Friday, October 3, 2014

Little Biter

I was sitting at the "Bear Aware" table at MDC's Great Outdoors Day with Jay Barber, our MDC educator, when he noticed a mild biting sensation on his arm.  Immediately concerned for his comfort, I responded like any Master Naturalist would.  I stopped him from slapping it while I took pictures of it.

Identification proved challenging. Six legs like an insect, no wings, and biting mouth parts suggested an insect larva. It looked a little like a hellgrammite, the aquatic larva of a dobsonfly, while its mouth parts resembled an antlion larva.  At home without my field guides, I turned to entomologist* friends for help.

Kevin Firth came up with a helpful suggestion: "Just raise him to adulthood--you already know what he eats!"  Chris Barnhart identified it as  Neuroptera larva, the family that includes the antlion.  David Bowles then made the ID for me:
"The handsome critter in question is the larva of a green lacewing, order Neuroptera: family Chrysopidae, genus Chrysopa or Chrysoperla (can't tell from photo).  They are predatory on other insects, especially aphids. Maybe this one thought (Jay) was a giant aphid."  Entomologists are a sympathetic bunch.
Chrysopa - Black speckled green lacewing- James Bailey
Golden-eyed Lacewing - Chrysopa oculata
Robert Lord Zimlich CC

The green lacewings are indeed "handsome".  The delicate pattern of the venation of their wings is important in identifying the species.  Some of the species are named by the color of their eyes.  The golden-eyed lacewing - Chrysopa oculata, on the right has an almost soulful expression.  Clicking on the picture brings out its beautiful coloration.

What's the stink? - Chrysopa nigricornis - Roy Cohutta Brown
Chrysopa species also go by the common name "stinkflies", the entomological version of trash talk like "Your mother smells bad."  This refers to the vile smell that they can release from paired prothoracal glands when handled. 

Chrysoperla_carnea_larva eats an aphid - Wikimedia CC
A green lacewing larva looks like a primitive alligator with ice tongs on its head.  It eats a wide variety of garden pests such as aphids, caterpillars, leaf hoppers and thrips as well as insect eggs and the occasional MDC educator (see Jay above).  It is important to remember that plant pests don't deliberately damage your crops, they are just looking for energy like the rest of us.  It is "eat or be eaten", we just happen to be higher on the food chain.
Eggs - Mainzer Sand cc

Some lacewing adults are predaceous while others feed on honeydew, nectar, and pollen.  Females lay their eggs on plants, attaching them with delicate silken stalks.  The larvae create silken cocoons attached to plants before emerging as adults.  All four stages can survive mild winters.

Chrysopa  larvae are available commercially for aphid control.  You can buy them on the Internet in buckets of 500 to 10,000 for your garden or fields.  Or I can send you Jay and he can attract them for you.
*  I doubt there is an entomologist alive today who has not been conscious that his work is almost wholly unappreciated". L.O. Howard, 1919. - via David Bowles
Special thanks to Jay Barber (Missouri Department of Conservation) who endured "severe pain" while patiently postponing swatting or brushing it off while I took pictures of the larva. He suffered from my pursuit of science, as he always does.


  1. Maybe this one thought (Jay) was a giant aphid." Entomologists are a sympathetic bunch"
    Don't you mean a sympathetic lunch? :D

  2. Riddle solved! Jay sprayed with Eau de Aphid that day as part of an insect survey he was conducting, all in the name of science.