It’s a WHAT??

We are doing an intensive week of data collection at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week.  Yesterday, while I was leaning over to look at something, an insect landed on my clipboard.  It looked like this (photographed later):

“Interesting,” I thought, “that’s an odd-looking paper wasp…”

Then I peered more closely at it and immediately decided I needed to capture it so I could take it back to the cabin and photograph it.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have any bags or containers to put it in.  All I had was my aluminum clipboard, which has a skinny compartment for storing extra data sheets.  I very carefully nudged the insect inside and carried it back to the truck, where I transferred it to a nice roomy ziplock bag.  When we got back to the cabin, I set the creature on a small sunflower plant and took about 230 (not kidding) photos of it.  Here’s a nice one from the side:

Basically, I was looking at a wasp-looking insect with front legs like a praying mantis.  I’m no entomologist, but I’d never heard of a wasp-mimic praying mantis in Nebraska, so I was confused.  Also, mantids don’t have antennae, and this little critter had two of them, which it waved constantly and rapidly.  What in the world…??

Fortunately, the modern naturalist has Google to fall back on, and once I got on the internet, it didn’t take long to figure out what this was.  As it happens, it’s neither a wasp or a mantid.  It’s actually a wasp mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea) which, by the way, is also not a fly!  I’d heard of mantidflies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in our prairies.  They are fairly closely related to lacewings, and slightly more distantly related to antlions.  Wasp mantidflies can be found throughout much of North America, but either they’re not super abundant on our prairies or I’ve fallen for their mimicry an awful lot.

As I photographed it, the mantidfly didn’t seem at all concerned with me, and started hunting ants – including this one, which it struck at but missed.

One of the constant themes of this blog is my sense of wonder at the kinds of discoveries I get to make just by paying close attention to the natural world around. me.  Mantidflies are certainly no mystery to entomologists, and I’m sure numerous readers saw the first picture and knew immediately what it was.  However, the wasp mantidfly was new to me, and has quickly added itself to the long list of amazing organisms I’ve gotten to know and admire.  Perhaps the greatest joy of being an ecologist/photographer is that I keep finding new species to add to my list on a regular basis, despite having been a professional ecologist for 20 years and a nature enthusiast for my whole life.

What a tremendous world we live in!

This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography and tagged , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

32 thoughts on “It’s a WHAT??

  1. What a joy it is receiving updates on your time in the field. I love your enthusiasm enthused stories, info and and photos. All I have to do is lift finger..

  2. No more quick analysis from me. Very nice photos, gives me a true look at this amazing little creature. Thanks

  3. I got pictures of one a few years ago, it was hanging out on our back porch – probably hunting for spiders. It was also pretty unconcerned with my presence. It wasn’t one of the wasp-colored ones like this, though. Those are really cool. You’re fortunate to have had the opportunity.

  4. What a fabulous post and pictures! The photos provided the opportunity to study this marvelous little creature in great detail. How can anyone dislike insects when you get to know them up close and personally? Thank you for sharing!

  5. Like an ambush bug except rather than being camouflaged, it looks like another fierce insect to keep it from being a meal itself. The robber fly bumblebee mimic is another cool insect predator that has done the same thing.

  6. The rest of the story is even more amazing! Larval mantispids are parasites on the eggs of wolf spiders. How is this possible, you ask? Because wolf spiders wrap their eggs in a silken ball and carry it about held in their fangs. The first instar mantispid larva grabs onto a passing wolf spider and hitches a ride. When the spider makes her egg sac the hitch-hiker creeps inside and is wrapped up with its meal — the spider eggs. The spider carries the sac about and finally out pops the adult mantispid. I’ve never seen the wasp mantispid, but I inadvertently raised one that looked like a miniature green preying mantis.

    • Dale Hoyt: Thank you!! Isn’t the natural world cool?!? A few years ago we found a potter wasp nest(?) on a berry plant we were were picking in the orchard. I didn’t know what they were at the time and had seen the empty pots in the spring when I prune. When we broke this open, there were about 13 paralyzed small, green caterpillars and one small wasp larva. Our entomology gal kept it in a jar for a few days (until it died) but until then, the larva continued to eat the caterpillars.

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  8. I’d note that after holding their egg sacs in their fangs for the firsts day or so, the mama wolf spiders then carry it about behind themselves, on short cables of silk thread, attached firmly to the spinnerets.

    An interesting thing about this mantidfly species (or maybe it’s a complex of closely related ones) is that it mimics paper wasps with different color patterns in other regions. So, to the north it mimincs the dark Polistes fuscatus, and to the southwest it mimics the black and yellow P. aurifer. See here for examples:

  9. This is amazing! What a great find.
    ” As it happens, it’s neither a wasp or a mantid. It’s actually a wasp mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea) which, by the way, is also not a fly!” <— Haha! This is why I love nature.

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