NOVEMBER
1988

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

11-23-88

Insect Songsters

Insects rival birds as the animal world's most note-worthy singers. The rasps, shrills, clicks and chirps of insects aren't as melodious as the tones produced by birds, but, by sheer volume, the insects frequently dominate their avian competition in nature's chorus.

Unlike birds, insects use a variety of mechanisms to harmonize. Some, like mosquitos and bees, produce sound by the vibration of their wings.

Such sound is incidental to the activity of these insects. However, the mosquito's whine has come to be a warning to its human victims. Likewise, the buzzing of bees is widely recognized as a danger sign in the animal world. Some flies even mimic the sound for their own protection. And the sound is so familiar that the composer Rimski-Korsakov used violins to represent it in his popular "Flight of the Bumblebee."

The majority of insect choristers produce sound by stridulation. That is, they rub one body part against another. Some grasshoppers produce sound by rubbing the edges of their wings together. Others "fiddle" by rubbing the back leg across the edge of the wing.

But all insects aren't fiddlers. Some are drummers. The cicadas are the percussionists of the insect world. The drum of the cicada is a membrane located on the abdomen, which is vibrated by the use of a complicated set of muscles to produce the well-known hum of the cicada.

Insect sounds vary throughout the season and over the course of the day. For example, many grasshoppers sing during the day but become silent at nightfall. Many crickets begin to warble when the sun goes down.

Insects sing primarily for the purpose of communicating with others of their species. For instance, some insects court a potential mate by crooning a sweet song, a practice the insects share with birds and, in some instances, humans.

Unlike humans, the male of the species is usually the lead singer. This fact was noted long ago by the Greek philosopher Xenarchus, who wrote, "Happy are the cicadas lives for they have voiceless wives."

Many people over the years have enjoyed the harmonic renditions of insects. Some Oriental cultures keep crickets in cages just for the beauty of their singing. Indeed, a cricket chirping in the house is considered good luck. Such an idea was noted by Charles Dickens in his poem "Cricket on the Hearth.”

However, not all people regard the sound of insects as a thing of joy. For instance, an innovative entomology student once proclaimed on a test that cicada killers kill cicadas because, "They can't stand the noise!"

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew