Dead Bug Chronicles

Yes, I’ve written and illustrated an entire blog post about dead insects. It’s a little morbid, but also fascinating, and often beautiful. Plus, it’s my blog and I can write about whatever I want. You’re not obligated to read it, though I would if I were you – there are some intriguing stories included.

Photographing insects is a lot easier when they’re not moving. It’s one reason I love early summer mornings when the dew is heavy and the small creatures are held in stasis by cool temperatures and a covering of sparking water droplets. There is another situation, of course, when insects are holding still and are easy to photograph.

It’s when they’re dead.

I don’t know why this poor deceased hover fly was hanging from this flower with its head at an uncomfortable angle. I didn’t realize it was dead until I started photographing it.
Similar to the above photo, I just came across this fly sitting stone dead on this flower. Both of these flies were on beggarticks (Bidens sp.) flowers, but I’m not aware of any reason to believe that’s not just a coincidence.

It’s not that I photograph dead insects and try to pass them off as living. Even among recently-deceased creatures, there are tell-tale signs (curled up legs or antennae, for example) that reveal the truth. There are really three reasons I will stop and photograph them: 1) there’s an aesthetic beauty that strikes me; 2) there is a mystery behind the death; 3) there’s a good story involved.

(As always, these photos will look better if you click on them individually to see a bigger version. If you’re reading this in your email, you’ll need to click on the title at the top to open it online and allow you to click images.)

The following two photos are examples of the aesthetic beauty factor, but with a little mystery thrown in. I found a bunch of dead millipedes along the edge of the pond at our family prairie, for example. They were faded enough that they’d clearly been dead for a while, but I couldn’t tell why. Had they drowned and then been stranded as the water receded? I don’t know, but there were a lot of them and I found a curled one that was pleasingly-placed against a backdrop of cracked, drying mud.

A dead millipede at our family prairie.

In the same stretch of drying shoreline, I also found a mostly intact dragonfly corpse. Again, it wasn’t clear how it had died, but I liked the almost monochromatic scene, so I stopped to photograph it. In neither case did I have to worry about the subject trying to fly, hop, or skitter away.

A dead dragonfly in the same drying mud as the millipede above.

Sticking with the ‘mystery’ category, I photographed the pill bug (aka sow bug, roly-poly, etc.) back in 2017 after finding a whole bunch of them scattered across a prairie we’d recently burned. I wrote a post at the time, in which I pondered the possibilities for what I was seeing. I still don’t have a good solution to the mystery, but it’s fun to think about. Also, the bleached white skeleton of a pill bug has a certain aesthetic charm to it.

This was one of thousands of pill bugs found in the late winter on prairie we’d burned the previous November. I don’t know whether the fire killed it or if the fire just revealed its already-dead skeleton.

One of the most intriguing dead insect findings I’ve had was at our family prairie back in September 2020 when I happened upon hundreds of Virginian tiger moth caterpillars (Spilosoma virginica). I saw a bunch feeding on plants one week, and then when I returned a week later, many of them had climbed high into the canopy of the prairie and died. I hypothesized that it could have been caused by a fungus or parasitoid, but didn’t – and still don’t – have a solid explanation.

This is a dead Virginian tiger moth caterpillar near the top of a big bluestem plant.
Here’s another one that had been dead long enough to have lost most of its hairs. Though sad, there’s also a poignant (if that’s the right word) quality to the image.
Here are just a few examples of the many other caterpillars I found dead during the same weekend in September, 2020.

Dead insects aren’t always a mystery. Sometimes, I feel pretty confident about the reasons for their demise. That’s the case with all the remaining dead bug photos I’m sharing today. The first is a fly I found floating dead in the water trapped by the leaves of a cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum). I’m reasonably sure the fly drowned in the water. I’ve not found any source of information that provides any reason the plant might benefit from drowning small creatures, but it does seem to be a periodic side effect.

A drowned (probably?) fly in water trapped by cup plant leaves. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

I’ve written previously about the seemingly illogical strings of events that have to happen for milkweed plants to be pollinated. As part of that process, insects accidentally slip a leg into milkweed flowers and then have to extract themselves again. Sometimes, that doesn’t work out well and someone gets stuck and ends up dying awkwardly right there. The photo below shows a bee that died in just that way.

A dead bee stuck in a milkweed flower and a tiny fly that is apparently investigating the crime scene.

Speaking of plants killing insects in (probably) accidental ways, there are two other examples of that, from which I have gotten many opportunities to photograph insects holding permanently still. The first is a fascinating phenomenon, in which insects get often stuck to the bracts of thistle flowers and die. Those bracts become very sticky before and during the time the flowers bloom, and there are multiple hypotheses about why this happens.

Does it serve a purpose to the plant when ants (largely) and other insects become trapped on those bracts? Maybe. The research I’m aware of is inconclusive. Also, not all invertebrates are vulnerable. Some (stink bugs, for example) seem to be able to walk across the bracts with no consequences.

An ant that died while stuck to the bracts of a native thistle.
A few examples of the many insects I’ve seen trapped and dead on thistle bracts (usually on native thistle species in the Cirsium genus). Included here (clockwise from top left) are a fly, a wasp (I think?), a cicada, and a soldier beetle.

Another plant species that makes itself sticky enough to trap insects is one that I’ve not seen other people comment on. Illinois tick-trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) seems to exude a sticky substance from hairs on its stems during part of its life cycle, and those hairs then trap insects. I’ve seen this a couple times at Lincoln Creek Prairie here in Aurora but haven’t yet seen it elsewhere. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has seen this, either with this tick-trefoil species or others. I’d also welcome any hypotheses about why this might be something useful to the plant.

I don’t even know what this beautiful creature is, let alone why the tick-trefoil plant that trapped it might benefit from doing so. (Helpful commenters identified this as a gloworm beetle – Phencodes sp.)
Here are four more examples of trapped insects on tick-trefoil, including a moth and a firefly, which are pretty big (but also have a lot of wing surface area to get stuck to the plant).

I’ll end with a subject that won’t surprise long-term readers of this blog, which is insects killed by crab spiders – one of my very favorite invertebrates. Often, the spider holding (and feeding on) an insect is well-enough camouflaged that I don’t immediately see it. I just see an insect, often in an odd position, on or near a flower, and then spot the spider when I get closer. Crab spiders are very good at what they do.

I didn’t see the crab spider holding this dead fly until I got really close. There was clearly something up, though, based on the way the fly was positioned on the edge of the flower.
Four more examples of dead insects in the grasp of crab spiders including (clockwise from top left) an ant, a cicada, a sulphur butterfly, and a fly.

I recognize that a whole blog post about dead bugs is a little odd. I hope, though, that if you made it this far, you feel rewarded by either the beauty of the images or the intrigue of the stories – or both. There’s a lot to be learned from observation, and that includes observation of dead creatures. Plus, in case you missed it earlier, deceased insects are easy to photograph.


This post is dedicated to the memories of all the insects that died to make the photographs and stories I’ve shared. Their lives were short, but that’s kind of the thing with insects anyway. Some obviously died at the hands (or whatever) of others (like crab spiders and whatever killed those caterpillars). Others seemed to die accidentally. Even those accidental deaths, though, weren’t wasted within the ecosystem. Something eventually consumed all the dead insects pictured here, even if it was something microscopic like bacteria.

Compound Animal Names

I have two ‘save-the-date’ announcements of upcoming events that I’ll be involved with/

  1. First, this our 2023 Grassland Restoration Network workshop will be hosted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Windom, MN on August 22-23 this year. This workshop is designed for people involved in restoring (reconstructing) prairies and/or studying them. It’s a relatively informal, mostly field-based couple of days. More information and registration will be coming within the next few months.
  2. Second, we will be hosting our next annual Platte River Prairies Public Field Day on July 8, 2023. This is a free event, open to all ages, and is an opportunity to explore and learn about prairies from a variety of experts. Stay tuned for more details, but I hope you’ll plan to come visit us at the Platte River Prairies for this Saturday event.


This week, I came upon an old photo of a wasp-mimic mantidfly and created a funny (to me) post on Instagram about it. You’ll all know this species, obviously, from an earlier blog post I wrote and that you read and remember word for word. On the crazy off-chance you don’t immediately recall it, here’s a link.

Wasp-mimic mantidflies are pretty amazing creatures that aren’t mantids, wasps, or flies.

(Also, by the way, if you’re not on Instagram, good for you, it can be a toxic wasteland if you let it. On the other hand, there are some really great ecology-related people and accounts on Instagram from whom I learn a lot. My @prairieecologist account is a mix of humor and information, but always photos. If you’re already on the platform, check it out if you like.)

However, neither the mantidfly or Instagram are the topic of today’s post. What the mantidfly reminded me of is that there are lots of insects with compound names made up of two different animals. This, of course, is a phenomenon that is of great scientific value and is definitely worth writing (and reading) an entire blog post about.

In many cases, those compound names include one word that actually describes the kind of insect it is and another that supposedly connotes something about the appearance or behavior of the insect. For example, tiger beetles are predatory beetles Tigers are predatory cats. The word tiger helps clarify the behavior the beetle. Except, of course, that the beetle has wings and can fly, likes to hunt on bare ground, and has larvae that live in burrows. But aside from those, and many other differences, Tigers and tiger beetles are almost the same.

Tiger beetles are incredible predators, but while they have cat-like quickness, they have wings and aren’t cats. Imagine if tigers had wings… Would we call them fly tigers? Probably not.

