MARCH
1989

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

03-09-89

Say It With Perfume

It's not easy to find someone with whom to share your life. Especially if you are an insect. In fact, most adult insects devote their lives to that most ancient of biological imperatives--finding a mate.

Insects don't have computer dating lists, lonely-hearts clubs, singles bars or even a six-legged version of a matchmaker to help in the mating game. Each insect is on its own when it comes to this business of love and marriage.

Insects employ a variety of activities to attract potential mates. Some, like crickets and katydids, are crooners. Others like the fireflies are specialists in aerial fireworks. Still others "say it with perfume." Yes, for many insects a good scent is worth a thousand sweet words.

Insects that use perfume to announce their availability include butterflies and moths. Technically, these velvet-winged suitors use chemicals called pheromones, which are produced in the insect's body. When released into the environment, these odors are irresistible to the opposite sex. Most pheromones are produced by female insects, but in some species the male is the one in the perfumery business.

How does this all work? The female produces the pheromone and releases it into the environment. To make sure that the chemical gets carried toward potential suitors she flaps her wings about. This creates a plume of air that wafts downwind carrying the sweet scent with it. This process is appropriately named "calling"--sort of the insect equivalent of "Hey, good lookin'"!

Males who happen to be downwind at the time will detect the pheromone--that's why male moths have fuzzy antennae--and follow the trail upwind to the source. At that point, one is to assume he politely introduces himself and says something like, "Nice pair of legs . . . pair of legs . . . pair of legs."

Pheromones are complex chemicals. For instance, the pheromone produced by the European corn borer is technically termed (z)-9-tetradecen-1-ol formate. But to a corn borer, that chemical probably rivals the world's sweetest perfume.

We humans once had pheromones of our own. Then we became civilized and began taking baths, and the natural pheromones went down the drain. Thinking individuals that we are, we recognized the importance of such odors and adopted a technological solution to the problem. We make our own pheromones and splash them on. We call them perfumes, colognes, aftershaves and such. To add to the mystique, we give our pheromones fancy, and sometimes seductive, names. And pay high prices to buy them.

Do you suppose that we humans should admit that we adopted an approach to selecting our mates that was originally perfected by insects? Why not? It certainly makes good scents!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew