Female yellow dung flies are so coveted when they’re fertile that sometimes a number of males will pounce on and try to mate with one, leaving her subject to suffocation in the dung. In a process called “traumatic insemination,” the male African bat bug pierces the body wall of the female; his sperm swim to her eggs through her body cavity. The genitals of the male honeybee explode after sex; the queen will sometimes return to the hive with his organ still attached to her.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses their genitalia.
Lest you get the impression that all insect sex is horror-film-worthy, it’s not: it’s adaptive, creative, intriguing and so diverse that if they ever develop teeny computers, they’d have their own version of SexIs (maybe “InSectIs?). Their often surprisingly elaborate methods of mating, reproduction, house-keeping, communication and social order is charmingly illuminated in Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World, by Marlene Zuk, biology professor at the University of California and probably the only author who could make an insectophobe take an interest in bugs that aren’t animated by Pixar.
Sex On Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World]Zuk’s mission is not just to treat us to the buggy version of Real Sex but to make us appreciate insects for all the things we can’t see from our great distance from them, both spatially and emotionally. Insects aren’t as easily anthropomorphized as other animals, she says, and yet they are as clever and worthy of our admiration as anything with a fur coat instead of an exoskeleton.
Before we get to hear about their inventive sex lives — straight and gay — we are treated to a lot of information about just how bright they are, grasshoppers potentially being brighter than some of us. In one experiment those creatures could discern the nutritional value of the food they needed and went towards the colored tubes they had learned in a lab to associate with the nutrient they were lacking (carbs or proteins); those humans who go directly to the pork rinds or Fiddle Faddle clearly are missing the capacity to choose any nutritive food at all, much less one we need more of. Bees who find a new food source — this is amazing — will come back to the hive and convey the information to their pals via dance: a series of movements that represents the location and distance of the source. The other bees watch and then fly, Zuk says, pretty much to the new food source. Think of it as a ballet that tells you, instead of some story about a Nutcracker, that there’s a new sushi place on the corner of 5th and Main — so let’s go!
Once you are thinking of insects as more multi-dimensional (another point in their favor: many foods are pollinated by insects and researchers in France estimate that the world economic value of pollination is $153 billion) and you’ve garnered a new respect for all things winged and leggy, their sexual habits just get that much more interesting — kind of the way you’d rather hear about the liaisons of people you like than those who make your skin crawl.
Penises, for instance, are compelling even in the most one-dimensional creatures (I won’t name names) but “in contrast, the penis equivalent of the male damselfly boasts a terrifying array of spikes, scoops and hooks,” and is in fact used as a weapon. The battles, however, “take place when the opponent is completely absent, and the scoops and spines serve to remove a prior mate’s sperm from the female reproductive tract so that it can be replaced with the current male’s ejaculate.” (Some female damselflies can selectively hang onto the sperm of different suitors, discarding the others’ offering after the boys have long flown the swamp.)
“Males squeezed the females rhythmically with their enlarged powerful genitalia throughout copulation,” sounds like bone-dry erotica but it is, in fact, a description in an academic paper of the mating of short-bodies cellar spiders, an event that includes the female ‘singing,’ during the act, a sound which, the paper says “resembles squeaking leather.” “If there’s such thing as spider porn this is it,” Zuk writes.
The male damselfly or dragonfly “has two sets of genitalia…one at the tip of his abdomen and the other closer to the center of his body,” to which he transfers sperm before mating. This he does by grabbing the female “behind the head with his rear appendages,” and if she doesn’t reject him, the two will fly like this until they land and form a wheel, with her bending her abdomen to reach those mid-body genitals of his. As if this Kama Sutra act wasn’t enough, male blue-tailed damselflies that were raised with other males will be more likely to choose one of them to pair up with, even when given the chance to hook up with a female. This same-sex pairing is just one of many examples Dr. Zuk cites among a variety of insect species, including Mazarine blue butterflies “vigorously and persistently courting other males,” and a couple of male spiders who remained locked together — kind of literally, since the initial part of the mating ritual consists of pouncing on the other partner, “fangs outstretched” and eventually locking those fangs together among other things. These guys stayed like that for a solid 17 solid minutes.
Human sexuality is certainly gloriously diverse and it kind of makes you appreciate the creativity of your own species even more when you read about the mating habits of others, like traveling makes you appreciate both your destination and the home you left. Marlene Zuk’s witty, well-observed, conversational lessons on evolution, the complex lives lived on (spatially) tiny scale and getting some perspective on our own place in the world (big brains or not, we might not end up with the last laugh around here) makes for an eye opening read.
And if some pesky insect bothers you while you’re reading all about spider porn, you can hit them with the book (though, knowing what you’ll know now, you’ll probably feel much worse about it than you did before reading).