Orchid Valley Natural Area

This month’s destination for the WGNSS Natural History Photography Group was Orchid Valley Natural Area in Hawn State Park. This natural area is south of the main park and not normally open to the public, but we were granted permission to enter by the park administration. Our targets were several species of orchids and other rare plants that are known to occur in the area—showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) being the one I hoped most to see.

Our group for the day (front to back): me, Lynne, David, Casey, Avery, James, Bill, and Rich (Chris behind tree at back).

There are no trails here—not even a place to park, as we squeezed our cars against the side of the road at a spot that appeared to provide good access. A bit of GPS-guided bushwhacking brought us to increasingly rough and sloping ground that ended up at the edge of a cliff overlooking one of the sandstone box canyons that this area is know for—down below was where we wanted to go. Wild azaleas lined the upper canyon edges with their stunning pink blossoms. We followed the canyon edge and found a way down, then circled back into the canyon to find a stunning waterfall, its sandstone walls dripping with mosses and ferns. We spent quite a bit of time here photographing the waterfall and surrounding area before eventually resuming the search for the orchids that we came to see.

Bill surveys a waterfall at the center of a sandstone box canyon.

The waterfall fell about 25 feet onto the sandstone rocks below, its splash creating perfect conditions for luxurious growth of mosses and ferns.

Mosses sending up their “stems” (actually setae), each holding up a capsule filled with spores.

Sadly, the orchids were not yet in bloom—not even close, another victim of the cold, late spring we’ve been experiencing. Casey, our group leader, did find some very small showy orchis leaves, and we saw some nice clumps of another native orchid, rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), an evergreen orchid that blooms during late summer. We hiked up another drainage that led to another box canyon—lacking a waterfall but equally impressive, nonetheless—but found no orchids in bloom there, either. We did, however, see cinnamon ferns sending up their spike-like fertile fronds and aggregations of antlion larvae (a.k.a. “doodlebugs”) in the soil beneath the sandstone ledges.

Leaves of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens).

Moss growth is luxuriant in the wet sandstone exposures inside the box canyons.

Sandstone ledge above a box canyon.

Pits of antlions, or “doodlebugs”, clustered in the soil beneath a sandstone ledge. Ants and other insects that fall into the pits are quickly dispatched by the sickle-shaped mandibles of the bug lying buried at the bottom of the pit.

You might think failure to find what we were looking for would result in a disappointing field trip—far from it! Time in the field with like-minded friends in a beautiful spot is always a pleasure, and when it comes to searching for rare plants (or insects, or whatever), failure is the norm—making success, when it does come, that much sweeter. There will be other chances to see showy orchis (perhaps in a couple of weeks).

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Best of BitB 2013

Welcome to the 6th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. Like last year, 2013 was another year of heavy travel. For work I did my annual tour of soybean field sites throughout Argentina during late February and early March, then cranked it up for my own field season with frequent travel to sites in Illinois and Tennessee from May to October. In the meantime I spent a week at company meetings in Las Vegas in August, toured field sites across the southeastern U.S. for two weeks in September, visited Argentina again in October to finalize research plans for their upcoming season, and finished off the travel year by attending the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Meetings in Austin, Texas during November. On top of all this, I managed to slip in two of the best insect collecting trips I’ve had in years, with 10 days in northwestern Oklahoma in early June and another 10 days in California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado during late August, and I got to play “visiting scientist” during short trips to Montana State University in late July and the Illinois Natural History Survey in late October! Of course, during my brief interludes at home I wasn’t sitting still, giving entomology seminars to several local nature societies and hosting two ESA webinars on insect photography. Needless to say, come December I was more than ready to spend some quite time at home (well, except for hiking most weekends) and am happy to report that I’ve successfully become reacquainted with my family and office mates. It’s a peripatetic life—and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Okay, let’s get down to business. Here are my favorite BitB photographs from 2013. This year was less about learning new techniques as it was about refining the techniques I’ve found most useful for the style I’ve chosen as a photographer, i.e., hand-held, in situ field shots that (hopefully) excel at both natural history and aesthetic beauty. Links to original posts are provided for each photo selection, and I welcome any comments you may have regarding which (if any) is your favorite and why—such feedback will be helpful for me as I continue to hone my craft. If you’re interested, here are my previous years’ picks for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Once again, thank you for your readership, and I hope to see you in 2014!

