Tag Archives: Owlfly

Garden Pests? Invite the Myrmeleontiformias

Dateline: June 13, 2014*

likely a Mymeleon sp. (Family Myrmeleontidae)

Quite a mouthful.  Antlions and owlflies may be a tad easier to say for the non-entomologists such as myself.  They are members of the Insect suborder Myrmeleontiformia.  Still not familiar?  Ok, let’s put it in terms of their relatives that tend to get all the glory: Lacewings!  Along with some additional allies, all are members of the Order Neuroptera.

Ok, enough with the scientific name mumbo jumbo.  What the heck will they do to help me in my garden?

on dried palmetto frond

Antlion adults eat nectar and pollen and live for about 30-45 days. Some Antlion adult species also eat caterpillars and aphids.

Antlions as adults are a rather attractive flying insect which can easily be mistaken for a dragonfly in flight.  The majority of Ant Lion species are nocturnal for the most part. Your best bet at seeing them in flight is at dusk or at artificial lights at night.  The species shown in the photos can be seen up close and personal when they rest during the day. They try to blend in with plants…generally some dried stalk of taller grasses or, as shown here, comfy on a Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) frond.  I inadvertently disturbed this fella and (s)he moved over to the green frond.

startled, it moved to greener pastures

The ones pictured here are most likely Mymeleon spp. (Family Myrmeleontidae).

Antlions undergo complete metamorphosis. The female searches for a spot where she taps her abdomen and then inserts a single egg below ground.  Several eggs may be laid in the same area, up to 20 eggs per site. As the eggs hatch, the larval stage is formed and this is likely the most beneficial stage.

Look at the curved antenna

The larval stage is commonly known as Doodlebugs, because in their quest to find just the right spot to build their pits, the bugs scurry around drawing “doodles” in the sand. The larvae build a funnel shaped pit and wait for an ant, termite or other insect to slip on the loose sand and fall in.  As the prey slides over the edge and into the pit, the Doodlebug uses its jaws to paralyze the ant by injecting poison. Then it sucks out the vital juices. Once they finish their meal, they toss the skeletal remains out of the pit. Rather like spitting out a watermelon pit in order to eat the next bite.

Showing the wings

The larval stage is a great way for children to observe and explore the world of insects. Antlions stay in the larval form for 1 to 3 years, followed by a cocoon stage made of sand and silk for about a month.  Kids can replicate their habitat by using a container filled with sand, feeding the larvae ants and providing water droplets.

With 22 species found throughout Florida, there are plenty of these workhorses.

A silvery look, this one easily blends in with the airplane wire used to stablize the shed

In addition to keeping some pest species in order, Antlion larvae serve as hosts to parasitic insects including wasps and flies.  They also are eaten by birds that are alerted to their whereabouts by spying the pits created by the larvae.

Next up in the world of Myrmeleontiformia are Owlflies, members of the Ascalaphidae Family. The Owlfly I have encountered is in the Genus Ululodes.

The Owl Fly can easily be identified by its long antenna

Adult Owlflies are similar in appearance to Ant Lions, but they have longgggggggggggggg antenna. They try to blend in with plants by bending their abdomen out to emulate a stick or thin branch on dried out stalks of grasses. Take my word for it, they can be very convincing.   The adults eat “on the wing”, similar to dragonflies.

I will fool you by looking like a stick

Rather than laying eggs underground like the Ant Lion, they go high, laying eggs along the stalk of tall dried grasses. The larva has a similar appearance to the Ant Lion with scary looking mandibles. When the larva hatch they congregate briefly before heading down into the leaf litter or up into trees to chow down in a solitary fashion.  They can be cannibalistic so they part ways with their siblings rather quickly.  When they are fattened up, they build their cocoons in the leaf litter.

Check out the Owlfly eggs. They are very tiny

This brings up an important point.   At all times of year it is imperative to leave some uncut debris as habitat to support these beneficial insects.  If you clear away every last stalk of dried grasses, Owlflies have no place to lay their eggs.  If you clear away all the leaf litter, they have no where to prey upon insects and no safe environment to form their cocoons.

