I'm looking to create a highly advanced insect communication network that could be broadcast on an interplanetary basis.

Now, my insects communicate through chemical signals and smells which they produce themselves through secretion, so obviously the vacuum of space presents a problem.

Assuming that the chemical signals are the only way to communicate efficiently, how would I overcome this limitation in communications to allow them to be an effective space-faring race?

Edited to add: My concern is not so much for distance as it is how the signals are translated into a format my insects can understand.

  • $\begingroup$ People communicate through sound and body language and despite that we have mastered the email. Also check out smell-o-vision. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smell-O-Vision . $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 7 '17 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 I'm familiar with both, I'm asking about a chemical based communication system that is two-way, not email and not a gimmick. $\endgroup$ – user20762 Jun 7 '17 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you should write that in your question then. The idea behind smell-o-vision is that you have the chemicals you need with you and they get released given a certain condition, e.g. a signal. So all you need is a system to convert a chemical signal into an electromagnetic one and you are all set. I'm afraid I don't understand how this does not work. Also I don't think it is clear why the vacuum of space is the problem, the true problem should be vast distances? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 7 '17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 okay, thanks. I'll edit. $\endgroup$ – user20762 Jun 7 '17 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ Related: How could scents develop into a full language?. I guess your aliens are like this. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 7 '17 at 15:21

For "interplanetary", light-speed communication using radio waves or lasers would work.

Now your insects don't communicate by sound or vision, but they probably do have sensors for it - hard to imagine a species without that winning in the arms race that is evolution. I imagine that visual signals like semaphore or signal fires would be invented by your insects roughly in the same stage of technological evolution as we had them - maybe slightly later if using visual signals to communicate is a truly unknown concept before then. But as soon as one hive(?) comes up with the idea, it would have such an advantage in response time to attacks, general passing-orders-through-the-land and so on that it's sure to become a staple of successful hives everywhere soon. From that, sciences similar to our own can be born, leading to communication via radio/laser in the long term.

Whether the technical implementation calls for insects learning to read computer screens, or for computers holding cartridges of chemicals so they can produce smell-output, is up to you. Either would work.

Now if you want your insects to be a successful interSTELLAR race, they'll face the same problems that we do - the vast, vast distances making light-speed communication take 4 years to, and another 4 years back from, our nearest star.

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    $\begingroup$ I know I suggested the same in the comments, but I want to make something clear since this is a serious answer and all of that: There is no way a space faring civilization has a language so primitive it can be done via a couple of chemicals. I suspect each sentence has to be a unique molecule. This can't work for single words for efficiency reasons. A machine is needed that can synthesize any molecule that is a legitimate sentence on the spot. This has to be made clear. Your answer could be interpreted as "8 different molecules in a box and you are all set" $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 7 '17 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ + for / or for computers holding cartridges of chemicals so they can produce smell-output, / $\endgroup$ – Willk Jun 7 '17 at 15:20

I would think that they would do it in the same way that humans do.
Humans communicate through sound (speech) [let's leave alone gestures, vision, etc] and insects through smell (odor).

The complexity of the insects' language is not our problem at the moment; they just do it, they were built that way.

How do humans transfer sound over long distances? Either with some version of 'telephony', or through transcription in written text which gets transmitted instead and is read (aloud?) at the recipient's end.

I think the second option is what resolves the transmission of aliens' messages over long distances and vacuum (beyond normal odors' reach).

All the aliens need do is to create 'written' symbols for the 'odor' language - exactly the same way humans do for writings and, one step further, computers.

The amazing thing is that the computer technology for transmission could be exactly the same, down to the binary components of the computer system! All they need to invent is transmission booths where the odor is translated to text and vice versa.

Much like the speech-to-text and text-reading technologies that humans are already using today (granted, they would need more consumables in the booths).


"Assuming that the chemical signals are the only way to communicate efficiently".

Well, since after 4 billion years of evolution, we use "chemical signals" I certainly won't fault the idea that they are efficient on the scale of micrometers to meters. A message can be simple (Run!, Duck!, Sex!, Food!) or it can be quite complex (Plans for D-Day invasion, War and Peace, etc., etc.).

Chemical communication excels at the simple, not the complex (at least, not over distances at the meter or kilometer scales (and don't even try for AU scales!)). So, the only obvious communication mode would be "sending letters" or an even closer analogy "messages in bottles".

Currently Earth is ~21 light-seconds from Mars and ~6 from Venus. Those are tremendous distances. Assuming some secretary generated the message and then sent it up to some orbiting platform which then copied the message, encapsulated it, and then broadcast it in the right direction so that there was a near certainty that it would be received by the intended recipient, the unknowns would be:

  1. mass of a message and container
  2. the energy requirement to accelerate it (particle accelerator)
  3. the number of messages sent so that at least one was received along with the
  4. aiming of the message stream.