Tremex columba, female ovipositing | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

Tremex columba female drilling for oviposition into hardwood trunk | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

From Ovipositing Pigeon Horntail (posted 6 Jan). I like this photo for the combination of vibrant, contrasting colors between the wasp and moss-covered wood and the visualization it provides of the remarkable depth to which this wasp will insert its ovipositor into solid wood!

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis flowers | Chaco Province, Argentina

From Giving me the weevil eye! (posted 28 Apr). While a little soft, the color combination is pleasing and the pose taken by the beetle almost comically inquisitive.

Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

From Bollworms rising! (posted 30 Mar). This is the first photo of an economic pest that has made one of my “Best of BitB” lists. The two holes in the soybean pod, one with the caterpillar and its head still completely inserted, visualizes how the feeding habits of these insects can so dramatically affect yield of the crop.

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

From “Blue-sky” tips and tricks (posted 1 July). Insects with a lot of delicate detail and long, thin appendages are especially difficult to photograph against the sky due to wind movement. See how I dealt with the antennae of this delicate lacewing without resorting to the standard black background typical of full-flash macrophotography.

Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor

Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor intergrade | Holly Ridge Natural Area, Stoddard Co., Missouri

From The Festive Tiger Beetle in Southeast Missouri (posted 25 Oct). I like this photo a lot more now than I did when I first took it. Its shadowy feel and the beetle “peering” from behind a leaf edge give a sense of this beetle’s attempts to hide and then checking to see if the “coast is clear”

Batyle suturalis on paperflower (Psilostrophe villosa) | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Batyle suturalis on Psilostrophe villosa flowers | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Tips for photographing shiny beetles on yellow flowers (posted 10 Aug). “Bug on a flower” photos are a dime a dozen, but shiny beetles on yellow flowers with natural sky background can be quite difficult to take. All of the techniques for dealing with the problems posed by such a photo came together nicely in this photo.

Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

From Sunset for another great collecting trip (posted 1 Sep). This photo is not without its problems, with a little blurring of the backlit fuzz on the plant, but the placement of the sun behind the subject’s head and resulting color combination make it my favorite in my first attempts at achieving a “sun-in-the-sky” background with a true insect macrophotograph.

A tiny male mates with the ginormous female.

Pyrota bilineata on Chrysothamnus viscidflorus | San Juan Co., Utah

From Midget male meloid mates with mega mama (posted 8 Nov). Another blue-sky-background photograph with good color contrast, its real selling point is the natural history depicted. with some of the most extreme size dimorphism among mating insects that I’ve ever seen.

Phymata sp.

Phymata sp. on Croton eleagnifolium foliage | Austin, Texas

From ESA Insect Macrophotography Workshop (posted 13 Nov). The oddly sculpted and chiseled body parts of ambush bugs makes them look like they were assembled from robots. Contrasting the body against a blue sky gives a more unconventional view of these odd beasts than the typical top-down-while-sitting-on-a-flower view.

Fourth attempt - holding detached pad up against sky for cleaner background.

Moneilema armata on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Q: How do you photograph cactus beetles? (posted 24 Nov). Photographing cactus beetles requires patience, persistence, long forceps, and strong forearms. Natural sky provides a much more pleasing background than a clutter of cactus pads and jutting spines.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 2013 version of “Best of BitB” and look forward to seeing everyone in 2014.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

“Blue-sky” tips and tricks

For the past two years I’ve been working to refine my “blue-sky” technique for insect macrophotographs. This refers to careful balancing of camera and flash settings to achieve full-flash illumination of the subject while still allowing enough ambient illumination from the sky to produce a natural looking blue background. The use of flash, of course, is almost a necessity in insect macrophotography, as it’s nearly impossible to take hand-held photographs of insects, especially small ones, using only ambient light—there just isn’t enough of it to adequately illuminate the subject while using fast shutter speeds to prevent motion blur and high aperture settings to achieve acceptable depth-of-field. Flash illumination, however, has a drawback (actually several, but let’s focus on one)—if there isn’t something else close enough behind the subject to reflect light from the flash, the background will be jet black. In some cases this is perfectly fine, and it is almost always preferred over a cluttered background of jumbled branches and foliage. However, it usually doesn’t work well with darkly colored insects, and to me it gives the undesirable impression that the photo was taken at night. I suppose I could carry around colored cards to place behind the subjects that I photograph, but as a photographer who prides himself on the ability to take in situ field photographs of insects in their native habitats, something about the ‘artificiality’ of colored cards prevents me from resorting to them. A leaf placed behind the subject may be an acceptable alternative, but is usually possible only with quite small subjects (due to the size of the leaf needed) and is virtually impossible in dry, western habitats.

