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African Tuesday: Duck-faced lacewings

Spoon-winged lacewings (?Nemia sp.) from Richtersveld National Park, South Africa [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]

Spoon-winged lacewings (?Nemia sp.) from Richtersveld National Park, South Africa [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]

Thread- and spoon-wing lacewings (family Nemopteridae) are related to antlions and similarly thrive in dry, sandy habitats. Although they are known from most parts of the world (with the exception of, sadly, North America), Africa is the real center of their diversity, and this is where over 80% of the 150+ known species are found.

These lacewings are easily recognizable thanks to their unique, extremely elongated or enlarged hind wings, reminiscent of the long plumes seen in some birds-of-paradise. The function of this unusual morphology is still not entirely known. In species with particularly enlarged hind wings their function appears to be to deter some predators by giving a false impression of the insect as much larger—and thus potentially stronger—than it really is. In species with long, thread-like wings their function may be related to the aerodynamics of the flight, and in members of the subfamily Crocinae the hind wings play a sensory function in cavernicolous habitats that these insects occupy.
Like antlions, larvae of thread-wing lacewings are predaceous, but the adult insects have more peaceful dietary preferences. They are pollen and nectar feeders, and their mouthparts are strongly modified from the typical, biting type found in their predaceous relatives. They are rather long and adapted for dipping deep into flowers, which gives their heads somewhat duck-like appearance. Interestingly, because of some species’ preference of sheltered, cave-like habitats, the larvae of these insects were first discovered in tombs of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt in the early 1800’s, giving rise to a nearly mythological status of these insects.

The head and mouthparts of spoon-winged lacewings is elongated and well-adapted for fitting into long corollas of flowers [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]

The head and mouthparts of spoon-winged lacewings is elongated and well-adapted for fitting into long corollas of flowers [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]

Mantidflies

Mantidfly emerging from a spider egg sack on the tree trunk in Cambodia. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, MT 24EX twin light]

A mantidfly emerging from a spider egg sack on a tree trunk in Cambodia. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, MT 24EX twin light]

I was busily looking for bark mimicking katydids in Cambodia, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye some slow movement on the trunk of a nearby tree. At first I couldn’t quite grasp what I was seeing – a yellow, wormy thing, wiggling its way out of the bark. But after a second I realized that I was seeing the remarkable spectacle of an adult mantidfly emerging from a spider sack after having spent its larval development feasting on spider eggs. I looked more closely and spotted the mother spider near the egg sack, blissfully unaware that she was now guarding the empty coffin of her once future children. The entire process lasted only a few minutes, during which the spider looked right at the monster that had just devoured her eggs, comprehending nothing. Unlike most winged insects, which need to spend some time expanding their wings and pumping them with air in order to be able to fly, this mantidfly emerged from its pupal casing fully formed and, within a few seconds of full emergence, it flew away. The spider kept guarding the egg sack.

The female two-tailed spider (Hersilia sp/) is still guarding her egg sack, unaware that all her eggs have probably been devoured by a mantidfly; the inset shows an empty pupal skin of the recently hatched mantidfly. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, MT 24EX twin light]

The female two-tailed spider (Hersilia sp.) is still guarding her egg sack, unaware that all her eggs have probably been devoured by a mantidfly; the inset shows an empty pupal skin of the recently hatched mantidfly. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, MT 24EX twin light]

Mantidflies are amazing insects. They are not true flies, of course, but rather members of the family Mantispidae (Neuroptera), closely related to antlions and green lacewings. This means that they are not related to praying mantids either, although they could be easily confused with them. Like mantids, mantidflies have large, raptorial front legs on a long, neck-like prothorax. They also share big, bulging eyes, and a similarly excellent vision. But rather than holding their front legs pointing forward, like mantids do, mantidflies hold them in a somewhat contorted, vertical position.

Mantidfly (Leptomantispa sp.) from Saba, Dutch West Indies. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 speedlights Canon 580EX + MT 24EX twin light]

Mantidfly (Leptomantispa sp.) from Saba, Dutch West Indies. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 speedlights Canon 580EX + MT 24EX twin light]

Mantidflies also share with praying mantids their love of live prey – mostly small, flying insects, which they catch with a surprising speed. Like mantids, they are also not above munching on members of their own species, a behavior which sometimes takes place during mating. Unlike mantids, however, the male mantidfly is as likely to eat the female as the other way around.

Mantidfly (Pseudoclimaciella sp.) from Botswana devouring a planthopper. [Canon 10D, Canon MP-E 65mm macro, Canon MT-24EX twin light]

Mantidfly (Pseudoclimaciella sp.) from Botswana devouring a planthopper. [Canon 10D, Canon MP-E 65mm macro, Canon MT-24EX twin light]

As holometabolous insects, mantidflies undergo a complete metamorphosis, and the larvae look nothing like the graceful adults. The first instar is tiny and highly mobile, whereas the two subsequent ones are grub-like, with long, piercing mandibles. Many species are predators of spider eggs, others feed on larvae of beetles, flies, and moths. Those species that feed on spider eggs must overcome quite a few obstacles before they can continue their development. After hatching from an egg laid by a female mantidfly, the larva attaches itself with a special “sucker” on its abdomen to the substrate, and waves its outstretched legs back and forth, waiting for a passing spider. But the spider that happens to be passing by is not always a mature female ready to lay eggs. No matter – the larva will attach itself to any spider and bide its time. If the spider is a male, it will try to get on a female’s body when the spiders are mating. If the spider is immature, it will remain on the host as it grows, hiding in the book lungs (breathing organs) of the spider when the animal molts, to avoid being shed with the spider’s old cuticle. Once the female spider is ready to lay eggs, the mantidfly larva allows itself to be wrapped in a silk sack with the eggs, and begins to devour its content.

There are about 400 species of mantidflies worldwide, of which most are found in the tropics, and only about 13 are known from North America N of Mexico. This summer I was pleasantly surprised to find a wasp-mimicking Climaciella brunnea near Boston, and next summer I will be looking for spiders carrying their parasitic larvae.

Several species of mantidflies are mimics of wasps. North American Climacella brunnea mimics polystine wasps, and local color morphs of this species resemble the dominant wasp species in the area (this individual is from Massachusetts.) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Several species of mantidflies are mimics of wasps. North American Climacella brunnea mimics polystine wasps, and local color morphs of this species resemble the dominant wasp species in the area (this individual is from Massachusetts.) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Mantidfly (Dicromantispa sp.) from Costa Rica. [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Mantidfly (Dicromantispa sp.) from Costa Rica. [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]