Up the Hill – Bug Love

If a bouquet of roses and dinner at Zinc seem staid this Valentine’s Day, take comfort you’re not a scorpionfly. Female scorpionflies require a “nuptial gift” of an insect from their mates in exchange for sex. Some males are chivalrous and risk death to steal something from a spider web; others cheat and give the female an empty bundle that smells of insect. Call it the empty-chocolate-box strategy.

“Not a lot of romance here for Valentine’s Day,” says ecology and evolutionary biology lecturer Marta Wells, who is an expert on the courtship songs of lacewings, delicate green insects that sing to each other before they mate. “Just like in humans, if you sing the right song you mate. If you don’t, you don’t,” says Wells. But when two males are competing over the same female, they have shouting matches — the song gets faster, the volume increases, and the female goes for the one who can shout the loudest. It’s an approach that might simplify human relations, but roommates and bystanders beware.

Female damselflies don’t need much romance — they can lead fulfilled lives mostly without males. After they have mated once, females can fertilize their eggs whenever they want from extra sperm kept in a reservoir called the spermatheca. Jealous males, who want to be sure that it’s their sperm that fertilizes the egg, have a special appendage that scrapes the female’s spermatheca before releasing their own sperm. (Wells mentions that scientists discovered this by flash-freezing the insects as they copulated, then slicing a cross section. Talk about caught in the act.)

Perhaps one of the few bright spots in this debauched tale is the lovebug. Lovebugs, Wells says, live a life of hedonistic fidelity — they stay coupled two-and-a-half days, though they only live three or four. Mating pairs don’t separate during flight or at night; for many, it’s till death do they part. Maybe lovebugs know something we don’t.

But one of our innovations that has made the leap to the spider world is video dating. Jumping spider females are able to recognize TV versions of their male counterparts and will leap towards the screen if the males make the right moves. When Professor Wells shows a clip of this in her Biology of Terrestrial Arthropods class, students ask for an encore, and a few other spider species are able to recognize their own kind on screen, which indicates it might be time to start market research for a new arachnid soap opera.

The show could be based on the life of the male redback spider, a creature as melodramatic as they come. Most male spiders live in perpetual fear of being devoured by the female during copulation — some avoid the suspense by doing a somersault onto the fangs of the female. Copulation continues as she eats him, and lasts longer than if he hadn’t committed suicide.

Flowers never looked so good.

Comments