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

It’s hard to recommend specific camera settings for blue sky background, as they must be determined experimentally in each situation. The above photo of what I take to be Eremochrysa punctinervis (a green lacewing in the family Chrysopidae—identification via Frank & Slosser 1996) was taken with a 100mm macro lens set at f/16 and with ISO bumped up slightly to 320 (I normally use ISO 100–200) and shutter speed decreased slightly to 1/160 sec (I normally use 1/200 to 1/250 sec). The higher ISO makes the camera sensor more sensitive to light and the slower shutter speed allows more time for ambient light to reach the sensor. When aimed at the brightest part of the sky (next to but not right at the sun), these settings allowed sufficient light to register this beautiful shade of blue on the camera sensor. The ambient light alone is still not sufficient to illuminate the subject—if the photograph had been taken with these settings but without flash, the background would still be blue, but the subject and branch on which it is sitting would be nearly black! Only a flash pulse occurring while the shutter is open can provide enough light to fully illuminate the subject when the aperture setting is that high. In essence, the photo combines two exposures—a flash-illuminated subject and an ambient-illuminated sky.

Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

Same photo before cloning out antennal shadowing

One problem that can be encountered when using this technique is the effect of wind. Holding the subject up against the sky exposes it to even the slightest of breezes, which can cause movement of delicate body parts such as the long antennae of this subject. What looks like blurring of the antennae is actually shading of the sky by the antennae as they fluttered in the wind. The antennae themselves were “frozen” by the very short flash pulse—much shorter than the 1/160 sec exposure, but they blocked enough light from the sky during the 1/160 sec exposure to darken the part of the background over which they moved. In the case of the finished photo shown at the beginning of the post, it was a relatively simple matter to use Photoshop’s cloning tool to remove the shadowing. Nevertheless, even more desirable is to avoid the need for such post-processing manipulations to begin with—waiting for a pause in the wind or moving to a more protected location would have obviated the need for PS cleanup.


Frank, W. A. & J. E. Slosser. 1996. An Illustrated Guide to the Predaceous Insects of the Northern Texas Rolling Plains. Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Cotton DVD, Publication #MP-1718, 24 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Brazilian Bike Adventure

Atlantic Forest

Atlantic Forest in Serra do Mar.

Yesterday I joined my Brazilian colleagues on a bicycling tour from the outskirts of São Paulo to the beaches of the Atlantic Coast. To say that the tour was an ‘adventure’ is an understatement—it was epic! For those not familiar with São Paulo, its 20 million inhabitants make it not only the largest city in Brazil, but also one of the five largest cities in the world. Yet, despite the explosive growth it has seen during the past century, it remains isolated from the Atlantic Coast of southeastern Brazil by the Serra do Mar, a 40-kilometer wide swath of rugged, mountainous terrain and part of the Great Escarpment that runs along much of the eastern coast of Brazil. It is here where some of the last tracts of Atlantic Forest, the second largest forest ecotype in South America after the Amazon, remain. Atlantic Forest once stretched along much of Brazil’s Atlantic coast, turning inland in its southern reaches to Paraguay and the northern tip of Argentina. However, much of the forest, especially in populous southeastern Brazil, has fallen victim to the axe. Only the ruggedness of the Serra do Mar has allowed the Atlantic Forest to survive in such close proximity to one of the world’s most populous cities. Understandably, travel between São Paulo and the coast has been difficult. In former years, vehicles had to snake their way through the mountains along a treacherous 2-lane highway with steep grades and hairpin turns. That highway has since been circumvented by an elevated, double, 4-lane highway of alternating spans and tunnels, and the old highway, now closed to vehicles, is instead used by maintenance crews for the new highway and cyclists who yearn to experience the Atlantic Forest up close and personal.

