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B. californicuus
© Baldo Villegas · 1
B. californicuus
© E.S. Ross · 1

© Baldo Villegas · 1
Scorpion Fly
© Gordon Ramel · 1
Scorpion Fly
Mecoptera, also known as Scorpionflies and Hanging Flies, consists of five families: Panorpidae, Bittacidae, Boreidae, Panorpodidae, and Meropeidae. The name "Scorpionfly" comes from the resemblance of the "tail" of the male Panorpa sp., which resembles that of a scorpion. The term "Hanging fly" comes from the Panorpidae and Bittacidae families, which hang on the undersides of leaves to catch prey and during copulation. Most of the Mecoptera are known only as fossils. The present-day 32 genera are found all over the world, from North America to South America, from Asia to Australia. The similarites between distant species in morphological features suggests a common lineage. Mecoptera are found in damp areas in dense forests. They feed on insects, decaying matter, mosses and other plants. Mating rituals vary among each family. Species are distinguished by morphological features and unique variation in the wings.

Mecoptera are referred to as "scorpionflies" due to the morphology of the genus Panorpa. The genitalia of the male Panorpa sometimes turns up, giving the tail an appearance similar to that of a scorpion. The tail is harmless. (Ross, 1982) The family Bittacidae is often referred to as "hanging flies". This is due to the nature of hanging from the undersidesof leaves to catch prey. Both Bittacidae and Panorpidae have been observed hanging from leaves while mating. (Webb, 1975)

"The name Mecoptera, derived from the Greek words "meco" meaning long and "ptera" meaning wings, refers to the shape of both the front and hind wings."-- ( N.C. State Entomology Dept.)

Adults are small to medium size. Mandible and maxillae are slender, elongate, and serrate. The labium is elongated. Biting parts are found on the head, which extends to an elongate hypognathus rostrum. The eyes are large and separated. Antennae are long and multi-segmented. The fore and hind wings are of the same size, shape, and veination. Sometimes the wings are reduced or absent. The abdomen is made up of 11 segments. The cerci is made up of 1 to 2 segments.

Larvae are mandibulate polypods (caterpillarlike). They have fused tibia and tarsus. There are three pairs of true legs and 8 to 10 pairs of prolegs. The larva has a large sclerotized head with compound eyes. The antennae are short. Some species have spines which extend down the length of the body and are stronger toward the posterior end. Pupae are exarate adectious, which means their appendages are not closely appressed to the body (exarate) and they have non-articulate mandibles (adectious). (Gullan and Cranston, 2000)

Taxonomic Category Scientific Name Common Name
Phylum Arthropoda Arthropods
Class Insecta Insects
Order Mecoptera Scorpionflies

Geographic distribution
There are 500 species of Mecoptera, 68 of which are found in North America (N.A.). Modern Mecoptera include 5 familes, 12 genera. Fossil Mecoptera include 34 families, 87 genera. In N.A., there are 40 species of Panorpa, but most are found in east Asia and parts of Eurasia. Bittacidae include 9 species in N.A., but also have mebers in the Neotropics, the Ethiopian region, Europe, India, the Far East, and Australia. Boreidae incluse 11 species in N.A. They are also found in the Palearctic. Panorpodidae include 4 species in N.A. and are also found in Japan and Korea. Meropeidae include one speices in N.A. and one species in Australia.(Byers, 1988) Look at the chart below to see a general breakdown of numbers of Mecoptera found worldwide -- ( N.C. State Entomology Dept.).

