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  • Imagine being able to smell your dinner from the other side of a sports field. Insects do this with the pair of antennae on their heads. But insects don’t only use their antennae to smell. They can also use them to feel the surface of an object, sense hot and cold, listen to sounds or detect the movement of air or wind.

    Rights: Pete McGregor, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

    A common wasp

    Insects have paired antennae so they can smell in stereo. They can detect the smallest of concentrations of scent. Pictured is the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris).

    Antenna anatomy

    All insect antennae have three basic parts:

    • The scape is the first segment and is attached to the head of the insect inside a socket. This socket allows the insect to move and rotate the antenna easily.
    • The next segment is the pedicel. It contains muscle connections allowing the insect greater control over antennal movement.
    • The rest of the antenna is called the flagellum and is made up of many flagellomeres. These are small segments containing many specialised sensory cells.
    Rights: L.M Song, X.M Wang, J.P Huang, F Zhu, X Jiang, S.G Zhang, et al. CC BY 4.0

    The structure of an insect antenna

    A typical insect antenna showing the different sections – scape, pedicel and flagellomeres.

    Image adapted from: Song L-M, Wang X-M, Huang J-P, Zhu F, Jiang X, Zhang S-G, et al. (2017) Ultrastructure and morphology of antennal sensilla of the adult diving beetle Cybister japonicus Sharp. PLoS ONE 12(3): e0174643.

    How insects smell

    Insect antennae contain special cells for detecting odours called olfactory sensilla. When an odour molecule makes contact with an olfactory sensillum tuned to recognise that odour, an electrical impulse is sent to the insect’s brain. This is similar to what happens inside our noses when we smell something, but insects can detect odours at much smaller concentrations than what we can. Because antennae are paired, insects are able to smell in stereo – they can use the tiny difference in odour concentration between each antenna to figure out the direction of the odour source.

    Rights: Modified from Wikimedia Commons user SecretDisc CC-BY-SA 3.0

    An electron microscope photo of the tip of an insect antenna

    A highly magnified electron microscope image of an insect antenna – the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris). Insect antennae have individual sensilla – the long straw-like structures – which can detect small amounts of scent like sex pheromones.

    The higher magnification in the inset shows another kind of pore-like cell (in the centre).

    Studying insect smell

    Scientists use specialised equipment to show which individual chemical compounds are detected by an insect’s antennae. This is useful when developing ways to manage pests without using pesticides. For example, some moths are pests because their larvae eat crops, but if scientists know which compound the male and female moths use to attract a mate (a sex pheromone), they can put some of that compound into traps and lure the moths away from the crops.

    In order to understand which compounds may be attractive or repulsive to an insect, a procedure called coupled gas chromatography-electroantennographic detection (GC-EAD) is used. This technique measures the change in voltage inside an insect antenna when an insect smells something it recognises.

    GC-EAD can be used to find out which compound a moth is using as its sex pheromone:

    • The contents of a sex pheromone gland inside a dead female moth are syringed out. This mixture is likely to contain the sex pheromone emitted by the moth to attract males.
    • A male moth is stunned with CO2, and one of his antennae is removed. This antenna is placed between two electrodes covered in conductive gel.
    • The extract from the female moth is injected into the gas chromatograph machine. The extract is slowly heated, causing each individual compound to leave the machine at a different time.
    • As each compound leaves the machine, it passes over the male moth antenna. If the compound is something the moth can smell, it causes a change in voltage – indicating a response.

    This process is repeated a number of times, and results should identify the strongest responses or responses to very low concentrations of certain compounds. Then scientists might carry out behavioural tests to see which of these compounds cause male moths to fly towards female moths. These kind of results can be used to develop pheromone lures to trap lots of moths or to disrupt mating at certain times of the year.

    Rights: Marc Clement Bouwer et al., CC-BY 4.0

    Moth response to different compounds

    The results from using a coupled gas chromatography-electroantennographic detection (GC-EAD) machine to test a moth’s response to different compounds.

    The bottom trace indicates the different compounds coming out of the machine as time goes on. The top trace shows the electrical activity inside the moth’s antenna as compounds leave and pass over it. This activity indicates the moth’s response to each compound, measuring electrical impulses sent from the antenna to the moth’s brain.

    Image source: Identification of the Sex Pheromone of the Tree Infesting Cossid Moth Coryphodema tristis (Lepidoptera: Cossidae). Bouwer MC, Slippers B, Degefu D, Wingfield MJ, Lawson S, et al. (2015) Identification of the Sex Pheromone of the Tree Infesting Cossid Moth Coryphodema tristis (Lepidoptera: Cossidae). PLOS ONE 10(3): e0118575.

    Related content

    See another article by Tom Saunders – Parasitoid wasp life cycle.

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    This article was written by Tom Saunders.

      Published 26 April 2019 Referencing Hub articles
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