Insect Study Focuses on Communication

So-called voicemail left in soil by bugs communicates information, according to insect study.

Insect Study on Communication

Bug chewing on leaf; insect voicemail.

iStockphoto.com/Viktor Kitaykin

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Insects use plants as a way to communicate with other bugs and with future generations. That’s the conclusion of an insect study conducted by researchers with the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and Wageningen University, both located in Wageningen, Netherlands. The information was first reported on the website ScienceDaily, and the study will be published in a future issue of the journal Ecology Letters.

Researcher and first author Olga Kostenko says, “The new plants are actually decoding a ‘voicemail’ message from the past to the next generation of plant-feeding insects, and their enemies. The insects are reliving the past.”

The research shows that insects — both those in the soil and those above ground — use plants and soil fungi as telephones. As they eat on the plant, the plant releases chemical signals into the air, warning off aboveground insects, and the insects eating the plant also leave a signature in the soil that even future plants growing on the same spot will transmit to other insects. And the messages are really specific; for instance, that the new plant will be able to discern that the former plant was suffering from some root-eating insect instead of a leaf-eating caterpillar.

“What we discovered is that the composition of fungi in the soil changed greatly and depended on whether the insect had been feeding on roots or leaves,” Kostenko says. “These changes in fungal community, in turn, affected the growth and chemistry of the next batch of plants and therefore the insects on those plants.”