How insects use pheromones

By Dr. Killigan
How insects use pheromones

It's a well-known fact that human beings have a certain bias towards their visual and auditory senses. We tend to rely on what we see and hear to learn about the world around us. But what about the rest of the natural world? They have their own means of communication that we tend to overlook. The currency of communication for most species lies in chemical signals known as pheromones. These chemical signals play a vital role in guiding behavior. It's time we acknowledge the importance of pheromones in the world of communication.

What are pheromones?

Pheromones are chemicals that are produced by animals, including insects, to communicate with others of their species. Insects use pheromones to signal everything from danger and mating opportunities to marking territory and tending to their unique duties. In the insect world, pheromones play a crucial role in social behavior and reproduction.

Produced by specialized glands located in various parts of the body of an insect or arachnid, these pheromones can be detected by members of the same species from a considerable distance away. The location of pheromone-producing glands, which depends on the insect or arachnid species and their specific use for the pheromones, can be found on their abdomen, their feet, their legs, their antennae or their wings. For example, ants have spongy glands on their abdomen and feet, whereas moths and butterflies have specialized glands on their wings. Scorpions, on the other hand, have pheromone glands on their bodies (specifically their sternums) and legs.

Thomas Eisner, a renowned entomologist and chemical ecologist, said, "If we can imagine a messenger system in nature, then nature has already evolved it." Eisner believed that pheromones (or chemical messengers) are the ultimate natural communication system, allowing organisms to send and receive complex messages without relying on sight or sound. He felt that nature has developed the most effective and efficient means of communication and that we can look to nature as a model for developing better communication systems that could potentially revolutionize the way we interface with each other.

How do pheromones help insects survive?

Pheromones are an essential means of survival for many insects. Among other things, they allow them to follow a food trail, defend themselves against predators, locate their host insects and find mates. Here are some examples of how pheromones help insects survive:

Pheromones allow ants to follow a food trail

When a worker ant finds a source of food, she will secrete a recruitment pheromone from a gland on her abdomen to induce other workers to join in the foraging. The ant will then rub the ground with a different gland to deposit a homing pheromone to direct the aroused workers toward the proper trail. Along the way, the ant will also use her feet to provide finer orientation information by pressing down firmly and depositing another type of pheromone. These chemically complex pheromones serve as precise instructions for other ants.

Pheromones allow bombardier beetles to defend themselves against predators

When threatened, the bombardier beetle has a defense mechanism that is nothing short of explosive. This specific type of beetle emits a scorching and repulsive spray of noxious chemicals from its abdomen, which is a mixture of toxic chemicals that are heated to a boiling point inside the beetle's body. This chemical concoction is heated and then expelled with a loud popping sound that can be heard up to several feet away.

Additionally, this insect also releases a pheromone that attracts other bombardier beetles to its defense. This pheromone acts as a call to arms, alerting nearby beetles to join forces and overwhelm the attacker.

Pheromones allow parasitic wasps to locate host insects (for their offspring)

The parasitic wasp uses highly sensitive and very specialized sensory organs (chemoreceptors) to locate the host's body. These chemoreceptors are able to detect the specific pheromones released by the host insect. These specific pheromones act as a homing signal that guides the wasp to the host. The wasp will then sting and lay eggs on, or inside of, said host. These eggs will hatch and develop by feeding on the host insect, eventually emerging as adult wasps. 

Note: A parasitic wasp is a type of wasp that lays its eggs on or inside the body of another insect or arachnid (known as the host).

Pheromones allow larger silkworm family moths to find a mate

The male moths within this Saturniidae family, specifically the Antheraea polyphemus and Antheraea pernyi species, use female-released-pheromones to locate potential mates. Female moths release a specific pheromone blend into the air to attract their male counterparts. These pheromone molecules travel long distances and these male moths, who have specialized antennae to detect these pheromones, will fly up to 30 miles to said female, tracing the pheromone plume in the air.

This cone-shaped trail of pheromone molecules, or pheromone plume, can extend for several miles and can spread up to a few hundred meters wide, though the exact distance will vary depending on various environmental factors such as wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity.

What effect do female pheromones have on males? 

Female pheromones can have various effects on males, depending on the species and the purpose of the pheromones. In general, female pheromones are used to signal to males that they are ready to mate. This can cause male insects to become more active in searching for a mate or more aggressive towards other males. It can also cause them to change their behavior in other ways that increase their chances of mating. In some cases, female pheromones can also act as a deterrent to males, signaling that the female is not interested in mating or that she is already paired with a mate. Overall, the effect of female pheromones on males can be quite powerful, and they play a key role in the reproductive success of many species.

