Romance is For People — Not Bugs : USDA ARS

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Romance is for people – not insects

Contact: Autumn Canaday
Email: Autumn Canaday

February 11, 2021

As you are contemplating or participating in the romantic rituals of Valentine’s Day, remember that the art of “courting” is also familiar to the insect world. The only difference is that humans often struggle with romantic choices, but insects are genetically programmed to respond to mating opportunities.

This is the time of year when many are encouraged to drop their pride and offer an engagement ring to the one who will make your heart swell with affection. But don’t worry if you struggle with your pride and need a bit of motivation before Valentine’s Day. Have you by any chance heard of the male tephritis?

Often known by the ornate, colorful pattern on its wings, the tephritide is no more than 10 mm. The tephritide has more than 300 different species in its family and is found in the United States and Canada. You are likely to find these insects frolicking through different orchards or in a common pasture or field. The bad news is that some species can be agricultural pests as they feed on numerous plants, flowers, and vegetables. The good news is that the Tephritiden have interesting advertising behavior that is guaranteed to outshine the most chivalrous of us.

The male tephritid usually moves his wings in a ritual motion after first using chemical pheromones to attract his partner. As soon as the female approaches his suitor, the male waves his wings in a special courtship dance that includes a slow up and down movement that changes in motion. These movements often include flapping, waving, and sometimes fanning his wings. This usually wins a female’s eye, but when another male tephritid has the same female eye, things can get pretty complicated. The competition between the two suitors will escalate when they vibrate their wings to intimidate the other.

Peacock fly, Callopistromyia annulipes. (Photo by Judy Gallagher / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

Things are much less of a problem when the male tephritid does not have to compete for the chance of gaining the affection of the female tephritid. Some species even offer a mating gift, which is organically made from a liquid in the male’s mouth parts. In these circumstances, the male tephritid offers this liquid to the female in a gesture that looks like a quick kiss on the lips when the female agrees to mate.

It’s all quite adorable, but we must remember that the female tephritid has the right to ignore the male tephritid’s ritual wing dance and move forward before deciding to fly to another pasture or field.