6 freaky ways bugs have sex

Bug sex can be borderline tender and shockingly brutal. This is how they get it on

Bug sex can be borderline tender and shockingly brutal. This is how they get it on

Two fruit flies engage in copulation
Bug sex can be borderline tender but shockingly brutal. This is how they get it on (Red Trillium Films)

By Jana Madlener

There are an estimated 10 quintillion bugs on the planet, and they're here because their parents had sex. But how do bugs actually mate? 

Bug Sex, a documentary from The Nature of Things, dives into the little-known and rarely seen world of insect intimacy. According to experts, bug sex is surprising: it can be borderline tender and shockingly brutal, but often somewhere in between.

Cue the Marvin Gaye

Mating calls are a common precursor to intimate relations in the bug world. A male cricket calls a female by rubbing his wings together, creating a trilling love song. The melody can charm the females and help them locate the males so they can get down to business. 

The monster haglid is a species of hump-winged cricket found in the Alberta bush. To attract potential mates and ward off rivals, the giant crickets get loud — really, really loud. Andrew Mason, chair of the department of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), has measured their calls at 105 decibels! In Ontario, for example, fire alarms are anywhere between 65 and 100 decibels.

Another aspiring musician is the web-plucking black widow spider. Once a male detects a female, he cautiously navigates her web and uses his legs to pluck the strands. 

A small spider hangs below a larger black female, pointing his anterior legs toward her.
A male black widow woos a female, first strumming her web and then approaching cautiously. (Red Trillium Films)

His guitar solo sends a message to the female, telling her he's male and a potential mate — not a meal. 

Of course, the female might respond aggressively if his signal is unclear. But if he strums the right tune, he can proceed with the deed.

Spermatophore play

Many insects, like tree crickets, will gift-wrap their sperm before mating. These prized packages are called spermatophores. In the lead-up to mating, the male ejaculates internally and surrounds the ejaculate with a spermatophore casing, which he can transfer from his rear to hers. 

A white package hangs from the abdomen of a tree cricket.
A male tree cricket holds a spermatophore on its abdomen before it's transferred to the female. (Red Trillium Films)

After the male woos the female with song, she consents by climbing onto his back, where he manoeuvres a tube from the ejaculatory apparatus into her reproductive tract. The spermatophore detaches from the male and empties sperm into the female — kind of like a turkey baster.

Breakfast in bed

The key to a bug's heart? Food. Some insects, like dance flies, offer a dead midge or mayfly to their mate to eat while they do the deed. Others become the meal.

Spiders like black widows sometimes sacrifice themselves, and mantises are often at risk of being munched on by their mates. A select few will offer bite-size snacks of themselves to provide nutrients and distract the females during insemination so they don't lose interest or eat the spermatophore. 

Male tree crickets, for example, have glands behind their head or wings that secrete a tasty substance. During sperm transfer, the female gorges herself on the gland secretions and males can offer more food to females for better success with insemination.

A little role play

In the animal kingdom, males are typically the flashy, brightly coloured sex — they are the competitors, and females are the choosers. But according to Darryl Gwynne, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), and Rosalind Murray, an assistant professor at UTM and Gwynne's former PhD student, you can throw what you know about sex roles out the window when you look at dance flies. 

In this species, the traditional roles are reversed: females compete for male attention, and males choose the females. Not only that, but the females are not known to hunt and rely on the males for food.

A swarm of females will put on a show to attract and mate with as many males as possible. "Like little tiny peacocks," they flash their ornaments to grab the males' attention, said Gwynne. So what is sexy to a male dance fly? Inflated sacs along the abdomen and bristly legs make an enticing silhouette and suggest the females are full of eggs. When a male selects a female, he brings her a gift of a dead bug. In successful pairings, you can see all three of them mid-air, the male carrying the female while she eats the gift.

Role reversal: for these flies, it's the females that show off | Bug Sex

7 months ago
Duration 2:02
Dance flies are into role reversal. The females are the ones who "peacock," putting on a show for males that may bring them a meal for them to enjoy during sex.

Fatal attraction

One thing many people know about bug sex is one party often ends up dead. You might have heard of the cannibalistic tendencies of female black widow spiders and praying mantises. I mean, we've named serial killers after them

But male redback spiders go to their deaths willingly. According to UTSC professor Maydianne Andrade, after doing the deed with a female, he flips himself into her open jaws. His self-sacrifice can yield more fertilized eggs from the female than those who aren't eaten. Not only is the female redback much less likely to mate again, said Andrade, but she will also take in more of the male's sperm, giving him an edge.

Business or pleasure?

When it comes to sex, perhaps the most critical question of all is do bugs enjoy it? Snacks and gifts aside, Lisha Shao, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Delaware, has determined that some do. Her research shows that when fruit flies have sex, they feel rewarded. When trained to ejaculate in response to red light, the males all gathered under the light when it was available to them — a pleasure palace with orgasms aplenty.

Fruit flies love sex | Bug Sex

7 months ago
Duration 1:43
Fruit flies seem to like two things: sex and alcohol. In fact, if they can't get laid, they'll often turn to booze. But that means that bugs might find sex enjoyable, just like us.

In fact, fruit flies like two things: sex and alcohol. If they can't get laid, they will often turn to booze. So it's not always a matter of mere reproduction: some bugs actually enjoy getting it on — and others might drown their sorrows if they can't.

Watch Bug Sex on The Nature of Things. 

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