How insects breathe

A remarkable piece of research into the marvellous world of the insects has recently settled a long-standing controversy in science: insects do breathe. The debate apparently dates back to the time of Aristotle, who conceded that insects are alive but scoffed at the idea that they can breathe. Until recently, many entomologists held to the view that air merely diffuses in and out of tiny holes in the insects’ bodies.

Now researchers at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History have studied insects using very high energy X-ray beams. The beams are produced by an enormous accelerator called a synchrotron, which speeds electrons nearly to the speed of light and uses them to generate X-rays a billion times more powerful than those used in hospitals, and so capable of viewing much smaller structures. With this equipment they have been able to observe, with startling clarity, pulsing, lung-like structures in insects, typically smaller than a comma, by which they breathe.


The studies have revealed that insects contract special muscles to exhale, and allow them to relax in order to inhale, the opposite of mammals. The breathing also appears to be synchronised with the pulsing of the insects’ circulatory systems, implying the existence of a very complicated neurological system to keep them coordinated. Wherever scientists look in the living world they find unimaginable levels of complexity, even in what appear to be the simplest living creatures.

It is amazing to think that the tiny thunder fly that we might squash without a second thought possesses a brain, eyes, heart, lungs, mouth, digestive and reproductive systems, all within a body no more than a millimetre long! How wonderful are the works of the Creator, Who made “everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and . . . saw that it was good”! 


“A bug’s breath”, Washington Post, 24 Jan. 2003, reporting work published in Science.,