Mass Spectrometry is the nearest thing I can think of. It can accelerate 1000 Da peptides (for example) to 50,000+ m/s. This means the journey between Earth and Venus would be 3½ Weeks and Earth to Mars of 3-4 months.

That's one single 'text' message, one-way. It could take years for a typical conversation. If the insects were "advanced", I'd expect them to be smart enough to encode their communications electronically and send them that way.

You'll note that I avoided addressing any of the questions I posed. I see no significant difficulties in creating the message and bottle (the bottle would be the matrix which was ionized to allow acceleration as well as protecting the message from (some) radiation damage in transit.).

I also see no problems in building what would amount to a linear accelerator in orbit above Earth (or planet of your choice). I have no idea how many messages (how much mass) would be required, but I'd assume it to be enormous - on the order of 10s to 1000s of kilograms... but this is something I don't feel I've any relevant experience with, my guess is probably little better than yours.

The aiming of the message stream is also a problem: without actual electronic signals of the Sun's solar wind, etc. there's no way they could accurately aim the message. This would increase the necessary mass sent (in hopes of at least one "lucky" hit) enormously. To do it effectively, they'd need electronic monitoring of solar activity, but if they were already monitoring remote events electronically, they'd have to be morons not to use the same type of electronic signaling for their communications.

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Smell-based language has several disadvantages:

a) it is unfocused and will not reach a single target unless directly injected somehow.

b) it is expensive to fabricate the chemicals needed every time (see my comment about how a sentence for example must be a single molecule)

c) smells are slow to read for the organism and the process will be error-prone

d) it might be complicated if multiple complex messages are send at once and those are needed when you do space travel. Insects usually come in super large numbers. One needs to avoid the clusterf* which would result in a deadlock.

So here is my solution in form of a question which would circumvent the problems:

Would you be ok with a chip implanted inside the insects that translates electromagnetic signals directly into nerve impulses (or more general: the language on which the insects work biologically)? I don't know how many and how big your insects are, but the only way to communicate efficiently might be via a computer that sends impulses to the various insects, kind of like a hive mind. Insect ganglia are relatively simple, input form a chip should not be that difficult. If they are interstellar travelers, they should be able to develop such. One could even think about having a "biological" chip through genetics.

EDIT: I want to point out that this doesn't necessarily mean that the computer controles insects. It could simply act as a hub - but of course it could also take control. Also I want to point out that there is no reason why the insects couldn't send messages back, this is in no way a one-way street. Furthermore, this doesn't make chemical communications obsolete, insects could still communicate locally.

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    $\begingroup$ EXCELLENT! I didn't think about going that route! $\endgroup$ – user20762 Jun 7 '17 at 16:27

Imagine the queen of the hive of a space faring race sitting in a command center where there are many video screens (or their equivalent). All the space borne insects are required to be in a pressure suit. It would be a simple matter to have radio controlled dispersal inside the suit of the appropriate pheromones for communication. The queen indicates orders to an admin assistant. They make the appropriate radio maneuvers to one or many suited insects. The suited insects smell the chemicals inside their suit as they are released and do their worker ant thing. Suit IDs could be arranged to allow individual or wildcard addressing similar to a broadcast ip address arrangement. A little electronics and a little biotech and the queen can fart her approval or disapproval across many parsecs of space.


I think it is fair to assume these insects are haptic; meaning they have some sense of touch in their environment. Then the solution can be a code, like humans have, developed along the lines of morse code. Long before they engaged in space travel they had to engage in long distance communications over greater than their typical travel distance. Morse code over wire is an easy choice for that; and although we used audible signals, they could have used haptic signals in the same way (as we would have done, if naturally deaf). long-touch, short-touch is just as easy to send and receive with a magnetic on/off switch as dot / dash.

If they have a language, it is hard to imagine it does not have a "baby language" of a small set of words that could be numbered, and hard to imagine a race intelligent enough to become spacefaring would not stumble across binary encoding and an enumerated set of basic words, letters, or concepts.

Like with humans; some of them must learn the code: It isn't natural to either of us. But also like humans, presumably some learn it so well they can Morse in their dreams and it becomes second nature, or a second language they speak like a native.

So there is your communications system; it requires trained senders and receivers (which communicate with their clients through chemical processes, just as Morse senders heard/read a message to send, and Morse receivers spoke/wrote the messages received, i.e. they acted as Morse Translators).

Like other comm systems, it would evolve from their very early industrial stage and a primitive code (like Morse) into whatever level of sophistication it required; perhaps even becoming automated and eliminating operators. But perhaps not: If the organs or body parts needed to manufacture the chemicals or convey them is was too complex to do with machinery, then even though the communication is electronic you could (for your story purposes) still always require both live senders and live receivers. In fact it could be a plot element, if your communications providers were killed in accident or battle: A working transmitter and receiver, but nobody trained to use it...


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