Insect antennae

A macro photograph of the antennae of a solitary bee.

The large filiform antennae of a solitary bee.

The antennae are often called 'feelers' because the insect waves them around. This is a wrong name because they are not only used for touch. The antennae are actually the insects 'nose' - they are used for the sense of smell.

The paired antennae are made up of a number of individual joints. This means they can be very mobile. The basic form of antenna is filiform. In this type there are many segments that are more or less equal in size. Filiform antennae are seen in a wide variety of groups, such as Dragonflies, Grasshoppers and Crickets, Book Lice, Biting Lice, Scorpion Flies and Beetles. The length and number of joints varies much between them.

Filiform antennae

This is the most basic form of insect antennae.

Illustration of filiform antennae

Illustration of filiform antennae.

This basic structure is modified in a wide variety of ways. This means that a number of different types may be recognised. The main ones are as follows:-

  1. Setaceous - There are many joints. The antenna tapers gradually from the base to the tip e.g. Bristletails, Cockroaches, Mayflies, Stoneflies and Caddisflies.
    Illustration of filiform antennae
  2. Moniliform - The round segments make the antenna look like a string of beads e.g. Beetles.
    Illustration of moniliform antennae
  3. Serrate - the segments are angled on one side giving the appearance of a saw edge e.g. Beetles.
    Illustration of serrate antennae
  4. Pectinate - The segments are longer on one side. This gives the appearance of a comb e.g. Sawflies (related to wasps) and Beetles.
    Illustration of pectinate antennae
  5. Clavate - the segments become wider towards the tip of the antenna. This may be gradual along its length, or a sudden increase and therefore mainly affecting the last few joints and giving the appearance of a club e.g. Butterflies & Moths and Beetles.
    Illustration of clavate antennae
  6. Lamellate - the segments towards the end are flattened and plate-like. This gives the appearance of a fan e.g. Beetles
    Illustration of lamellate antennae
  7. Geniculate - there is an abrupt bend or elbow part of the way along the antenna e.g. Ants and Beetles.
    Illustration of geniculate antennae
  8. Plumose - the segments each have a number of fine thread-like branches. This gives the appearance of a feather e.g. Flies.
    Illustration of plumose antennae

The antennae of the Lepidoptera, Neuroptera, Hymenoptera and Coleoptera are very variable. These groups show examples of a number of different antenna types. All the examples quoted are from insect groups with British representatives. Where groups have no British representatives, they have not been detailed above.

Previous: Insect fact files | Next: Wings