterflies communicate is through visual cues.

One of the primary ways that butterflies communicate is through visual cues. This is why they are so brightly colored and have ornate patterns. For example, the peacock butterfly, along with many other species, has eyespots on its wings. These serve as a way to fool predators into believing that the insect is alert, and this can deter them from making an attack. Bright colors also tell predators that a butterfly is poisonous and there are some, like the metalmark butterfly, that use mimicry (having bright colors like a poisonous species) but aren’t toxic in the slightest.

But colors are also used by butterflies to attract a mate. Take the Freyer’s purple emperor as an example. This species has beautiful violet-colored wings with pale orange markings. This serves as a way of showing off when trying to find a mate.

UV light is something that humans cannot detect with the naked eye. But many insect species, including butterflies, can easily do this. So strong are their abilities that they actually use UV light as another way of attracting a mate. For example, the female of the cabbage butterfly species has UV patches on her wings that signal to a male she is ready to breed.

However, these aren’t the only ways that butterflies transfer information between one another. They are also known to use chemical communication in the form of pheromones. While they do produce these pheromones naturally, there are some species, like the Indonesian milkweed, that will eat their larvae to boost their ability to produce strong chemical signals.

These pheromones are largely used to attract a mate but in order to eliminate competition, males in the Hamadrydas genus will also produce clicking sounds to drive away other males.

7. Termites

Termites mainly rely on vibrations for communication, and they’ve adapted incredible senses to both make vibrations and respond to them.

Termites mainly rely on vibrations for communication, and they’ve adapted incredible senses to both make vibrations and respond to them. For example, when a termine senses danger near the nest, it will start banging its head on the ground which causes vibrations that ripple through the nest. What’s even more amazing is that they construct their nests in such a way that these vibrations can travel most efficiently.

That’s thanks to an internal layer made from mud and poop, which not only effectively transmits vibrations but also reinforces the structural integrity of the nest.

Termites also use vibrations to detect the size of a piece of wood they’re chewing on. As they nibble on just a small corner, the vibrations from their chewing tell them how big the wood is; that’s pretty amazing, if you ask me!

Along with vibrations to signal alarm, termites also use chemical communication. Like many others in the insect world, they rely on pheromones for an array of reasons, such as mating, caste regulation, defense, and signaling where there is food. When looking for food, termites will press their abdomens onto the ground and leave behind a certain scent that acts as a trail of breadcrumbs leading directly to the food source. Even more interesting is that the termite will create a consistent pattern and distance between spots.

8. Moths

Different species emit different pheromones, but one of the most amazing is the female small emperor moth.

Unlike their butterfly cousins, moths don’t usually have bright colors or patterns that they can rely on for communication. That said, while their markings might not be as bright, many moths, like the hawk moth, have two large eyespots on the wings designed to communicate with predators that it isn’t a good idea to attack.

One of the main forms of communication among moths is the use of pheromones. As is the case with many other insects, these are primarily used to attract a mate. Different species emit different pheromones, but one of the most amazing is the female small emperor moth. She will emit pheromones that can be detected by males from as far as 10 miles (16 kilometers!)

And this isn’t the only way they try to attract a mate. It’s thought that moths initially developed ears to pick up on the echolocation sounds of their main predators; bats. However, they’ve since adapted the ability to make very soft sounds to communicate with other members of the same species that it’s time to breed!

9. Fruit Flies

Fruit flies are incredibly intelligent creatures that are not only able to communicate with one another but can also learn the dialects of other creatures to warn them about danger.

Fruit flies may be small, but they’re incredibly intelligent insects that are not only able to communicate with one another but can also learn the dialects of other creatures to warn them about danger. This only occurs among other fly species, but when they’re alerted to danger, they’ll spread this message to others. After living together for a period of time, they’re able to pick up on communication signals and mimic them. This is mainly achieved through wing movements. 

Not only this, but when there is a threat of predation, females will stop laying as many eggs to avoid them being eaten.

What’s more, fruit flies use acoustic communication in the form of vibrations. The males will vibrate their wings to produce sounds that are picked up by the females’ antennae. They are so finely tuned that a female is able to tell which species of fruit fly is making the vibrations which helps to avoid cross-breeding with other species.

Even more interesting is that male fruit flies are able to adjust the intensity of their vibrations according to how far away the intended female is. They do this by adjusting the nerve signals to the muscles, which can then vibrate at varying frequencies.

And that’s not all; fruit flies also use pheromone communication using scents produced by their poop! This is one of the ways the fruit fly attracts a mate and, in studies, it was proven that greater activity was noted in areas where there were more fruit fly droppings.

10. Cockroaches

Cockroaches use a variety of methods to share information between themselves, including pheromones, tactile signals, and the use of their antennae.