Our van dropped us off in the outskirts of São Paulo, from where we rode along the main highway a short bit before accessing the old highway. Dropping into the Atlantic Forest was like being magically transported into virgin wilderness. The pavement was so encroached by the forest, steep and slippery in places, that it was hard to imagine it ever served as a link between Brazil’s largest city and its largest port. Heavy rains the previous night made the forest moist and gave it an earthy aroma, and moisture-laden air hung heavy with fog and intermittent drizzle. For a time it seemed we would have an uninterrupted, 40-km downhill freeride; however, just a few kilometers into the ride we encountered the first of what would be many landslides blocking the route. I can honestly say that I’ve never portaged a bike through as rough and tumble a pile of trees, rocks, and mud as I did on this day. Still, perhaps encouraged by the fresh bike tracks that lay before us, we soldiered on. After picking our way through a half-dozen such landslides we came upon a work crew who said there were another 30–40 landslides further down along the route. We were at a tunnel that connected with the main highway, so we decided to play it safe and take the main highway the rest of the way down. That, too, was an adventure, made feasible only by the fact that traffic was crawling at a snail’s pace due to the popularity of the Atlantic beaches with the citizenry of São Paulo. It was enjoyable to swish past the cars as they idled their engines, but we had to navigate about seven kilometers worth of shoulderless tunnels. That would have been impossible in normal traffic, but the congestion made finding room to squeeze by large trucks and buses the biggest problem (and I guess breathing exhaust!). Eventually we made it down into Santos, the largest port city in Brazil, and after picking our way through the center of the city, took a ferry to the beach city of Guarujá. Rain, landslides and traffic had thrown everything they had at us, but we persevered the 53-km trek and watched the sun break through while enjoying our just rewards in a beachside restaurant.

Following are a few more of my favorite photos from the day, and you can see all of them in my Facebook album Brazilian Bike Adventure.

Descending into the forest.

Descending into the forest.

Magical vistas such as this were around every turn of the road.

Magical vistas such as this awaited us around every turn of the road.

Manacá da Serra (Tibouchina mutabilis) was abundant in the forest.

Manacá da Serra (Tibouchina mutabilis) flowered in abundance in the forest.

Elevated roadways bypass the beauty of the forest below them.

Why did the ‘hellgramite’ (order Megaloptera, family Corydalidae) cross the road? (Thanks to dragonflywoman for the ID.)

The first of many landslides that blocked our path.

The first of many landslides that blocked our path.

The new elevated highway snakes through the Serra do Mar. This portion was closed due to landslides.

The new elevated highway snakes through the Serra do Mar. This portion was closed due to landslides.

Outside of the cicada killer, this digger wasp (family Crabronidae) on the  beach at Guarujá is the largest that I have ever seen.

A large digger wasp (family Crabronidae) greets us on the beach at Guarujá.

My Brazilian colleagues and I enjoy some well-deserved refreshments after our 53-km trek!

My Brazilian colleagues and I enjoy some well-deserved refreshments after our 53-km trek!

I may have looked like a nerd still in my cycling clothes, but the wave experience was unforgettable.

I may have looked like a nerd still in my cycling clothes, but the wave experience was unforgettable.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Grampus and go-devil

Corydalus cornutus | Wayne Co. Missouri

Ever taken a close look at a female dobsonfly’s head? Female dobsonflys don’t get nearly as much attention as the males due to the latter’s ridiculously elongated mandibles. While female mandibles are more modestly proportioned, don’t think they’re ineffectual—females are quite capable of inflicting a blood-letting nip if one is not careful. Certainly the female head is no less dinosaurian in appearance than the male’s, and while I know that Corydalus cornutus is the product of the same amount of evolutionary time as any other species on earth today, I can’t help but think they look so “primitive.”

While dobsonfly is the commonest name applied to these insects, I much prefer “go-devil” (not sure of the origin) and “grampus” (from “Krampus”—a mythical horned, creature in Alpine countries). The latter name in particular pays more appropriate homage to the monstrous appearance of these insects.

Photographed July 2011 at a blacklight sheet in Sam A. Baker State Park, Wayne Co., Missouri.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Do the Doodlebug Flip

I’ve been on a doodlebug kick ever since I finally figured out how to find the little buggers on my trip down to southeast Missouri.  I even found one in one of the tiger beetle terraria that I setup with native soil brought back from that trip, so I’ll get the chance to try to rear one out.  Shortly after finding those first antlion larvae, I traveled to Rock Island, Illinois to attend the Second Illinois Hill Prairie Conference as a panelist for the insects discussion group.  During a field trip to a nearby hilltop prairie, I spotted a pit in a bed of sawdust that had the unmistakeable look of an antlion pit.  I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an antlion pit in anything but sand, so I dug up the larva to confirm that that was, indeed, what it was.  The larval pit site must have been selected by the adult female who laid the egg, so apparently the loose sawdust had the appropriate texture to induce oviposition.  The larva was fat and happy, suggesting it was feeding well in its sawdust pit.

