Can You Hear Me Now? How Insects Communicate 101

I’d like to tell you a bit about insect communication but first we need to decide what exactly “communication” is.  This might sound like an easy task but it’s not.  Experts in the field do not even agree on an exact definition of “communication” when it comes to insects.  Or heck, even communication between each other!  First, let’s think about how we communicate; by text right?  That could be a form of visual communication.  You poke away at the phone, some sort of gibberish appears and you send it on the lines to your friend who then sees it and deciphers your pecking to decide what you were writing.  You feel your phone vibrate when that text comes in.  Tactile communication.

I feel unclean…

Now try to think way back to when we actually had to look at each other and use our words.  Tough, I know, but we did do this.  If you’re able to speak, you vocalize something, I hear it and interpret that as some sort of information and there ya go.  Auditory communication.

Those two are simple and easy to define.  But what about information which isn’t so obvious to our minds?  Insects, as well as humans to a degree, emit chemical odors which can be picked up by another individual and interpreted.  Think about that guy at the gym who’s been wearing the same gym clothes all week.  Come Friday, you’re going to be picking up some nasty chemical odors from him and you’ll be able to interpret just what he (hasn’t) been doing…laundry.  I have a friend who thinks coating himself in Axe Body Spray makes up for this.  I disagree.  It doesn’t.  It just makes me think he took a turn for the douche… 

What if indeed…

Much like my friend with the rancid perfume, insects have naturally occurring “scents” that they can produce, though they might not always be scents as we think of them.

That seem pretty simple and self explanatory too, right?  Sight, sound, smell. Clear. Concise and basic, right?  So why all the confusion about what is and is not communication?  But wait, there’s more!

There are a number of other ways communication can occur that isn’t even meant to happen!  Think back to the cell phones.  If you were to look at my 10-year old Nokia, brick-phone, you’d probably pick up information about my personality & character.  Old, cranky, and cheap.  You probably wouldn’t be that far off.  That’s some information that you picked up without either of us trying.  How about one of those tech-savy people who needs to get the latest iPhone X-Gen the day it comes out.  When you look at that brand new, shiny phone you pick up information about that persons personality too.  Once again, information is passed between parties, with or without any intention being placed.  This too, is communication and now we get into the sticky bits where the experts start to disagree.  Intention.

A recent article described the emission of blue fluorescence, visible within the UV spectrum that insects can see (but not humans or some other animals) by insectivorous plants (ex: Venus fly trap, pitcher plant, etc).  Crazy huh!  These plants have a ring of blue that’s only visible within the UV range.  The plants don’t intend for this to happen…they’re plants…they don’t do much thinking.  But the insects see this light and are attracted to it.  Some would consider this communication, others no.  I am on the pro side of this debate…just getting my biases out of the way up front!

Over the next couple of days I’m going to break down how insects communicate and give some examples.  But first, we need to be on the same page as to what we’re talking about.  For our purposes, “communication” is basically:  The transmission of information between two or more entities.  That’s as bare bones as you can get pretty much; but I think it works.

A few terms to keep in mind:

A “Cue” is information sent out but picked up by something/one other than the “intended” receiver.  Perhaps a cricket making a mating call which is heard by a predator that finds it based on the sound and eats it.  Poor cricket…

A “Signal” is information sent out and picked up by the “intended” receiver.  Cricket makes the mating call and a female hears it, comes along and they get down.  Happy cricket!

So there ya go.  A basic introduction to insect communication. Tomorrow, we’ll look a little more in depth at some of those.  Or maybe something else.  We’ll see.

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