Male and Female Mosquitoes Buzz in Harmony to Make a Sweet Love Song

By Eliza Strickland | January 9, 2009 9:01 am

mosquito flightA mosquito‘s whiny buzz may be one of the most annoying noises to human ears, but for some mosquitoes it’s an intricate love song. A new study of the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which carries the infectious diseases dengue fever and yellow fever, has shown that when males and females mate they adjust the speed of their beating wings until their two buzzes combine to produce a harmonious tone. And this isn’t just gee-whiz science: Researchers say the finding could help in the fight against the disease-carrying insects.

The male mosquito’s buzz, or flight tone, is normally about 600 cycles per second, or 600-Hz. The female’s tone is about 400-Hz. In music, he’s roughly a D, and she’s about a G. So the male brings his tone into phase with the female’s to create a near-perfect duet. Together, the two tones create what musicians call an overtone — a third, fainter tone at 1200-Hz. Only then will the mosquitoes mate [NPR]. Researchers were surprised that the mosquitoes could detect the overtone, because they previously believed that A. aegypi males couldn’t hear frequencies above 800-Hz, and the females were thought to be completely deaf.

In the study, published in Science [subscription required], researchers note that some recent attempts to reduce A. aegypi populations have focused on genetically engineering male mosquitoes to make them sterile, and then releasing those males into the wild to mate, fruitlessly, with females. The new knowledge of what a female A. aegypi looks for in a mate could allow researchers to test the males before they’re released to see if they can produce a properly harmonic buzz. Says study coauthor Ronald Hoy: “We don’t want to be releasing duds out there, we want to release sterile studs” [AP].

Coauthor Laura Harrington says researchers could eventually take it a step further: She hopes in future to breed transgenic males that are “better singers”. These mellifluous males would be nigh-on-irresistible to females, who would mate with them “even though it’s not in their best interests”. The partnership would yield offspring which are either inviable, or unable to transmit dengue virus. “If we can interrupt mating and reproduction, we have a very strong tool for mosquito control,” says Professor Harrington [BBC News]. Dengue fever and yellow fever are growing problems, as global warming is shifting climate patterns and spreading the range of the A. aegypi mosquitoes.

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: Making a New Mosquito details efforts to genetically modify mosquitoes to wipe out diseases

Image: CDC / James Gathany

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • Darron

    I’m far more interested in knowing if another tone can be produced to interrupt the 1200Hz overtone to create a situation where the mosquitos won’t mate. Maybe there is something to those plug-in tone generating bug gadgets after all!!!

    But seriously, if it were possible to interrupt breeding in this manner, then maybe it is a solution. Assuming the selected tone is high enough in frequency to not annoy humans or other animals.

  • Eliza Strickland

    @ Darron: There’s been a bit of speculation on that idea. Ronald Hoy told the AP that the 1200-Hz tone is unpleasant to humans, and that it sounds like “the worst ever case of ringing in the ears.”

    But the BBC says that researchers may investigate ways to use “acoustic interference,” which they say would involve “playing audio frequencies which confuse the mosquitoes, or discourage them from mating.”

  • nick

    Perhaps playing a bunch of frequencies right near 1200hz (i.e. a bunch of noise, not a single tone) would confuse them into thinking they weren’t “doin it rite,” as the lolcats would say.

    On another note, this is interesting because it seems the only way can coexist with nature at our standards (and us, being a product of nature, are natural, and so are our creations) is to domesticate it. To deal with these mosquitos, we’re basically making ourselves a mosquito army to run a deceit play on the way nature is currently doin it. Basic psy-ops. :) If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

  • Josh

    @ Eliza: That sounds promising, as long as by “acoustic interference,” researchers don’t mean “Nikelback.” Or “Creed.”

  • Phil Seymour

    Thanks for the information. I have studied the sounds of horned owls and they too, sing a mating song. Like the mosquitoes, the female has the lower note. When the owls get together they hoot a “third”, whereas, according to this article, the mosquitoes buzz a “fifth”. I wonder what the interval is for other types of mosquitoes?

  • Maggie

    Would there be any negatives if mosquitos were completely wiped out?

  • Frank Mosier

    Maggie–There’s probably no relliable way to predict “unintended consequences”. Too many variables. A lot of people were against eliminating smalllpox entirely,and actually, I believe the jury is still out on that one.

  • cin

    I am wondering if we are thinking sound and the mosquitos are ‘thinking’ turbulence… if so, our great minds and our work won’t be worth a mosquito bite.

  • Joel

    Well there’s actually probably NO negative effects if mosquitoes WERE wiped off the face of the earth but hey i say good riddance 2 em’ kill em all!!

  • Joel

    How can u tell the difference between a female and a male mosquito?

  • Joel


    ppls when u see a trail of ants wipe some saliva through a part of the trail as ants follow each other by the smell of their “Neighbours” Butt,
    The ants usually freak out when u do this so try boxing them in.

  • Joel

    So basically the feamles and males “Buzz In Harmony” in order to mate?
    Well then i’m sure that if they were wiped off the face of the earth it’d be a good thing y’know i mean like they are so annoying with their buzzing.

  • Joel

    Wait a minute if mosquitoes need sugar to fly…Store all the sugar away temporarily so all mosquitoes end up on the ground which would then allow us to CAREFULLY place them in a Space Shuttle thingymajiggy and send em’ off to a planet with a portion of sugar so they can fly and then that would be the end of our troubles…So no more mosquitoes biting us and spreading malaria and stuff…Also give the mossies a little parting gift (Animals we dont want on the earth!)

  • jim croff

    oh my god

  • Andrew

    Joel: You fail.
    LOL @ Jim croff

  • Ray

    Back on subject: So mosquitos mate in-flight, or near flight (the wings are beating, right) Any other insects that do that?

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