Magnificently Monstrous Muscomorphs

I suppose tiger beetles have gotten more than their fair share of attention here lately, so for this post I thought I’d highlight insects of a completely different group – flies! Admittedly, as a coleopterist, I tend to view flies with much the same disdain as your average insect non-enthusiast – as pesky, pestiferous vermin worthy of little more attention than a decisive swat. I don’t begrudge them their amazing diversity – at ~100,000 described species worldwide, they are strong contenders with the Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera as the second largest order of insects (of course, you need all three of these orders combined to match the diversity of the Coleoptera). I am also prepared to accept that they may well represent, at least morphologically, the pinnacle of insect evolution (a position that a few hymenopterists I know might argue with) due to their amazing flight capabilities and the morphological adaptations they have developed for such. These include the development of aristate antennae for detecting wind speed, the conversion of the second pair of wings into stabilizing organs (halteres), and the ability to beat the remaining pair of wings at incomprehensible rates – up to 1,000 times per second in some very small midges (even more baffling when one considers that the wing “beat” is actually just a passive result of rhythmic distortions of the thoracic box). I even acknowledge that the vast majority of fly species are not even pests, living their lives innocuously as herbivores, scavenging organic matter that nothing else wants, and preying upon or parasitizing other insects, including important agricultural pests. Still, flies bug me – mosquitoes prevent me from sleeping under the stars without a tent, deer flies drone around my head incessantly while I’m trying to stalk an elusive tiger beetle, stable flies trick me into assuming they are just another house fly (until they bite me!), house flies (the real ones) rudely land on my sandwich with their filthy feet, and eye gnats insist on committing hary kary in my eyes as I walk the trails (I won’t mention their other common name, derived from their habit of clustering around exposed canid genitalia).

There is, however, one group of flies that possess “cool factor” rivaling that of even the most popular insect groups – robber flies and their kin. I’ve always picked them up as an aside, even sending them off for authoritative ID and constructing an inventory of the species in my collection. The brute of a fly pictured here is not a true robber fly, but in the related family Mydidae. Mydus clavatus can be recognized easily in the field by its large size and distinctive black coloration with red/orange on top of the 2nd abdominal segment. Presumably this is an example of Batesian mimicry modeled upon spider wasps (family Pompilidae) in the genus Anoplius. This mimicry allows them to fly rather boldly in the open and is so persuasive that it can not only fool the casual observer, but even the most knowledgable of entomologists might be loathe to handle it despite knowing better. Although common across the eastern U.S., aspects of its life history are poorly understood. Adults have been reported to be predators of other insects, but apparently there are some doubts about the veracity of such reports. Patrick Coin of BugGuide has observed adults (males?) taking nectar from flowers and has suggested that reports of predation by adults might have been an erroneous assumption due to their relation and resemblance to robber flies. Larvae are reported to be predaceous on woodboring beetle larvae, and I have reared adults of this species from a dead sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) stump in southern Missouri that was infested with mature larvae of the large buprestid species, Texania campestris. This habit is similar to robber flies of the genus Laphria, which mimic bumble bees and carpenter bees.

In Greek mythology, Promachos (Προμαχοε) was “the champion” or one “who leads in battle” – an appropriate generic name for the so-called “giant robber flies” of the genus Promachus. These large flies are dominant and fearless predators that will capture just about any flying insect – even adult dragonflies. There are three species of Promachus in the eastern U.S. that exhibit the yellow and black tiger striping of the abdomen seen in this individual, identified as a female Promachus hinei by Herschel Raney at BugGuide due to its reddish femora and occurrence in the central U.S. Promachus rufipes is similar but has black femora with distinctly orangish tibiae and is more common in the southeastern U.S., whereas P. vertebratus has more muted two-toned legs with smaller dark areas dorsally on the abdominal segments and is more common in the northern states. Additional species occur in the region but lack the tiger striping of the abdomen, and even more species occur in the western U.S. Members of this genus generally lay their eggs on the ground near grass roots, and the larvae burrow into soil after hatching and feed on soil insects, roots, and decaying matter before pupating within the soil in an unlined cell.

During my recent trip to Nebraska I encountered this related robber fly genus Proctacanthus, also determined by Herschel provisionally as P. milbertii. These large robber flies with a prominent beard are similar in habit to Promachus species, laying their eggs in crevices in soil and the larvae feeding on soil insects, roots, and decaying plant matter. Proctacanthus milbertii is a late season species that occurs across much of the U.S. and reportedly loves butterflies. However, Joern & Rudd (1982), in studying predation by this species in western Nebraska (where the individual pictured here was photographed) found that grasshoppers made up 94% of the prey captured by this species. Interestingly, nearly all of the remaining prey captures were other P. milbertii, which was carefully verified as such since mating postures can be easily mistaken for prey handling positions. Grasshopper prey species taken by this species were most strongly influenced by availability rather than size, suggesting that even the largest grasshopper species could be captured as easily as smaller species – a testament to the ferocity of this robber fly.

Another family of flies modestly related to robber flies and also ranking high in “cool factor” are the bee flies (family Bombyliidae). The scaly bee fly, Lepidophora lepidocera (ID confirmed by Joel Kits at BugGuide), is a particularly attractive member of the family. The distinctive, hunch-backed shape of this southern U.S. species is shared with the more northern L. lutea, from which it is distinguished by having pale scales only on the 5th abdominal segment and not on the 4th also. Most bee flies are presumbably mimics of – yes – bees; however, the species in this genus might actually be mimics of robber flies instead. Adults are most often seen taking nectar from flowers – this individual was taken on flowers of tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum). Larvae are characterized by Sivinski et al. (1999) as kleptoparasites on the provisions of solitary wasps in the families Vespidae and Sphecidae – meaning that the larva does not parasitize wasp larvae directly, but instead usurpes the nest provisions on which the wasp larvae were supposed to feed. The little thieves!

9 thoughts on “Magnificently Monstrous Muscomorphs

  1. Nice photos indeed.

    I notice that at one point you say “I won’t mention their other common name, derived from their habit of clustering around exposed canid genitalia” (which has me intrigued now, because whatever that other name is, I haven’t heard it) and then a few paragraphs later you give us Proctacanthus – “spiny butt”. 🙂

  2. A most interesting article Ted. I found a most unusual robber fly, it looks like a cross between that and a dragonfly. I have never seen something like that before and it was much larger than the normal robbers. I must remember to post it soon.

  3. Thanks for this great post. I always learn so much from your writing. I never knew about this diversity in flies. I wouldn’t mind hearing more about them in some future posts.

  4. Nice post. I always enjoy watching the robber flies, bee flies, etc. here. I especially like some of the wasp mimics. Even the experts have trouble with their id sometimes.

    Again, really nice post, information and great photos.


  5. I’m trying to imagine what a cross between a robber fly and a dragon fly might look like, but regardless I’m sure it would be a fearless predator!Thanks for all the nice comments, everyone.

  6. Sure, Coleoptera has more DESCRIBED species than Diptera. However, with flies being viewed with as much disdain even from entomologists, this may or may not reflect true diversity patterns as much as lack of knowledge.

  7. Hi Gunnar – you bring up an interesting point that might apply to several insect orders. With predictions that the number of described insects possibly represents only 1/3 or even less of their actual numbers, who knows how the major orders will rank out once their diversity is better known (assuming we can even do this and manage not to destroy them!). In fact, many believe that the greatest potential for cryptic species lies with mites and other microinvertebrates – makes sense to me.

    p.s. I hope you understood the slightly tongue-in-cheek nature of the opening paragraph 😉


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