Bug Babble

Mustard plants, courtesy of Alex Ringer/SXC.hu

In popular movies like Antz and A Bug’s Life, insects have the gift of gab. New research shows that although bugs can’t talk when they’re off the big screen, they can send messages through plants.

Scientists from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research found that bugs munching on the rootlets of a mustard plant send a chemical signal through the stalks. Leaf-eating bugs prefer plants that are free of feasting root eaters, so when they encounter a plant with the chemical signal, they know that the plant is occupied and should pursue greener, er, plants.

If bugs are eating both the top and the bottom of a plant, the critters don’t develop as quickly, the researchers found.

Sending out a chemical signal is one way that insects communicate. Bugs like cicadas and grasshoppers also communicate by rubbing their wings together to make a sound that attracts mates, ants leave scent trails to food, and honeybees even dance to show other workers where food can be found. This research shows that sending chemical signals via plants is just another method that insects have to converse. Now talk amongst yourselves.

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