Here are several interesting examples:

  1. How male butterflies seek mates: Male butterflies are strongly affected by female pheromones. There are several types of butterflies - including those of the monarch butterfly, the painted lady butterfly and the checkered white butterfly - where the male species will engage in a behavior called "hilltopping," where they gather at the tops of hills or other high points in search of potential mates. They are able to detect female pheromones from a distance and these insects will fly towards the source in order to find the female and engage in mating behavior. 
  2. How the queen bee communicates her presence and status: The pheromones of the queen honey bee significantly affect the male honey bees, (or drones). The queen bee produces a pheromone called "queen mandibular pheromone" (QMP), which is distributed throughout the hive and acts as a signal of the queen's presence and reproductive status. The QMP has a calming effect on the drones, reducing their aggression and allowing them to focus on their reproductive duties. It also inhibits the development of the drones' reproductive organs, ensuring that they do not mate with the queen and produce genetically inferior offspring. In addition, the QMP can stimulate drone production in the colony and regulate the foraging behavior of worker bees
  3. How the firefly uses flash signals (in addition to pheromones) to find a mate: Female fireflies produce a specific pheromone blend that is unique to their species, which males of the same species are able to detect using specialized receptors located on their antennae. The pheromones are released by the female and diffuse into the surrounding air, creating a chemical trail that the male can follow to locate the female.

    In addition to following the chemical trail, male fireflies, with their specialized eyes, have evolved the ability to recognize specific light patterns produced by the females as they flash their light organs. These light patterns, called "flash signals," are species-specific and are used by the males to identify potential mates.

    So when a male firefly detects the pheromone of a female, he will fly towards the source while at the same time flashing his own light organ in a specific pattern to attract the female's attention. Once he locates the female, he will engage in a mating display, where they flash their light organs in a coordinated pattern, to attract her attention and mate with her. The use of pheromones and flash signals, together, allows fireflies to effectively locate and mate with members of their own species.

    How does Dr. Killigan’s use pheromones? 

    I’m so glad you asked. We use pheromones in our people-friendly, pet-friendly moth traps. Both the Pantry Moth Traps and the Clothing Moth Traps use a very specific blend of double-potent pheromones to target the adult male moths of their species. You can rid your home of pantry moths (with our pantry moth traps) and rid your home of clothing moths (with our clothing moth traps). Our moth solutions have been rigorously tested and proven to be very successful. Backed by hundreds of side-by-side tests, they consistently have higher catch rates than imitations and other brands. 

    Pheromones, my friend, are very fragile compounds. Their integration into our traps, as they are carefully synergized with our specialized glue, require a proprietary process that relies on a very precise temperature that both preserves their integrity and prevents breakdown when exposed to light and air. The result is a highly effective attractant that stops moths in their tracks, as males of that species are attracted to the trap as they would be to a “calling female” (or female that calls out to potential mates).

    In addition, our moth traps are engineered to slowly and steadily release their pheromones. The specially-designed-glue in our traps (which contain the pheromone)—in releasing the pheromone molecules at a gradual and consistent rate—allows these pheromones to disperse into the environment and attract male moths over an extended period of time. This greatly increases the effectiveness of our sticky traps. The steady release of pheromones also helps to ensure that the trap remains effective for a longer period of time, providing ongoing protection against moth infestations.

    Our traps, unopened, are good for three years from the date of manufacture. Once opened, they are effective for three months (or until full). 

    Our clothing moth traps attract these types of moths:  

    • Webbing clothes moth, also called the common clothes moth or clothing moth (Tineola bisselliella)
    • Case-making moth, also called the case-bearing moth (Tinea pellionella)
    • White-shouldered house moth (Endrosis sarcitrella)
    • Brown house moth (Hofmannophila pseudospretella)

    Our pantry moth traps attract these types of moths: 

    • Indian meal moth, also called the Indianmeal moth, pantry moth, weevil moth, flour moth, grain moth and food moth (Plodia interpunctella)
    • Almond moth, also called the tropical warehouse moth (Cadra cautella)
    • Raisin moth (Cadra figulilella)
    • Mediterranean flour moth, also called the mill moth (Ephestia kuehniella)

    As a pioneer in non-toxic pest control, I believe that you will be fully satisfied with Dr. Killigan’s double-potent pheromone formula moth trap purchase. Our moth traps are guaranteed to eliminate adult male moths and stop their reproduction process, thus preventing the females from laying eggs that hatch into food-destroying larvae. Any purchase comes equipped with a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

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