Entomology has radically changed my views and responses in relation to any number of subjects. Sometimes this means that I find myself poking at bees in flowers or attempting to coerce angry wasps into tiny vials despite a former terror of these insects. Sometimes this means I jump on a cockroach with my bare hands just because I really need one for a class collection and in spite of a lingering revulsion towards them.
And sometimes this means I find myself saying things that sound completely normal and reasonable to me only to notice that my conversational partner is now staring oddly at me. Things like: “Hey, that’s a scorpionfly! They’re really cool because the males have genitals shaped like a scorpion tail!” …cue bewildered, uncomfortable silence.
But the fact remains that male scorpionflies do have genitals that resemble a scorpion’s stinger, and this is really cool. It’s not my fault nature is weird.
Scorpionflies are yet another insect that I had never even heard of before I started studying entomology. And yet, like so many other insects, it turns out that once I know to look for them they’ve been under my nose all along. Just a few weeks ago the sedge meadow area of our local Lick Creek Park was swarming with these striking insects. Scorpionflies belong to the order Mecoptera and the family Panorpidae. Aside from the distinctive ‘tails’ of the male scorpionflies (the females lack these), they can be distinguished by their elongate mouthparts, giving them a horse-like face. Adults are opportunistic scavengers, feeding on nectar, dead fruit, and dead insects.
The bizarre scorpion-like genitalia of the males cannot sting, but instead function as ‘claspers’ to hold on to the female during mating. This is actually a fairly common adaptation in male insects. Male dragonflies, for example, use their claspers to latch onto the female’s head while mating, and many male damselflies stay latched on for some time after mating, to guard their mate from the attentions of other males. Scorpionfly males are fairly gentlemanly about the matter, and begin courtship by offering a ‘nuptial gift’– either a dead insect or a tasty ‘salivary secretion’ in the form of a gelatinous mass. (Valentine’s Day, anyone?) The better the gift, the longer the female will spend eating it, and the longer the male will get to mate, resulting in more eggs fertilized and more offspring for the male. A win for everybody.