In contrast, there are creatures like the mantidfly, which is neither a mantid or a fly. The mantid part makes some sense because the mantidfly has raptorial front legs that closely resemble the kind that praying mantises have. However, the mantidfly isn’t a fly. It can fly, but I don’t think that’s where the name comes from. Another example of two animal names stuck together oddly is the antlion, which is not an ant, and definitely not a lion. In this case, at least, there is some logic behind the ‘ant’ part, which is that the larva often feeds on ants and other small insects like them.

Antlions aren’t lions. They’re also not damselfies, though they look a lot like them. They have heavier bodies and bigger antennae than damselflies, along with lots of other less obvious differences.

If you aren’t familiar with antlions (and of course you are, because you remember a couple different blog posts I’ve written on them), the adult is pictured above, but most people might know them better from the little cone-shaped depressions they make in loose soil – often below a ledge or along the foundation of a building. At the bottom of each of those cones, mostly hidden in the soil, is an antlion larva waiting for an unlucky insect to slip and slide down the sides of its conical trap. You know, the same way lion cubs hunt. (Don’t you now wish that was the way lion cubs hunted??)

By the way, there’s a trick to knowing whether the compound animal name of an invertebrate is a type of one of those animals or not. Antlion is a single word, which tells you it isn’t actually a kind of lion. Tiger beetle is two separate words, which means it is one of a group of beetles. The same rule is supposed to apply across all animal names, I think, but you’ll find it isn’t always applied uniformly. Often, you’ll find two different spellings of the same creature’s name, both from seemingly reputable sources, but one will be all one word and one will be two separate words. Apart from that little issue, the one-word-or-two rule is really helpful.

Horse flies are flies. Two different words, not one. House flies, bee flies, and crane flies are also flies. (So are mosquitoes, though, which is confusing for other reasons.) Butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, of course, are not actually flies. They can all fly, at least.

This is a giant black horse fly. That’s both an apt description of the animal and one actual correct common name of the species. I think it’s the largest horse fly species in the U.S.
Bee flies are flies. This one has a long stiff mouthpart that it uses to feed on pollen and nectar from flowers.
Whether dragonflies belong in this post or not depends upon your feelings about the existence of dragons as actual animals. I’m not taking a position, partly because I’m always happy for an excuse to post a dragonfly photo.

There are several spiders that have animals for their first names. Wolf spiders are mobile predators, as are lynx spiders, so both those names fit well. Crab spiders aren’t associated with oceans or beaches, but they do have extra long front legs and some movements that resemble many crabs.

Wolf spiders are known for being good moms, but also as effective predators that chase down their prey in a way that is somewhat similar to wolves. Can you imagine, though, how scary they’d be (especially to people already leery of spiders) if wolf spiders hunted in packs??
Crab spiders have long front legs that give them a crab-like appearance.
Lynx spiders are a lot of fun to find and watch in the prairie. They stalk and pounce on prey much like cats, though cats would be way cooler if they had eight legs and were as small as lynx spiders.

There are thousands of moths in the world, and surely quite a number of them have animal first names, but the one I could immediately come up with was the tiger moth (there are lots of tiger moth species).

Here’s a tiger moth. I think the name comes from the stripes on the legs, which seems like kind of a stretch to me.
Here’s a caterpillar that will turn into a tiger moth if it gets to grow up.

The only bee I could think of with a compound animal name is the cuckoo bee (again, there are lots of cuckoo bee species). Cuckoo bees are named for the European cuckoo which, like the brown-headed cowbird, lays its eggs in other birds nests. Cuckoo bees do the same thing, except of course they lay their eggs in bee nests, not bird nests. We can all agree that’s the right move. I wrote about these and other species with similar strategies in a very recent post which, again, you all read and remember, but I’ll link to it here just to be redundant.

There are creatures called beewolves out there too. Using the rule you learned earlier, you’ll already know that beewolves aren’t wolves with bee-like tendencies (although wouldn’t that be amazing??) Instead, they’re wasps that attack bees and feed them to their little wasp larvae. Given the 100,000 or so wasp species out there, I’m sure there are other compound animal names among them. Anyone know any?

Here’s a cute little cuckoo bee on its overnight roost. Yes, it’s clinging to that plant with its mandibles.

There are at least several beetles with compound animal names, but I was disappointed that I don’t have photos of some of them, including rhinoceros and stag beetles. I do have lots of photos of longhorn beetles, but although a longhorn is technically a breed of domestic cow, it feels a little like cheating to include longhorn beetles in this list. I included them anyway.

This longhorn beetle is feeding on silky prairie clover flowers (Dalea villosa).

What am I missing? Help me think of other compound animal names for invertebrates. I guess we can include vertebrates too, if we have to, but I’m less excited about those (kangaroo rat, tiger shark, etc. – blah, blah, blah). Plants or fungi, though, would be fun if we can come up with some. Anyone?