North America Worldwide
Number of Families 5 9
Number of Species 68 ~500

Natural history
  • Egg

    The unusual egg of the Mecoptera expands with development of the embryo. Development can take as little as 5 to 10 days (as with Panorpa and Neopanorpa) or as long as several months (Bittacus stigmaterus). (Ross, 1982)

  • Larva

    The larvae live in damp, shaded areas, feeding on dead or decoying animal matter. Some species are believed to be cannibalistic, with larger individuals feeding on smaller individuals. They are fully grown in approximately 32 days. After 4 instars (stages between molts), the larva burrows a hole in the ground in which to pupate. (Ross, 1982)

  • Pupa

    The prepupal stage can last one to several months, depending on the species. Pupation occurs in the soil. Because the pupa has non-articulate mandibles, it must wait for the cuticle to shed, then uses its mandibles or legs to escape. The adult leaves the cell after 10 to 50 days. (Gullan and Cranston, 2000)

  • Adult

    Adult Mecoptera are mostly carnivorous, feeding on small insects, but will also feed on petals, nectar, fruits, pollen, leaves, and mosses.

    Panorpa will feed on insects trapped in spider webs and also on decaying animal matter.

    Bittacidae hang from the undersides of leaves and catch prey with specialized hind legs. Saliva is injected into the prey as the Bittacidae "kneads" it, afterward sucking out the insides. The process is repeated until the exoskeleton is empty, then discarded.

    Some Mecoptera eat plants. Brachypanorpa sp. scrape the top layer off leaves. Boreidae also feeds on dead or living plants. Little is known about the eating habits of Meropeidae. (Webb, 1975)

  • Courtship and Mating:

    (Bittacidae)-- Food items such as caterpillars, bugs, and flies are offered to be eaten during copulation. The female is first attracted by a pheromone emitted by one or more vesicles or pouches at the end of the male's abdomen. When the female is near, the vesicles are retracted. The female examines the offering while the male searches for her genitalia with his own. If the gift is rejected, the female flies away. If the gift is accepted, the genitalia of the male couples with that of the female, who lowers herself until she is hanging upside down. She consumes the offering during copulation. The male supports the female by holding her legs or the prey. Field observations show that both sexes mate several times per day. Small or unacceptable offerings result in no or a very short copulation time. Duration depends on the size of the gift. It has been observed that prey 3 to 14 mm long will provide 1 to 17 minutes of copulation in Hylobittacus apicalis. Larger H. apicalis give prey the size of houseflies in return for 20 to 29 minutes of copulation. This results in a maximum sperm transfer, increased oviposition, and a refractory period. (Gullan and Cranston, 2000)

    (Panorpidae)-- The male will vibrate his wings to attract a female. When she is near, he secures her abdomen with his claspers. Copulation lasts 15 minutes to several hours. It has been observed that the male produces a thick pellet of saliva, on which the female feeds during copulation. (Webb, 1975)

    (Boreidae)-- The male approaches the female with antennae waving or claspers and wings twitching. He jumps onto the female, who becomes immediately passive. He holds on with clasper wings. This position is held for 1 to 12 hours. The male is able to run around, feed, etc., but the female does not move. (Webb, 1975)

How to encounter
Hanging flies (Bittacidae) can be disturbed from leaves and captured in flight or followed to another leaf. They are usually found in dense woods. Other families can be collected in flight or using a Malaise trap. Most species can be found day or night. (Webb, 1975)

Links to other sites
  • For phylogenetic information about Mecoptera, visit the University of Arizona's Tree of Life website.
  • For natural history information about Mecoptera, visit John R. Meyer's site at NC State University, Department of Entomology.
  • For Gordon Ramel's Mecoptera page, click here.

  • Byers, George W. Origins of North American Insect Fauna. Memoirs of the Entomological Society of Canada. N0. 144, 1988.
  • Gullan, P.J. and P.S. Cranston. The Insects: An Outline of Entomology, second edition. 2000: Blackwell Science, Ltd.
  • Ross, Herbert H. and Charles A. Ross. Textbook of Entomology, fourth edition. 1982: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  • Webb, Donald W, Norman D. Penny, and John C. Martin. The Mecoptera, or Scorpionflies, of Illinois³. Illinois Natural History Survey: Vol. 31, Article 7. August 1975.

This page written by Kari MacLauchlin, Ecology major, University of Georgia, Athens Ga.
Thanks to Sabina Gupta, Denise Lim, and Dr. John Pickering for technical and web support in developing this page.

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