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Snakeflies in the Grass: Why you shouldn't exterminate your friendly flies 

click to enlarge Pretty, ain't she?
  • Pretty, ain't she?
Pretty, ain't she?
If the photo above gives you the shudders - and unfortunately, many people have that innate fear of "bugs" - relax. I met that harmless, adult female snakefly last week in the Sisters Library after it was energetically swiped off the back of 10-year old Tanner Head's neck. When he got over what he thought was a sneak attack, he looked at it and thought it to be, in his vernacular, "way cool."

Snakeflies may look formidable, especially that tiny female with her "stinger" which is only an egg-laying device; in reality they are "way cool" insects harmless to humans. For aphids and other small plant-sucking insects, however, it's another matter.

Adult snakeflies eat only dead insects, the larvae are like wolves; they gobble up anything they can catch. For anyone who has a flower or vegetable garden, snakefly larva are friends of the family.

This is one of the major reasons you MUST - and I use caps to help you notice that word because it is VERY IMPORTANT. You must be very careful of what chemical(s) you spray, dust, or otherwise dump in your garden. You may end up killing 100 of your insect friends while in pursuit of just one so-called "pest."

Now that I have your attention, let me share a few things about snakeflies that are fascinating to me, which will probably just be "Oh, isn't that nice..." to you. But hey, learning should always be fun, and you never know what you may end up doing with entomological information.

To begin, snakeflies are in the same group as dobsonflies (fish bait), lacewings, antlions, and other winged garden helpers of their ilk. Scientifically, they are in the order, Neuroptera, which, depending on your way of looking at scientific Greek, can mean "nervewing," or "netwing."

Lacewings larvae are the T-Rex of the plant world. Just one larva in the rosebush may be enough to wipe out an entire aphid infestation in a week; two of them could probably get the job done in a few days.

What angler who plies the waters of the Metolius and Deschutes does not know the dobsonfly? While the antlions, we all know. Antlion pit traps are a common sight in sandy areas under junipers all over the Sisters area. Before the days of wall-to-wall computer games - that have all but turned our kids into couch potatoes - youngsters took great delight in dropping ants into the antlion's traps. I can recall three or four of us sixth graders watching an antlion larva reach out from the bottom of the pit, grab an ant in its long grasping jaws and drag the helpless victim underground.

Snakefly larvae, on the other hand, are rarely seen. They travel under the detritus on the garden floor like a snake, devouring every living animal smaller than they are. There are only about 175 species of snakeflies known to science and most of them take two years to develop into adults, while going through 20-15 instars (molting their skin and growing larger).

There is a close relative of antlions and snakeflies living in southeast Arizona known as owlflies. I met them when I was the manager of Ramsey Canyon Preserve, the "Hummingbird Capital of the World." I just happened to be at the right place at the right time when an egg mass of these remarkable creatures was hatching. Instead of building a pit trap, as antlions do, these crafty killers glued tiny pieces of lichen to their backs to hide them, and off they went, devouring everything in sight. When owlflies metamorphose into adults, they are almost impossible to tell from antlions.

The larvae in the bunch of Neuropterans known as Spongeflies, feed on freshwater sponges while the larvae in the family Mantispidae - which look like a science experiment gone wrong, a cross between a praying mantis and a lacewing - are parasites of the egg sacs of spiders.

No matter how you look at it, Neuropterans, of which there are approximately 5,400 species, are specialists in the art and science of pest-control. Give them the opportunity to live and they will not only replace the use of chemicals in your garden, but they will save you money as well.


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