Owl Fly larvae are an interesting bunch

I used to think that cutting down the dried native grass seedheads in spring while leaving the remains in a brush pile was adequate for use by the fauna. After all, the debris was available for the birds to pick up as building materials and any insects would still be there…like a centralized buffet. After seeing the habitat necessary for the Owlfly, I leave quite a bit of tall dead materials for them to use as support structures to lay their eggs. The resulting increase in the numbers of Owlflies at my place has proved quite rewarding.

Leave some tall dried brush for the Owl Fly

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 13, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


The Yellow Jacket and the Owlflies

Southern Yellowjacket with Owlfly Larvae
Southern Yellowjacket with Owlfly Nymph

In the middle of a patch of Bidens alba, I noticed a Southern Yellowjacket (Vespula squamosa) sitting on a dried stalk of one of the Flatsedges (likely Cyperus sp.).  This wasp seemed to be intensely cleaning its face.

Flatsedge. The arrow indicates where I spotted the owlflies
Flatsedge. The arrow indicates where I spotted the owlflies

While most wasps don’t concern me, I’m not inclined to get too close to Yellowjackets because they are one of the reasons wasps get such a bad name.  An extremely aggressive species, they will attack in groups if you get too close or accidentally encounter one of their nests.  And Yellowjackets are capable of stinging multiple times, so I steer clear.  They build both terrestrial (in the ground) and aerial nests, so look every which way if you see them in the area to avoid a dangerous encounter.

Wasp is munching on the babies. HORRORS!
Wasp is munching on the owlfly babies. HORRORS!

Alas, the behavior of this guy got the better of me so, with no worker friends in sight, I reached in with the camera to take a photo or two. I had hopes that I’d be able to figure out what was going on when I enlarged it on the computer screen.

You can see the holes in the white eggs where the larva emerged from
You can see the holes in the white eggs where the larva emerged from

Turns out I didn’t even need to wait to get into the house because the yellow jacket noticed my presence and decided to fly off.  That’s when I saw the tiny egg casings on the back of that thin piece of dried sedge. Scads of tiny owlfly larvae had recently hatched and were clinging to the dried blade.

There were a gang of baby owlflies. To the left are trophic eggs which help protect the fertilized eggs from ant predation
There were a gang of baby owlflies. To the left are trophic eggs which help protect the fertilized eggs from ant predation

At first I thought that maybe the owfly gang had grabbed hold of the wasp with their powerful mandibles.  I was mad at myself for possibly distracting the owlfly nymphs and allowing the wasp the opportunity to free itself.  Like I said, I don’t like the Yellowjackets…they are bullies!

closeup of owlfly larva
closeup of owlfly nymphs

Ultimately, I saved the owlflies because in reality, the Yellowjacket wasp was dining on the tiny little babies so I’m glad I scared it off.  Hopefully it won’t remember me and return with his or her posse.

Look at those mandibles!
Look at those mandibles!

Yellowjackets feed their own larva masticated (chewed) arthropods, so I guess the little owlflies were easy pickings.  Predators of Yellowjackets include armadillos and misguided humans with spray cans of poison.  Killing them really does a disservice to your garden though. According to UF-IFAS:

“These wasps perform a valuable service in destroying many insects that attack cultivated and ornamental plants.”

So, unless they are building in areas that are close to pathways or the house, let them live to provide non-toxic biocontrol which keep insects that may become pests in check.

As I’ve written in past articles, owlflies are a beneficial in both larval and adult stages.  To attract these guys it is important to leave some taller dried brush so they have a place to lay their eggs.

Adult owlfly from May 2014
Adult owlfly from May 2014

Don’t be a neat gardener at the expense of losing a chance at reproducing beneficials.  Dried brush, decomposing leaves, seed heads, dead trees and such are all VITAL players in providing sustenance for our creatures and keeping balance in our beautiful wildlife gardens.


University of Florida’s Entomology and Nematology Department, Publication Number: EENY-81

National Wildlife Federation,  Nine-Banded Armadillo