Do Insects Need Sunlight?

Insects of different weights and sizes vary in metabolic and heat production rates. These factors contribute to determining which insect species rely more heavily upon sunlight as a heat source. 

Insects do not require sunlight; however, it can be used as a source of heat and assistance in navigation. On the other hand, some insects actively seek shelter from direct sunlight as their bodies cannot tolerate extended periods of exposure to the heat of the sun. 

The remainder of this article will explore a number of factors to consider when learning about insects’ needs in terms of sunlight. This includes how insects may utilize sunlight, which species of insects may benefit from the sunlight, as well as an in-depth explanation of thermoregulation.

honey bee under sun rays
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How Do Insects Gain Energy?

Insects undergo a process called lipid metabolism as a way to obtain and store energy for survival. Lipid metabolism is crucial to ensuring that the insect will properly grow and reproduce. 

The oxidation of glucose as a result of glycolysis contributes to the production of ATP, the main energy supplier for insects. Like the products of lipid metabolism, the energy stored as a result is utilized during extended periods of nonfeeding. 

This process is very similar to how certain insects can create heat during times of exertion, such as flying. Similarly, the products of this process can be stored and used by the insect later on.

Can Insects Photosynthesize?

By definition, photosynthesis is a metabolic process that takes in energy from the sun that will be converted into useful chemical energy. 

It is not likely that an insect will undergo traditional photosynthesis, at least not in the manner in which plants do. However, new research has found that a type of insect, aphids, can carry out a similar process. 

This photosynthesis-like process involves chemicals called carotenoids. Aphids are the only known insect to produce carotenoids, much like certain algae and bacteria. Carotenoids capture energy from the sun and use that energy to produce electrons. Those electrons then travel throughout the insects’ cells and become available as usable energy. 

In What Ways Can Insects Utilize Sunlight?

  • Navigation. In the case of insects such as ants and honey bees, the sun can be used as a point of reference when traveling from point A to point B. This is a relatively unique ability among insects.
  • Warmth. In the case of insects such as butterflies, it is essential that they lay in the heat of the sunlight in order to maintain their internal temperature. 

What Types of Insects Utilize Sunlight for Warmth?

Heliothermic insects, such as butterflies, require direct sunlight as a source of heat. They are completely reliant on a properly heated external environment in order to survive. This process is called behavioral thermoregulation. 

On the other hand, heterothermic insects have adapted to storing excess heat produced by the muscles that are exercised during flight. This form of thermoregulation is known as thermal adaptation. Heterothermic insects are not dependent on the temperature of their external environment.

What Types of Insects Utilize Sunlight for Navigation?

Beetles and ants are an example of insects who utilize the sun as a point of reference. By referring to the sun while traveling from place to place, these insects have a natural GPS. This navigation system is effective even when clouds cover the sun. 

Though the sun is used as a point of reference for some insects, their memorization skills are capable of literally finding their way back home. Ants, for example, combine their ability to plot the sun’s exact path with visual information concerning their surroundings into a complete, holistic picture of their trip. 

For ants, their ability to navigate and memorize frequently traveled paths sets them apart from other insect species that lack this unique ability. This skill comes in especially handy when it comes to locating and obtaining food. Additionally, their incredibly clear visual representation of their surroundings allows them to successfully deliver food and supplies back to their home. 

By relating the exact placement of their bodies to the location of the sun and other prominent surroundings, ants can form a clear understanding of their body orientation along their journey. After locating and obtaining their food source, the ant would typically drag the food item back to its colony, all while walking backward.

It is necessary to the ant population that they adapt to their environment. In this case, the survival of the colony is reliant on searching for food and bringing it back to their home.

What Is Thermoregulation?

In order to maintain homeostasis, insects must undergo a process called thermoregulation. Thermoregulation is an internal process that responds to the external environment for the insects’ body to reach and maintain an appropriate temperature. Shivering, huddling, and the breakdown of adipose tissue are common bodily responses to the need for heat production. 

Thermoregulation is an especially crucial process for insects of all kinds. Some insects, such as bumblebees and moths, possess an insulation system that works to keep heat in. Size is another factor that affects the amount of heat that is required to the amount of heat that is required for survival. 

During an insect’s flight, heat production and metabolic rates alike are at their highest points thanks to a process called in-flight thermoregulation. The ability of the insect’s body to maintain a steady metabolic rate and proper heat production is a direct result of an increase in heat production in the flight muscles when they are in action. 

Which Insects Benefit From Sunlight the Most?

In order to determine which insect species gain the greatest amount of benefits as a direct result of sunlight, we must explore all of the potential benefits that they could gain. Navigation and warmth are the two most common ways that insects may benefit from sunlight. 

Some insects are heavily influenced by the temperature of their external environment. Butterflies are a prime example of this. Heliotherms are capable of deriving and utilizing the heat from the sun as their primary heat source. When an insect, such as a butterfly, basks in the sunlight for warmth, this is an example of behavioral thermoregulation. 

Insects who keep warm through behavioral thermoregulation reap the greatest benefits from exposure to sunlight. This holds true because of the direct relationship between exposure to sunlight and the ability of a heliothermic insect to regulate their internal body temperature. 

While the short answer is in fact no, insects do not need sunlight in order to survive, a vast majority of insects are able to reap valuable benefits from exposure to sunlight. 

Conclusion

While insects do not require direct sunlight to survive, recent research shows that a type of insect, aphids, can take in the energy from the sunlight for utilization in a process similar to photosynthesis. 

Insects that rely on the sun as a source of heat undergo a process called thermoregulation. This acts as a way to maintain not only an appropriate internal temperature but also homeostasis. 

Though some insects are capable of living free of direct sunlight, others, like heterothermic flying insects, have adapted to producing and storing heat with no need for the help of sunlight.

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