Antlions flick sand with their head and elongated mandibles to create the pit, and they also flick it on prey that has fallen in their pit to thwart their escape.  Watch how this one also use its head flicking ability to right itself in a most humerous manner after being flipped over:

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Now you see me…


…now you don’t!

In a previous post, I lamented the fact that I had never actually seen a live antlion larva, or doodlebug (family Myrmeleontidae). Lovers of sand, I’ve seen their famous pitfall traps many times, especially in recent years as I’ve searched sand habitats for my beloved tiger beetles. Occasionally, I’ve stopped to jab my knife under a pit, give it a quick flip, and search the freshly turned sand for the maker of the pit – never seeing anything. It never bothered me much either – there were always beetles to catch!  Two weeks ago I returned to the sand prairies of southeastern Missouri to look for additional sites for Cicindela scutellaris (festive tiger beetle), and as we searched one particular site on the Sikeston Sand Ridge I once again saw the characteristic funnel-shaped pits amongst sparse vegetation in the sandy soil.  I decided this time I needed to give it a good effort – how can any self-respecting entomologist accept not having ever seen a live doodlebug?  As I’d done many times before, I kneeled down, gently put the tip of the knife about an inch away from the edge of the pit, and then jabbed its full length assertively into the sand and under the burrow and flipped it over.  Like previous times, I studied the turned sand and saw nothing.  I stirred the sand gently with the tip of the knife and studied it again – nothing.  I tried another burrow – again, nothing.  I decided right then and there that I was doing something wrong – I could not simply be picking ’empty’ pits.  I continued staring at the turned sand, and then I saw movement – I looked closer, and it seemed as though the sand itself was moving.  At last I made out its outline – I had finally succeeded in finding a doodlebug!  I dug up another burrow, and knowing what I was looking for this time I had no problem quickly locating the little creature.  I watched it as it lay motionless – perfectly camouflaged by its color and with sand grains sticking to its body, and chuckled as it buried itself almost instantly with a quick, backwards shuffle into the sand. Who knows how many doodlebugs I’d successfully dug up in the past, completely overlooking them as they lay disguised and motionless in the sand.

More than 100 species of antlions, representing at least 19 genera, live in the Nearctic Region, although much of this diversity occurs in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  Despite the commonly drawn association between antlions and pitfall traps, in North America only those in the genus Myrmeleon actually exhibit this behavior.  This larva dug a pit and so must represent a species of Myrmeleon – perhaps M. immaculatus, a common species in North America and one whose adult I observed last fall on a nearby sand prairie remnant.  Species in other genera have free-living larvae that hide under objects or roam underneath the sand, from where emerge briefly to hunt for prey.

For those interested in learning more about antlions, Mark Swanson has an excellent website called The Antlion Pit.


Swanson, M.  1996. The Antlion Pit: A Doodlebug Anthology. http://www.antlionpit.com/

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Lions in South Africa

Joerie, Joerie, botter en brood,
as ek jou kry, slaat ek jou dood.

Doodlebugs, joerie, shunties, toritos—these are but a few of the many colloquial names given to amusing little creatures that many people know simply as antlions (or translation of such) (Swanson 1996).   Larvae of winged insects resembling (but unrelated to) dragonflies, they are best known for their habit of digging smooth-sided, cone-shaped pits in sandy soils and concealing themselves under the sand at the bottom.  There, they lay in wait for some small, unsuspecting creature—often an ant—to fall into the pit.  When that happens, the hidden antlion bursts forth, using its oversized, sickle-shaped mandibles to “flick” sand at the prey to keep it sliding towards the bottom of the hole.  Once it is within reach, the antlion grabs the prey using those same, deadly mandibles (how delightfully morbid!).  So otherworldly is their appearance and behavior that, in addition to inspiring children’s charms, they have served as an unmistakable model for the “Ceti eels” featured in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan!1  Adults of this group, on the other hand, have inspired far less imagination in nomenclature and culture, to the point that even their common name “antlion lacewing” is merely a reference back to their unusual larvae.  Even the scientific name of the family—Myrmeleontidae—has failed to garner complete adherence, with “Myrmeleonidae” (who needs the “t”?) and “Myrmelionidae” (perhaps from English-speakers focused on the English spelling of “lion” rather than the Latin spelling of “leo”) still appearing in popular and even scientific literature.

