Strange Love: Copulation, Cannibalism And Display In The Bug World


February 13, 2017
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Valentines Day is quickly approaching. Have you thought of what to get that special someone? What better way is there to woo the woman of your dreams other than say, giving her a small dead animal wrapped in silk? Ladies, are you really looking to snag a date for Valentines Day? Tell your man that you’ll bite his head off, works every time! Am I getting anywhere with these? Not really?  Well, bugs have some bizarre courtship rituals and these suggestions would be right up their alley!

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Author: Charlesjsharp

The male Pisaura mirabilis or nursery web spider, does not approach a mate empty handed (pretty smart on his part). He offers the much larger, hungry female a prey item wrapped in silk. While she’s busy eating away, he quickly does his business, transfers his sperm, and he’s on his way.

This digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed on the ventral surface of a bedbug, Cimex lectularius. From this view you can see the insect’s skin piercing mouthparts it uses to obtain its blood meal, as well as a number of its six jointed legs. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Author:Janice Harney Carr, Center for Disease Control

Bedbugs, well ladies, let’s just say we’re glad we’re not bedbugs! These creepy blood-sucking insects mate by traumatic insemination. Doesn’t that sound romantic? This is where males just go ahead and stab the female in the abdomen with their penis. That’s one way to do it. They then ejaculate directly into the body cavity and the sperm somehow ends up in the ovaries to fertilize the eggs.  The only possible redeeming quality of the male bedbug is that his seminal fluid is antimicrobial and can help reduce the onslaught of pathogens waiting to infect the gaping wound he leaves behind. Now that’s love!

Water Strider. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Author: Webrunner

If you think bedbugs are the only total jerks of the insect world, think again. Water striders are the kings of forcing themselves on an unwilling female. When a male water strider is interested in a female, he will jump on top of her and attempt to mate. If she is unwilling she can cover herself with  her genital shield. If the determined male decides he won’t take no for an answer, he will tap on the surface of the water in a way that attracts hungry fish. If the female does not want to become someone’s next meal, she will give in and remove the shield, allowing the pushy male to mate with her. Yikes!

There may not be a more well known femme fatale in the animal world than the female praying mantis. It is widely thought by the general public that female praying mantises commonly eat their mates after doing the deed, but this is actually not as common as you might think. Sexual cannibalism takes place only about 25% of the time in the wild. It really depends on how well fed the female is and how quick the male is! An undernourished female is a lot more likely to go for the easy meal, while a well fed female will generally have mercy on the much smaller male.  Studies have actually shown that the female biting the head off of the male during copulation can result in the transfer of more sperm, and consuming the males body after mating delivers much needed protein to nourish the eggs and ensure successful reproduction. Considering that mating with a female is the male’s sole purpose in life, it’s much better to mate and die than to never have mated at all!

If these accounts have left you feeling anything but in the mood for love this Valentines day, don’t fret, arthropod courtship isn’t always pushy, traumatic, or downright weird.  Many bugs go the old fashioned way of actually trying to impress and win over a female. They employ every strategy from intoxicating her with sweet smelling pheromones, to singing a sweet serenade, and even hypnotizing her with amazing dance moves and shining iridescent displays.

Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium), looking very dapper. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Author: Carlos Delgado

Grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids are known for their ability to stridulate, also know as singing or chirping. They accomplish this by rubbing two wings together or rubbing a leg against a wing. The sounds they produce are a love song sent out to all of the ladies. In the case of the admirable grasshopper, Syrbula admirabilis, songs and dance moves are combined to get a date. these grasshoppers, when face to face with a potential mate, will stridulate and move parts of their body. They will wave around their antennae, swing their palps, and tap their feet. They do not attempt to forcefully mount the female. What gentlemen!

And finally, if you SOMEHOW have not seen or heard of the peacock jumping spider (Maratus volans), you must.  The male spider has a colorful patterned flap on his abdomen, which he lifts above his head in a display similar to that of a peacock. He also has black and white tufts of hair on his 3rd pair of legs, which he uses in his courtship dance. Females choose their mates based on who has the most elaborate and unusual dance moves. If the female is not impressed, she may just go ahead and eat him. The male is respectful, cautious, and very flambouyant. Way to go peacock jumping spiders and happy Valentine’s day to all of you lovers out there!

Erin M
Authored By Erin M Mills

As an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, Erin designs, creates, and maintains exhibits for the Entomology Hall, raises and cares for live insects and insect relatives, and educates the public about the wonderful world of bugs.

One response to “Strange Love: Copulation, Cannibalism And Display In The Bug World”

  1. Angel says:

    Love this story! Educational and hilarious! thank you Erin 🙂

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