Public Release: 

Migrating insects fly in the fast lane

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

A study published today in Science, by researchers at Rothamsted Research (an institute of the BBSRC), the Met Office, the Natural Resources Institute, and the Universities of Exeter, Greenwich and York, sheds new light on the flight behaviours that enable insects to undertake long-distance migrations, and highlights the remarkable abilities of these insect migrants.

Many insects avoid cold British winters by migrating south in autumn to over-wintering sites around the Mediterranean. Migrant insects then return to the UK in spring. How such small insects undertake journeys of several thousands of kilometres has long fascinated scientists.

The reported study was funded by BBSRC and used two sets of specially-designed radar equipment to observe migrating butterflies and moths flying several hundreds of metres above the ground, and to describe the sophisticated flight behaviours that they have evolved. These insect migrants have a compass sense that enables them to select winds which will take them in their chosen direction, and to travel at speeds of up to 100 km per hour. The fast speeds of winds aloft mean that insects travel more-or-less downwind, but they make subtle adjustments to their headings so that they partially correct for wind-induced drift away from their preferred direction of travel.

Dr Chapman said "Migratory butterflies and moths have evolved an amazing capacity to use favourable tailwinds. By flying at the heights where the wind currents are fastest, migratory moths can travel between their summer and winter grounds in just a few nights".

Dr Hill said "We estimate that over 2 billion insects were involved in the mass migration events that we studied. These insect migrants are clearly very successful."

The study used a computer model dubbed "NAME" to demonstrate that the flight behaviours observed result in migrants travelling nearly twice as far and closer to their preferred direction as an insect just randomly drifting downwind. Many migratory insects are pests of agricultural crops, so the model will be useful for predicting migration events in the future.

Ms Burgin said "We combined the results from the radar measurements of moth flight with the outputs of a model of atmosphere motion to show that by hitchhiking on suitable winds, insects can travel at greater speeds than many migrating birds, which is important given the short lifespan of insects."

This study illustrates how insects successfully undertake long-distance migrations in favourable directions. Climate change is likely to significantly alter the frequency of insect migrants, including introducing some agricultural pests that are completely new to the UK. Thus, a better understanding of their migration strategies is increasingly crucial in helping to secure food supplies in the long term.


Notes for editors:

1. The research is published in the current issue of Science (published 5 February 2010) as "Flight Orientation Behaviors Promote Optimal Migration Trajectories in High-flying Insects" by Jason W. Chapman, Rebecca L. Nesbit, Laura E. Burgin, Don R. Reynolds, Alan D. Smith, Douglas R. Middleton, and Jane K. Hill. The study was funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

For further information, please contact Dr. Jason Chapman: Tel: +44 (0)1582 763133 ext 2431,,

2. Rothamsted Research is centred in Harpenden Hertfordshire and is the largest agricultural research institute in the country. The mission of Rothamsted Research is to be recognised internationally as a primary source of first-class scientific research and new knowledge that addresses stakeholder requirements for innovative policies, products and practices to enhance the economic, environmental and societal value of agricultural land. The Applied Crop Science department is based at Broom's Barn, Higham, Bury St. Edmunds. North Wyke Research is located near Okehampton in Devon. See

For further information, please contact the Rothamsted Research Press Office Tel: 01582 763133 ext 2260 or email Dr Adélia de Paula (

3. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University), Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre, The Genome Analysis Centre, The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh) and Rothamsted Research. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

For more information see:

4. The University of Exeter is a top 10 UK university which combines world leading research with very high levels of student satisfaction. It is one of the UK's most popular and successful universities with campuses in Exeter, Devon, and near Falmouth in Cornwall. Exeter is ranked 9th out of more than 100 UK universities in the Times league table. It was the 2007/08 Times Higher Education University of the Year. It is ranked fourth in the UK for student satisfaction in the latest National Student Survey amongst full service universities. For further information see

5. Natural Resources Institute / University of Greenwich.

The Natural Resources Institute (NRI) is an internationally recognised multi-disciplinary centre for research and consultancy for the management of renewable natural resources, particularly in countries with developing and emerging economies. One of the Institute's predecessor organisations was the Anti-Locust Research Centre, and NRI has long had expertise in managing important migrant insect pests such as locusts and armyworm moths. The autonomously-operating insect-monitoring radar, used in the present research, was developed at NRI by Prof Joe Riley and Alan Smith. NRI became part of the University of Greenwich in 1996.

The University traces its roots back to 1890, when Woolwich Polytechnic was founded as Britain's second oldest Polytechnic. The University of Greenwich has traditionally focused on engineering, mathematics, computing and natural science, and recent decades, business studies. It is one of the most ethnically diverse universities with students from more than 100 countries.

6. The University of York's Department of Biology is one of the leading centres for biological teaching and research in the UK. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, it was ranked equal first among broad spectrum bioscience departments in the UK for quality that was judged to be world-leading. The Department both teaches degree courses and undertakes research across the whole spectrum of modern Biology, from molecular genetics and biochemistry to ecology.

For more information contact Dr Jane Hill +44 (0)1904 328642 or

7. The Met Office is the UK's National Weather Service, providing 24x7 world-renowned scientific excellence in weather, climate and environmental forecasts and severe weather warnings for the protection of life and property. The Met Office has been voted No 1 in the world in the Times Higher Education Supplement review of geosciences research centres and is the UK's foremost centre for climate change research. Largely funded by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and DECC (the Dept for Energy and Climate Change) it provides information and advice to the UK Government on climate change issues.

For more information contact Ms Laura Burgin +44 (0)1392 884858; Email:; Website:; or the Met Office press office on +44 (0)1392 886884; Email:

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.