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The earth really does move for insects

Visit  Rothamsted Research website

5 November 2009

Researchers at Rothamsted Research, an Institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and at the University of Greenwich have explained a characteristic feature of insect migration that has puzzled researchers for over 40 years: how do insects maintain wind-related orientation at altitudes of several hundreds of metres in the dark? Their report will appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week.

The environmental cues used by nocturnal insect migrants to select and maintain common headings, while flying at altitudes of several hundreds of metres above the ground in low illumination levels, and the adaptive benefits of this behaviour, have long remained a mystery. Studies made with both entomological and meteorological radars have frequently reported the occurrence of insects moving in layers, and that the individuals forming these layers often show a considerable degree of uniformity in their headings – behaviour known as ‘common orientation’. This theory accounts for flight behaviour of many medium-sized (10-70 mg) insect species flying at night, at high altitudes, under conditions where downwind orientation cannot be explained by visual assessment of movement relative to the ground or by compass mechanisms.

A collaboration between mathematical modellers and biologists has now revealed that these insects are responding to the effects of turbulence. Insects possess sensors that are capable of detecting extremely faint air movements. The migrating insects will be bounced around in the turbulence, and the authors conclude that the insects are able to use the turbulence to sense which direction the air is moving. In response to this buffeting they alter their vertical profile and direction, increasing both speed and migration distance.

Lead researcher, Andy Reynolds said: "Common orientation close to the downwind direction allows the nocturnal migrants to add their flight speeds (of approx 2 m/s) to the wind speed, thus increasing the distance travelled during the migratory flight.”

This mechanism also predicts that insects flying in the Northern Hemisphere, will typically be offset to the right of the mean wind line, as a consequence of the Earth’s rotation. The researchers report on the first evidence for this effect in their data from insect-monitoring radars.

Reynolds said: "Nocturnal insects are frequently being ‘misled’ by the action of the Ekman spiral (the turning of the mean wind direction due to the Earth’s rotation). Consistent with expectations, here in the UK we observed that insects have a tendency to fly to the right of the mean wind line.”

The findings have clear implications for the accurate prediction of the flight trajectories of migrating nocturnal insects. “Over long distances even these relatively small but consistent offsets have significant effects on the destination of the migrating insects and should be taken into account when predicting the flight trajectories of migrating insects” said Reynolds. This is particularly important when designing forecasting models to predict the movement of insect pests.



Click on the thumbnails to view and download full-size images.

Note that these images are protected by copyright law and may be used with acknowledgement of Andy Banthorpe.

Larger image Adult Rush Veneer (Nomophila noctuella)

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research is based in Hertfordshire and is one of the largest agricultural research institutes in the country. The mission of Rothamsted Research is to be recognised internationally as a primary source of first-class scientific research and new knowledge that addresses stakeholder requirements for innovative policies, products and practices to enhance the economic, environmental and societal value of agricultural land. The Applied Crop Science department is based at Broom's Barn, Higham, Bury St. Edmunds. North Wyke Research is located near Okehampton in Devon.

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About The University of Greenwich

The Natural Resources Institute (NRI) is a specialist institute of the University of Greenwich. NRI's mission is "to provide distinctive, high quality and relevant research, consultancy, learning and advice in support of sustainable development, economic growth and poverty reduction".

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The University of Greenwich has 24,000 students and 1,500 staff. The university traces its origins to 1890, when Britain's second polytechnic was opened near the Thames at Woolwich to teach practical and commercial skills to London workers. The university has three campuses: Greenwich, Avery Hill and Medway.

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The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Dr Adélia de Paula, Rothamsted Research Press Office

tel: 01582 763133 ext 2260

Dr Sharon Hall, Rothamsted Research Press Office

tel: 01582 763133 ext 2757


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

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Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382