1 Sadly (and ironically), actor Ricardo Montalban, who played the villain Khan Noonien Singh in that movie (reprising a character he played 15 years earlier during the debut season of the Star Trek television series), died just eight days ago at the age of 88. I must confess that I am a life-long Star Trek fan (though not a “Trekkie”), and “Wrath” was certainly among my favorite of the movies, due in large part to Montalban’s steely, venomous portrayal of Kahn. My favorite line occurs as Kahn is about to put a Ceti eel in Chekov’s ear, explaining how they wrap themselves around the victim’s cerebral cortex. He then says, “Later, as they [pauses deliciously] grow…”

myrmeleontidae-larval-pitI’ve seen antlion pits on several occasions (especially in recent years as I’ve spent more time in open sand habitats searching for my beloved tiger beetles).  However, the pit pictured here—encountered at Borakalalo National Park in South Africa’s North West Province, was the first I’d ever seen in which there was actually an ant inside the pit.  The ant was dead, presumably having already been sucked dry by the joerie. I didn’t know it at the time, but southern Africa is a major evolutionary center for antlion lacewings and some of their striking relatives such as spoonwinged and threadwinged lacewings (family Nemopteridae) and silky lacewings (family Psychopsidae) (Grimaldi & Engel 2005).  Relatively few of South Africa’s antlions, however, actually dig pits—a habit restricted to species in the genera Hagenomyia, Cueta, and the cosmopolitan Myrmeleon (Scholtz & Holm 1985).  Rather, the majority of species have free-living larvae that hide under objects or roam under deep sand from where they emerge to hunt other insects.

Palpares lentusThis adult antlion lacewing came to an ultraviolet light at our encampment on the Geelhoutbos farm near the Waterberg Range (Limpopo Province). Its tremendous size and distinctly patterned wings placed it in the tribe Palparini, of which the genus Palpares is the most diverse. These are the true giants of the family, with forewing lengths that can reach 75 mm (that’s 3 inches, folks!) and both wings bearing conspicuous patterns of black and yellow markings (the yellow doesn’t show well in this photograph due to illumination by the ultraviolet light).  The larvae, understandably, are also quite large, and have even been observed to capture ground resting grasshoppers (Capinera 2008).  I sent this photograph to Dr. Mervyn Mansell, an expert on African Myrmeleontidae, who kindly identified the individual as a female Palpares lentus, endemic to northern South Africa and Zimbabwe. When queried for more information regarding its biology, Dr. Mansell responded:

We know nothing about P. lentus, except for distribution records. Nothing is known about its larva or biology, although the larvae of all Palpares and related genera are obviously large, and live freely in sand well concealed and almost impossible to find.

Palpares lentus is one of 42 species of Palparini in southern Africa—half of all known species in the tribe.  Nearly two-thirds of them are endemic to “open” biomes in the dry western parts of the subregion (Mansell & Erasmus 2002).  This high level of endemism results from the occurrence of large tracts of sand and exposed soil that are conducive to the large sand-dwelling larvae.  Eastern parts of the subregion containing forest or thicket biomes are not as favored by antlion lacewings, and consequently the diversity of species in these areas is much lower.  Because of their great size, palparine adults are especially vulnerable to predation, with the result that they have evolved elaborately patterned wings to enhance their camouflage—apparently an adaptation to the dappled shade provided by the fine-leafed plants found in these biomes.  While many species in the tribe are diurnal, a few in the related genus Palparellus pulchellus and P. ulrike are known to be attracted to light, spending the day resting concealed amongst vegetation. The attraction of this individual to our ultraviolet light suggests Palpares lentus has similar habits.

Everything you want to know about antlions can be found at Mark Swanson’s excellent website, The Antlion Pit. For information specific to Africa, Mervyn Mansell has assembled a checklist of The Antlions (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae) of South Africa, and a nice summary of antlions in Kruger National Park by Dave Rushworth can be found at Destination Kruger Park. I thank Dr. Mansell for his identification of Palpares lentus.


Capinera, J. L. (ed.).  2008. Encyclopedia of Entomology, 2nd Edition. Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands. 4346 pp.

Grimaldi, D. and M. S. Engel. 2005. Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge University Press, New York, xv + 755 pp.

Mansell, M. W. and B. F. N. Erasmus. 2002. Southern African biomes and the evolution of Palparini (Insecta: Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae). Acta Zoologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 48 (Suppl. 2):175–184.

Scholtz, C. H. and E. Holm (eds.). 1985. Insects of Southern Africa. Butterworths, Durbin, South Africa, 502 pp.

Swanson, M.  1996. The Antlion Pit: A Doodlebug Anthology. http://www.antlionpit.com/