FEBRUARY
1993

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

02-11-93

Battle of the Sexes

The battle of the sexes is an age-old conflict. It's not confined to the human race either. Insects, it seems, have their share of gender differences.

Child care is not a big thing for most insects. The general insect approach to nurturing the younger generation is to let them fend for themselves. However, the typical insect mother tries to give her kids a good start in life. She lays eggs on or near a food source. For instance, a cabbage butterfly oviposits on a cabbage plant. A blow fly mother-to-be lays eggs on a dead ‘possum to insure a feast for her newly hatched maggots.

In one insect, the giant water bug, the eggs are carried by an adult until they hatch. In a role reversal bound to warm the cockles of any feminist heart, it is the male that is strapped with the burden of egg transportation. Not willingly though. When a giant water bug female is ready to lay eggs she captures a male; he doesn't have to be her mate, any male will do! She holds her victim down and fastens the eggs to his back, turning him into a swimming nursery.

Social insects, such as bees, ants, wasps and termites, do care for their young. They even have a special group of workers for the job. Since social insect workers are non-reproductive females, child care could accurately be described as woman's work among these insects.

Males are rather special creatures in honey bee colonies. Male bees are as William Shakespeare described in Henry V “lazy, yawning drones.” These males are so lazy that the workers have to feed them. Drones are maintained in the colony for the sole purpose of mating with future queens. But, such an idyllic life style has its perils. When food is short or winter approaches, the all-female workers revolt and throw the bums out. Or even worse, sting the drones to death. In the poetic words of Shakespeare, the drones are “Delivered o'er to executors pale.”

Some female insects including the praying mantid put their mates to good use. By making a meal of their mates, the females are able to provide additional nutrition for their developing eggs. I've heard of good providers, but, as a male, this seems a bit extreme to me.

A few insects are radical feminists and have eliminated males totally. Some aphids fit into this category. These all-female populations reproduce without males in a process known as parthenogenesis. Such an approach would surely eliminate the battle between the sexes — and Valentine's Day!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann