All You Can Possibly Want to Know About Insect Sex

How do insects reproduce?

Lady beetles mating on a leaf.
Lady beetles mating on a leaf. Getty Images/Dawn Morgan / EyeEm

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.

To learn more about the birds and the bees, particular the bees, here's the scoop.

Insect Mating in General

Generally speaking, much like humans, the male of the insect species uses his sex organ to deposit sperm into the female's genital tract spurring on internal fertilization.

There are some standout cases where males and females make no contact at all.

Wingless Insects

The primitive insect order (Apterygota) relies on an indirect method of sperm transfer to its mate. There is no insect-to-insect contact. The male deposits a sperm packet, called a spermatophore, on the ground. For fertilization to occur, the female must pick up the spermatophore.

There is a bit more to the male's mating ritual than just dropping some sperm and running. For example, 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 package.

Winged Insects

It seems most of the world's insects (Pterygota) mate directly with the male and female genitalia coming together, but first, the couple must find each other and agree to mate.

Many insects use extensive courtship rituals to choose their sexual partners. Some flying insect can even mate midflight. To do so, the winged insects have a unique sex organ for the task.

After a successful courtship, copulation occurs when the male inserts part of his penis, also known as an aedeagus, into the female's reproductive tract.

In many cases, this requires two steps. First, the male extends its penis from his abdomen. Then, he extends his penis further with an inner, elongated tube called the endophallus. This organ acts like a telescoping penis. This extension feature enables the male to deposit his sperm deep within the female's reproductive tract.

Satisfying Sex

One-third of insect species studied by scientists show that the males do not seem to neglect their partners either. There seems to be a decent effort on the male's part to make sure the female is pleased with the sexual encounter.

"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," according to Penny Gullan and Peter Cranston, ​entomologists from University of California-Davis, in their textbook "The Insects: An Outline of Entomology." 

Another example, milkweed bugs, also known as Oncopeltus fasciatuas, may copulate for several hours with the female leading and the male walking backward.

Everlasting Sperm

Depending on the species, a female insect can receive sperm in a special pouch or chamber, or a spermatheca, a storage sac for sperm.

In some insects, such as honey bees, the sperm remains viable for the remainder of her life in the spermatheca. Special cells within the spermatheca nourish the sperm, keeping them healthy and active until needed. When bee's egg is ready for fertilization, sperm is pushed out of the spermatheca. The sperm then meets and fertilizes the egg.

Sources:

The Insects: An Outline of Entomology, P.J. Gullan and P.S. Cranston (2014).

Encyclopedia of Insects, edited by Vincent H. Resh and Ring T, Carde (2009).

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Hadley, Debbie. "All You Can Possibly Want to Know About Insect Sex." ThoughtCo, Oct. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-insects-mate-1968475. Hadley, Debbie. (2017, October 16). All You Can Possibly Want to Know About Insect Sex. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-insects-mate-1968475 Hadley, Debbie. "All You Can Possibly Want to Know About Insect Sex." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-insects-mate-1968475 (accessed December 11, 2017).