Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What’s This Bug? The Scorpionfly.

Male Scorpionfly
Male Scorpionfly
Insects are masters of illusion and the Scorpionfly (Order: Mecoptera) is an excellent example of this. This bug may look like a devilish mashup of a scorpion and a wasp that could seriously hurt you, but it’s so not that.  It’s none of those things and, in fact, is completely harmless. Scorpionflies cannot sting and do not bite. And that large stinger-looking thing? It’s actually the oversized genitalia of the male.  Now you’re looking at this insect completely differently, aren’t you?

Female Scorpionfly
Female Scorpionfly

Scorpionflies are not actually flies, but they are nearly as common with more than 500 species in five families worldwide. Of those, 68 species are in North America. One or another of this large family can be found in all kinds of habitats – there are even Snow Scorpionflies. Despite being nearly everywhere, scorpionflies are not familiar to most people. This may be due to their small size (½” to 1” in length), or to their lowkey lifestyle. Scorpionflies are generally scavengers and feed on dead or dying insects (although they take a sip of nectar on occasion); but, there some species that prey on easy pickings, like wounded or slow-moving insects. Scorpionflies are also said to steal bugs from spider webs, but this behavior is probably as brazen as these little guys get. For the most part, they hang around (literally, they hang) on leaves and branches until they have an opportunity to feed.  

An artist's vision of the Permian Period with various plants and animals.
The Permian Period
Scorpionflies claimed their place on our planet a very long time ago and have carried on ever since. They developed during the Permian Period 250-300 million years ago. This was a time of great climate change and mass extinctions due to intense volcanic activity. These insects persisted, however, and changed very little between ancient and modern times. They are believed to be the ancestors of flies, butterflies and dragonflies. This time period also saw the rise of the cockroach, an insect that most people probably wish had not survived the volcanoes. 

So, what about that big “tail”? Like other male creatures with flashy parts, it’s used in courtship display. They wave it around while emitting pheromones to get the attention of females. But he has to have more than a big tail to win the female over; he needs to offer her a nuptial gift. These gifts are either dead insects or a saliva ball that, if she accepts him, she’ll feed on while copulating. Just in case she changes her mind, he has claspers on his huge appendage that keep ahold of her. And if she goes through her food gift too fast, he will hack up another saliva ball for her to eat. These methods to subdue and placate her are necessary as the females have been known to eat their suitors. 

A male scorpionfly feeding off a spider's web.
A Spiderweb Buffet
Another probable reason for such an ostentatious tail-end is Batesian mimicry. This is when a defenseless animal takes on the characteristics of more threatening creatures. In the case of the scorpionfly, their black, yellow and orange coloring is similar to a wasp. When you add the stinger-like appendage, you have a harmless animal that looks like a dangerous scorpion-wasp hybrid. This is an excellent strategy to keep predators (and some humans) away. But is also causes witless humans to kill something peaceful for looking like something else. 

Real footage of a volcano in Iceland.
Scorpionflies active and doing their part to clean up organic matter from May through September, so keep an eye out for these little guys. Be gentle with them, though; they’re survivors but also very delicate.

Submitted by Pam

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