Cockroaches have something of a bad reputation among humans; they’re certainly one of the most feared insects. And while they’re all but indestructible, they’re also excellent communicators. They use a variety of methods to share information between themselves, including pheromones, tactile signals, and the use of their antennae.

For a long time, it was believed that cockroaches foraged alone, but research has shown that the exact opposite is true. These insects look for food in groups and they’ll even recommend good food sources to others of the same species. However, scientists are still looking at how these messages are conveyed, but what they do know is that it’s through chemical communication. Some studies suggest that, much like the fruit fly, these chemical signals are passed through the cockroach’s poop.

It’s also been demonstrated that cockroaches are able to use tactile communication using their antennae. In studies, researchers noticed that the insects would touch one another with their antennae which resulted in them making a collective decision on where to shelter.

For the most part, cockroaches don’t make much noise, but it has been observed that the males will emit a hissing sound. This is believed to have to do with their ranking in a colony, and males at different levels will make hisses at different frequencies. This is often used when battling another male but can also be a form of communication when looking for a female. 

11. Spiders

Spiders don’t rely on only one form of communication but are known to show visual cues, use vibrations, and chemical communication.

Spiders are another of the most hated insects in the animal kingdom, but while they might look scary, they’re surprisingly fascinating creatures. This especially applies when we’re talking about how spiders communicate.

Much like other insects, spiders don’t rely on only one form of communication but are known to show visual cues, use vibrations, and chemical communication.

Let’s start with how they use visual communication, which comes in the form of a dance. This is very common in the male jumping spider, who will use his body hairs and front legs coupled with zig-zag movements to attract a female. He’s also got UV reflective patterns on his body to make himself look that little bit showier.

The female black widow spider weaves her web when she’s ready to mate and covers it in pheromones to attract a male. However, you’ve probably heard that mating doesn’t end well for the males of this species, which is where vibrations come in. In order to let the female know he isn’t an attacker, he taps on the web producing a series of vibrations.

If you’ve ever encountered a spider, which I’ll assume you have, you’ll have noticed that they are pretty quiet insects. However, the purring wolf spider actually makes noises by rustling leaves when it’s time to attract a mate. Even more impressive is that, in studies, the males were seen to perform a sort of stridulation by dragging a comb-like organ across the surface on which they stood. The same study revealed that the females were picking up on the vibrations that the sound made rather than the noise itself. 

The female cellar spider leaves behind a trail of pheromones during the breeding season, allowing males to find her. While this is common among spider species, it’s been shown that some, such as the female hunting spider, don’t respond well to pheromones and instead prefer a silk-wrapped gift from her potential suitor. 

12. Harlequin Bugs

In terms of communication, harlequin bugs mainly rely on vibrations.

Harlequin bugs are impressive-looking insects, but they’re one of the most destructive crop and plant pests in the United States.

In terms of communication, harlequin bugs mainly rely on vibrations. The females only produce one song, whereas the males have a much more extensive repertoire. They’re known to display five vibrational signals, which they transmit through the substrate.

These vibrations are produced in a number of ways by either vibrating the entire body or parts of it including the wings and abdomen. Research has shown that herbaceous plants have the capacity to perfectly transmit the 100 hz frequencies that these vibrations make. Examples of these plants include cabbage, broccoli, and kale, all of which have veins that are able to transmit the vibrations. While this is an effective form of communication, it’s also somewhat dangerous since one of the harlequin bug’s main predators, the parasitic wasp, is also able to pick up on them. 

13. Water Striders

Water striders rely on vibrations in the water in order to communicate with each other.

Sometimes called water skeeters, pond skaters, and water bugs, the water strider is part of the Hemiptera family. These creatures can be found in many types of aquatic environments, such as creeks, ponds, swamps, and rivers. Although they do prefer calm water. 

One of the reasons for this is that these insects rely on vibrations in the water in order to communicate with each other. You’ll often see them sitting on the surface of the water and that’s because they have feet that can hold air pockets, enabling them to float.

When they want to send signals to other members of the same species, they’ll move their legs rapidly up and down. This sends vibrational signals and ripples across the water, and other water striders pick up on these using specialized hairs on their legs and feet. 

14. Treehoppers

Treehoppers use their communication to ‘speak’ to all other nearby individuals.

As we have learned so far, vibrational signals play an important role in the insect world, and treehoppers are no exception. Well, some species of treehopper, at least.

The interesting thing about treehoppers is that they use their communication to ‘speak’ to all other nearby individuals. The males of the species thrum their abdomens which sends vibrations down their legs and onto the plant leaves.

The reasons for this type of communication are many. For example, the male treehopper is able to disrupt the signals of other nearby males just by emitting his own vibrations. Moreover, they are able to attract a mate and even provide an early warning to others about an approaching predator.

It’s also been evidenced that males will adjust the intensity of their vibrations according to the distance of a female when looking for a mate as well as the quality and condition of the plant life that the vibrations will travel through.

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