Do insects sleep?

Answered by Jessica Fultz, Entomologist, Idaho State University

Nearly all insects go through cycles of activity and inactivity the most common being the 24 daily cycle; the circadian (around a day) cycle.  The circadian cycle is like an internal clock that is set by periods of dark and light.  When active, insects are looking for food,shelter, or nesting sites but they sleep when they are inactive.  When an animal sleeps it usually moves little or not at all, has a specific posture, and does not respond to environmental stimulus, but will wake if the stimulus increases over a certain threshold.Honeybees sleep with their antennae pointing down along their head. Solitary bees sleep with their antennae pressed back against their head.  Cockroaches lay down with their legs tucked underneath them and their antennae pointing down.  Most animals, including insects, display some type of sleep behavior that depends on many genes. Scientists around the world are actively studying these genes and often use insects for their sleep gene research.

 If an insect is deprived of the natural light-dark transitions, the circadian cycle will continue, but drifts away from the 24-hour period. When an insect is deprived of sleep altogether, their waking behavior is harmed.  The waggle dance of a sleep-deprived honeybee can send hive-mates on a wild goose chase. Tired honeybees are more likely to get lost and not return to their hive. Sleep deprivation causes poor memory in fruit flies as well.  In both species, a good night’s rest significantly improves learning and memory. When it comes to sleep (but maybe not sweets), what is good for the bees, is good for me!

  • Dubowy, Christine. (2017) “Circadian Rhythms and Sleep in Drosophila melanogaster”.  Genetics. 205(4). doi: 10.1534/genetics.115.185157.
  • Helfrich-Förster, Charlotte. (2017). “Sleep in Insects”.Annual Review of Entomology. 63. doi:10.1146/annurev-ento-020117-043201
  • Joiner, William J. (October 2016). “Unraveling the Evolutionary Determinants of Sleep”. Current Biology. 26 (20):R1073–R1087. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.08.068.
  • Triplehorn, Charles A., et. al. (2005). “Study of Insects”7th edition.
  • Zwaka, Hanna, et al. (2015). “Context odor presentation during sleep enhances memory in honeybees”. Current Biology.2 5 (21) doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.069.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep isn’t simply a time when the body and  brain “shut off” for a few hours each night to rest in preparation for the next day. Scientists understand that neither the body nor the brain “shut down” when we sleep; in fact, they are often working even harder than they do during the day.

Some of the many reasons we need sleep:

  • Sleep offers the body a chance to recover from wear and tear of daily life.  Cells generate themselves and body functions slow to conserve energy.
  • Sleep facilitates learning and memory.  Sleep is a time for the brain to consolidate memories, which makes learning new things easier.
  • Sleep plays a role in fighting off infection.  Rest gives the body the time it needs to produce infection-fighting proteins.

How much sleep do you need?

The National Sleep Foundation identifies the ideal amount of time a person needs to sleep according to their age:

  • Newborns (0 to 3 months): 14-17 hours
  • Infants (4 to 11 months): 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1 to 2 years): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3 to 5 years): 10-13 hours
  • School-aged (6 to 13 years): 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14 to 17 years): 8-10 hours
  • Young adults (18 to 25 years): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26 to 64 years): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65 years or older): 7-8 hours

Keep a Sleep Log

For a week, keep a sleep log with the following observations. 

  • Time you went to bed.
  • Time you fell asleep
  • Time you woke up
  • Observations about your mood, alertness level, and stress level.

Do you think any of your behaviors and emotional states may be related to the amount of sleep you get?.

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