A female moth sitting on a goal post could attract a male at the other end of the field.
Understanding how moths communicate may sound like a useless idea for helping ag control pests, but it is anything but, claims Kevin Wanner, part of the team that discovered the communication data.
The information can lead to natural ways to control pests on the farm, he adds, with scientists designing new scents that would make it impossible for male moths to find female company.
This can be major for agriculture, which sustains severe losses each year to just one moth, the European corn borer, which is one of the most damaging insect pests of corn throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The losses it causes and the cost to control it is estimated to be more than $1 billion a year, says Wanner.
Science has probed the communication between moth males and females and butterflies for more than100 years. They found the firs sex pheromones – the "perfume" females emit to attract males – 50 years ago.
But they still know little about the molecular mechanics that make communication so specific to a species. In some cases, different moths are so much alike that scientists can only tell them apart by their different pheromones.
Female moths release only nanograms – a billionth of a gram – of pheromone from a gland at their tip of their abdomen.
At the researchers' "eureka" moment, they found one amino acid adaptation that clearly provided information on the changing pheromone structure.
"It was a lot of work," says Wanner. "We had no rational way to know which one it was."
To find out more about the study, go online to the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," by Goggling the publication.