The latest edition of Science Express (advance copies of papersPeer Reviewed research that will be published in Science) has some interesting news about how one species of whitefly has been so successful. Basically, they succeed because they’re slutty.

“Asymmetric Mating Interactions Drive Widespread Invasion and Displacement in a Whitefly,” by Shu-Sheng Liu, Jing Xu, Jun-Bo Luan, Lian-Sheng Zang and Yong-Ming Ruan; P. J. De Barro ; and Fang-Hao Wan. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1149887

” The role of behavioural mechanisms in animal invasions is poorly understood. Here we show that asymmetric mating interactions between closely-related but previously allopatric genetic groups of the whitefly Bemisia tabaci, a haplodiploid species, have been a driving force contributing to widespread invasion and displacement by alien populations….We found that the invader increased frequency of copulation and consequently production of female progeny and at the same time reduced copulation and female production in the indigenous genetic groups during invasion and displacement.”

This particular whitefly (Bemisia tabaci ) has spread all over the world. It’s not picky about what it will feed on, and the damage from feeding can be severe.

Worse, these insects are capable of transmitting over 100 kinds of viruses that can cause additional damage to plants. And, just to make things more exciting, there are many different biotypes within this species, and some of them are extremely resistant to pesticides.

This study is a great example of how learning about the behavior of an animal can help us figure out how to control it. When these whiteflies arrive in a new area, they try to interbreed with local whiteflies. (Apparently whiteflies aren’t very good at telling species apart. Or, they really are slutty, and just don’t care.) The result of this interbreeding between types is lots of male whiteflies.

Why? It’s a quirk of genetics. Whiteflies are haplodiploid, which means that males are haploid (have half the regular amount of genetic material) and females are diploid (normal). A female that mates with the “wrong” male will lay unfertilized eggs, which develop into males.

The invasive females respond to this population full of males like they’ve arrived on the set of “Where the Boys Are.” They become more promiscuous, mate more often, and lay more female eggs. More females = more eggs being laid = more whiteflies.

Both males and females are also mating with the locals, and interrupting their reproduction–so the local biotype declines. Pretty soon, the invading whiteflies have taken over.

Hopefully, knowing more about how this particular group of whiteflies are such successful invaders will help us come up with better control methods.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Wow, and I thought that aphid parthenogenesis was recipe enough for mayhem! Homoptera really are nuisancey … no wonder they’re such pests.

  2. (not meaning to dis Membracids with the mention of Homoptera, there…)

  3. So cross-species breeding is sterile when invading males are mating, but not when invading females are? Is it asymmetry in fertilization success that drives the locals to “extinction” (if they still mate, some of their genes are still over here!)?

  4. Both females and males of the invaders are mucking things up for the locals. Because only the invader females produced by meeting with the “right” males are stimulated (if you will) to mate more by the presence of lots of extra males, they quickly replace the locals.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the paper on the weekends–dang university firewalls! Otherwise, I’d post a table that might clear this up.

Comments are closed.