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How Insects Mate

All About Insect Sex

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Most insects mate the way other animals do, through direct contact of the male and female genitalia.

Most insects mate the way other animals do, through direct contact of the male and female genitalia.

Photo: © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

Insect sex is, for the most part, similar to other animal sex. For most insects, mating requires direct contact between a male and a female. But for those of you who really want to know more about insect sex, here's a bit more information about how insects mate.

How Wingless Insects Mate

The primitive insect orders (apterygota) rely on indirect methods of sperm transfer to mate. The male deposits a sperm packet, called a spermatophore, on a substrate. For fertilization to occur, the female must pick up the spermatophore.

While this may seem like a hit or miss way to mate, there's a bit more to the male's method than just dropping some sperm and running. Some male springtails go to great lengths to encourage a female to pick up his sperm. He may nudge her toward his spermatophore, offer her a dance, or even impede her path away from his sperm offering. Silverfish males attach their spermatophores to threads, and sometimes bind their female partners to force them to accept their sperm gifts.

How Winged Insects Mate

Most of the world's insects (pterygota) mate the good old-fashioned way, with the male and female genitalia coming into direct contact with one another. But first, the couple must find each other and agree to mate. Many insects use extensive courtship rituals to choose their sexual partners.

When copulation finally occurs, the male inserts part of his aedeagus (penis) into the female's reproductive tract. In many cases, this requires two steps. First, the male extend the aedeagus from his abdomen. Then, he extends his penis further by everting an inner, elongate tube called the endophallus. That's right, many insects have telescoping penises! This extension of the penis enables the male to deposit his sperm deep within the female's reproductive tract.

The male isn't all "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" though. He puts a good amount of effort into pleasuring his partner:

"…the male indulges in copulatory courtship - behavior that appears to stimulate the female during mating. The male may stroke, tap, or bite the body or legs of the female, wave antennae, produce sounds, or thrust or vibrate parts of his genitalia."1

Depending on the species, the female receives the sperm in a special pouch or chamber, or into a spermatheca, a storage sac for sperm. In some insects, such as honey bees, the sperm remains viable for the remainder of her life. Special secretory cells within the spermatheca nourish the sperm, keeping them healthy and active until needed. When an egg moves into the oviduct, a contraction of the spermatheca pushes sperm through the spermathecal duct. In the oviduct, the sperm meets and fertilizes the egg.

1 P.J. Gullan and P.S. Cranston, The Insects: An Outline of Entomology (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 119.

Sources:

  • The Insects: An Outline of Entomology, P.J. Gullan and P.S. Cranston
  • Encyclopedia of Insects, edited by Vincent H. Resh and Ring T, Carde
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