Interesting Insect Facts Explained: How Do Insects Breathe?

Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Jan 27, 2023 By Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Originally Published on Oct 26, 2021
Facts about how insects breathe tell about unique breathing patterns of these fascinating creatures we call insects.
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Age: 3-18
Read time: 6.5 Min

Can you imagine being alive without breathing?

A normal human being can choke to death when the oxygen supply is cut off for just a couple of minutes. On the other hand, insects can go on for some hours without oxygen.

The air in the earth's atmosphere is composed of several gases. While some of these gases play an important role in our daily lives, some are extremely harmful.

All animals, birds, and insects need to breathe, and life on earth is impossible without oxygen in the atmospheric air. Animals inhale oxygen present in the air, while fish use up gas dissolved in the water with the help of their gills.

Similarly, insects also engage in respiration, where their bodies extract the oxygen from the air and expel the carbon dioxide.

This process is, however, very different among insect species, especially because they lack the breathing organs possessed by humans. Continue reading to explore in detail the science behind how do insects breathe.

If you want to indulge in some more enlightening facts, then also check out are insects animals? And what do insects eat?

Do insects breathe oxygen like humans?

Breathing serves an important role for all living organisms. Without proper respiration, the air would not be recycled.

For instance, a grasshopper might even die due to oxidative damage that takes place when an active insect spends too much time resting while inhaling the same proportion of oxygen. Insects do breathe in oxygen but not exactly in the way humans do. Here's how an insect respires.

Yes, insects do breathe oxygen, much like humans. It is a life-saving component for almost all living organisms except plants.

Although most insects are really small in size and have evolved very differently, they still perform the same bodily functions like respiration, using the same oxygen that we humans breathe in and absorb through our lungs. Insects, however, absorb this gas by a different mechanism as their respiratory system is drastically different as compared to humans.

Insects have a network of pores and channels on their bodies known as spiracles, that are distributed all over their body surface, through which they take in the atmospheric air and absorb the oxygen. Once this happens, the tracheae start functioning.

Did you know that fruit flies can thrive in the absence of oxygen? Fruit flies don't have lungs that are used to transport oxygen to the tissues.

So, like all other insect species, they breathe with the help of tiny holes in their body. However, they can endure without oxygen by entering a state of coma. Research has suggested, that it has been seen and observed that fruit flies can stay in a coma for a maximum of three days.

How Insects Breathe

Insects draw similarities with humans in inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. However, the method that each executes is quite different. Let's find out the answer to the question, how do insects breathe?

Insects don't possess nostrils like humans, and they don't even respire through their mouths. They use spiracles for the respiration process.

Spiracles are minute openings scattered all over the surface of the body. Oxygen first travels through these spiracles and then via tubes called tracheae.

The tracheae or breathing tubes contain a branch or network of air sacs that smoothens the process of air exchange. Have you seen a sponge soak up all the water?

Spiracles work similarly. Just like a sponge, they first absorb all the atmospheric oxygen through the minuscule openings and fill up the tracheae, which replenish the tissues with oxygen. Carbon dioxide produced by the body is similarly expelled from the system via spiracles.

On the other hand, aquatic insects possess a unique structure of tracheal gills that helps them to absorb oxygen from the water itself. The tracheal gills can be found mostly on its abdomen, but in some insects, the gills can be situated elsewhere.

In the dragonfly nymph, for example, the tracheal gills cannot be found on its abdomen as they are located on the rectum. However, large insects like beetles or bugs can't breathe and survive underwater.

Insects Vs. Humans: How They Show Different Breathing Patterns

Just like all terrestrial vertebrates, insects breathe in oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide from their bodies as a waste, but there are distinct differences in the respiratory system of both.

Do you know that human beings use their nostrils for breathing? Are you aware of the respiratory system of insects?

The anatomy differs in both. Humans transport oxygen through the circulatory system, but insects don't have such a system to aid oxygen transportation.

An interchange of gas takes place where the oxygen is absorbed by the spiracles, after which, it passes through tubes called tracheae while carbon dioxide is released. However, although they can expand and contract their muscles to store or release moisture, insects have no control over gas diffusion.

This inability is considered as one of the main reasons behind their small size.

Unlike them, the trachea in humans is nothing but the elongated windpipe that helps in the air exchange. However, unlike the aquatic beetles, humans cannot hold their breath for long.

Insects have a unique respiratory system.

Do insects breathe in carbon dioxide?

Usually, insects don't inhale carbon dioxide, but the question remains, are there exceptions to this rule?

Well, we can tell that there is certainly no exception to this rule. Instead, insects pump out carbon dioxide into the air as waste.

However, carbon dioxide in the air can attract mosquitoes and bugs. This is not for inhaling purposes but simply to locate their prey, that is, humans in the vicinity. In fact, this gas is considered to be quite poisonous as it is often used by farmers as insecticides to keep away pests.

Do insects use lungs to breathe?

Understanding the respiratory system in insects is not rocket science. The science is pretty simple.

Insects don't possess lungs like humans to aid their breathing. They have hearts, but the anatomy once again differs from that of humans.

Then how do insects breathe in oxygen, and how do they respond in case of an absence? As mentioned earlier, insects utilize spiracles and tracheal tubes to breathe air.

However, they have some control over their respiratory system. They can contract and relax their muscles, which in turn, helps to close or open the tiny holes as and when required. For example, an insect thriving in an arid, desert-like area, would keep its muscles contracted so that the spiracles remain closed.

This would help to retain the moisture for a longer period. When oxygen is absent or very low oxygen levels, the metabolism in insects slows down considerably.

This is when they enter a coma-like state where they appear to be in a deep stupor. When the atmospheric air is normalized, they regain their normal breath and fly off.

You might sometimes come across an insect drowning in a pool of water and then suddenly disappearing. This is normal when they enter a state of coma, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they are dead.

An insect can also survive under water or by using the hemoglobin in their blood. Water beetles can breathe by creating air bubbles where they store oxygen that functions like a scuba tank.

They secure these air-filled bubbles under the outer wings. Chironomid larvae or bloodworms use their hemoglobin to suck in and store oxygen from muddy water of ponds and lakes, after which, they stop moving to use it in times of need. Did you know that the insects that fly more require more amounts of oxygen?

This really is an interesting fact. Bigger insects need more oxygen to reach all their body parts.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for how do insects breathe? Then why not take a look at what do bed bug eggs look like, or stick insect facts pages?

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Written by Rajnandini Roychoudhury

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

Rajnandini Roychoudhury picture

Rajnandini RoychoudhuryBachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

With a Master of Arts in English, Rajnandini has pursued her passion for the arts and has become an experienced content writer. She has worked with companies such as Writer's Zone and has had her writing skills recognized by publications such as The Telegraph. Rajnandini is also trilingual and enjoys various hobbies such as music, movies, travel, philanthropy, writing her blog, and reading classic British literature. 

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