The Western tarnished plant bug(Lygus hesperus) is an agricultural pest that targets cotton, strawberries and other crops. The Western tarnished plant bug(Lygus hesperus) is an agricultural pest that targets cotton, strawberries and other crops. Scientists are studying a common pest known to harm agricultural crops to understand more about their mating habits. (Photo: Steven Ellingson / Shutterstock)

These females really know how to attract their mates

Scientists discover a pheromone female insects use to signal males that they're ready to do the deed.

When insects get ready to mate, there's an exchange of pheromones occurring that lets one half of the couple know what the other is thinking. In some cases, it's "I'm ready, come and get it!" In other cases, it's "Not tonight, honey, I have a headache."

Aside from the fact that this is obvious proof that we're all just overgrown bugs, there's something deeper going on that scientists have just discovered after monitoring the mating habits of a common agricultural pest. It's a newly identified pheromone that turns the "not tonight" response into "actually, yes tonight." And it could help people learn to control this pest and keep it from harming vital crops.

According to scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Agricultural Research Organization, the western tarnished plant bug Lygus hesperus (L. hesperus) has a pheromone that acts as an anti-antiaphrodisiac, which means it's reversing the effects of the male's attempt to make the female unattractive.

You might say it's turning a double negative into a positive. Depending on what side of the bed you're on.

The Western tarnished plant bug(Lygus hesperus) is an agricultural pest that targets cotton, strawberries and other crops.The Western tarnished plant bug (Lygus hesperus) is an agricultural pest that targets cotton, strawberries and other crops. (Photo: Brent et al)

If all this seems a bit confusing to you, you're not alone. To understand, you have to go back to the basics of animal reproduction: In many mating processes, the males guard females to prevent rivals from mating so they can be sure to father the offspring. This behavior can persist even when the male is not present. For example, during sex, some male insects transfer an odor that repels other males from the inseminated female. This is called an antiaphrodisiac.

The recent discovery essentially adds another layer to that process.

"Our analyses confirmed the presence of a previously identified antiaphrodisiac called myristyl acetate, and revealed two additional compounds that repel other males from recently mated females," explained Colin Brent, a research entomologist from the Department of Agriculture. "The female converts one of these internally before releasing it as a third compound, which counteracts the antiaphrodisiac effect caused by the myristyl acetate but does not actually increase male attraction to the female."

So what's the end game here? Brent and his colleagues – John Byers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Anat Levi-Zada from the Israel Agricultural Research Organization – say that this mechanism could be used as a sort of repellant for these pesky plant bugs, which are known for aggressively feeding on vital crops and straining agriculture.

It's also very possible that this same behavior appears in other insect species. "Given the advantages of this two-dimensional chemical signalling system, other examples of anti-antiaphrodisiacs are likely to be found," Brent said.

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