Myrmeleontidae is the largest lacewing family. There are currently 50 recognised genera and at least 180 described species in South Africa. Additionally there are many species that await description.
Fifty genera are known from South Africa: Annulares; Bankisus; Banyutus; Brachyplectron; Capophanes; Centroclisis; Crambomorphus; Creoleon; Cueta; Cymothales; Distoleon; Exaetoleon; Furgella; Fadrina; Golafrus; Hagenomyia; Jaya; Lachlathetes; Macroleon; Macronemurus; Maula; Myrmeleon; Nadus; Nannoleon; Nemoleon; Nesoleon; Neuroleon; Obus; Palparellus; Palpares; Palparidius; Pamares; Pamexis; Syngenes; Tomatares; Tricholeon.
Medium to very large sized (Wingspan 26-160 mm)
All have prominent but fairly short antennae. The compound eyes are fairly large and widely spaced.
Adults have two pairs of wings that are roughly equal in size. Their abdomens are long and slender and consist of ten segments.
Adult antlions superficially resemble dragonflies and damselflies. Antlions can be differentiated by having prominent antennae, smaller, widely spaced compound eyes and very intricately veined wings. Antlions also rest with their wings closed down the length of the body.
Food & Feeding
Adults and larvae are predatory and feed on other insects.
Adults mostly capture smaller flying insects in flight using their bristly legs. Prey is then taken to a perch before being consumed.
The larvae are all ambush hunters. They conceal themselves below the sand surface and grab unsuspecting prey that passes close by. The larvae of some genera are pit-fall trap builders (see Larvae below).
Most adults are nocturnal and are readily attracted to lights. Adults are well camouflaged among vegetation during the day.
Most species have free-living larvae that live in loose sand. A handful of genera demonstrate the famous ‘pit-building’ technique where the larvae capture their prey in conical pits dug into the sand.
Antlions occur throughout South Africa and in all terrestrial habitats.
The above photo by Handre Basson is of Palmipenna aeoleoptera (Rock Spoonwing). This is a rare species and is confined to Namaqualand. This record can be found in the LacewingMAP database here.
15 genera are found the region: Concroce; Laurhervasia; Thysanocroce; Tjederia; Barbibucca; Derhynchia; Halterina; Knersvlaktia; Nemeura; Nemia; Nemopistha; Nemopterella; Palmipenna; Semirhynchia; Sicyoptera
At least 60 species occur in South Africa.
Small to large (Wingspan 25-100mm)
Adults have elongate beak-like mouthparts for feeding on pollen and nectar
The forewings are clear and iridescent in most species. A handful of species have brown or black pigmented forewings, often with white tips.
The hindwings are variously modified. Often elongate with streamer, thread, ribbon, flag, spoon or paddle-like tips. Hindwings are usually coloured in white, brown or black.
Adults of most species fly during spring or early summer. A few such as Laurhervasia setacea emerge predominantly during late summer.
Some species are diurnal, whilst the majority are nocturnal and may appear at lights in large numbers.
Largely confined to arid and semi-arid environments, with low scrub vegetation. Often in open, rocky or sandy areas.
All species have predatory larvae that actively chase down their prey.
The larvae of the thread-wing types have an elongated prothorax, giving them a distinctive long-necked appearance. In some the larvae are squat and rounded with short, curved and very strong jaws. However, the larvae of many in the family are poorly known.
The larvae live in fine, dry sand, often under rock overhangs or in caves.
The majority of the worlds species occur in the arid regions of the Western Cape, Northern Cape and Namibia. A few species occur in the drier parts of the North-West, Gauteng and Limpopo provinces and also Botswana.
A number of species have very restricted distributions.
This set of postings provides an online guide to Neuroptera in southern Africa. This order includes the insects commonly known as lacewings and as antlions. The initial focus is on the families within this order, and then on a selection of individual species.
There are 13 families in southern Africa. Here are the first seven.
Eight genera are known from South Africa: Tmesibasis; Proctarrelabis; Nephoneura; Eremoides; Allocormodes; Proctolyra; Neomelambrotus; Melambrotus
At least 50 species have been recorded in the region.
Medium sized (Wingspan 44-80 mm)
Adult Owlflies are unmistakable. Most have very long, clubbed antennae. Their bodies are generally quite hairy and they have two pairs of roughly equal sized wings. The eyes are well developed and larger than in other Neuropterans.
The resting posture, in the majority of species, is characteristic. The abdomen is held at an angle away from the thorax and wings.
The genus Tmesibasis is different in that they lack obvious clubs on the antennae. They also rest with their wings open and the abdomen is not held up at an angle. They have swollen, wasp-like abdomens and beautifully patterned, narrow-based wings.
Most species are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk).
The flight is swift, direct and powerful.
Adults are predatory and capture other insects on the wing. They hunt from a perch, detecting prey with their keen eyesight.
Food & Feeding
Adults are predators of smaller flying insects such as moths and flies. The larvae are voracious and feed on a range of walking or crawling insects.
The larvae resemble those of antlions but are dorsoventrally flattened and have fringed projections on the sides of the body. They have huge jaws that can be opened up 180 degrees.
They are free-living and occur on tree bark or among leaf litter. They are very cryptic and have projections and bristles along their sides that collect debris to aid in camouflage.
Owlflies are widespread but seldom encountered in large numbers.
Karis here, with an update, the end of a journey, and the start of something new.
So much can change in a short period of time, and this year is full of the unexpected!
Just two weeks ago, armed with my backpack, camera, and a box of well-loved field guides, I bade farewell to my beloved flat in Cape Town and opened the door to a new chapter, and a new home. Though I had a few reasons to relocate, one factor heavily weighted the decision: green. I so missed having a garden, a place to live and work outdoors, and soak in the sounds, sights, and smells of the natural world.
And so it is that today, I write from the endless charm of a cottage kitchen beneath a grey and drizzly sky, thankful for the thatch-roof above my head and the mingled smells of earth and rain drifting through my window.
As I settled in through my first day in the cottage, I began to notice a few birds: Cape White-eyes calling in the trees, the liquid notes of a Southern Double-collared Sunbird spilling over from a neighbour’s garden, the shrill alarm call of an Olive Thrush. For my own amusement, I began to absent-mindedly write these down—the species name, the date, and a tick if I had seen (rather than just heard) the bird. I pinned the list to my fridge, and left it. Over the next few days, it began to grow. A Hartlaub’s Gull flew overhead. White-backed Mousebirds shared dust-baths in the sand, and a Red-eyed Dove (which sounded as though it was singing IN my ear) startled and burst into song at 04h30 in the morning.
The interest continued to increase when I mentioned the list to my landlords; they were excited by the prospect of having a bird list for the property, and gave me free rein to make the garden more bird-friendly! By this point, I was thoroughly invested—I had been keen to try my hand at maintaining an indigenous garden, and this was the perfect excuse to do so. That same day, I contacted Communitree, a brilliant urban-greening organisation based in Cape Town. Communitree answered my questions and matched my enthusiasm, and I delved into the process of dreaming and scheming a design which will incorporate as many native species as possible, whilst also attracting a wide variety of insects and birds.
Though promising, this level of transformation takes time, and I wanted something to “do” in the interim. So, I enlisted the aid of my doctoral supervisor, Les Underhill, and he responded in the form of two bird feeders, on conditional loan: I could use the feeders so long as I collected observational data and turned it into writing! I readily accepted the offer, and am keen to keep up my end of the bargain. After some deliberation, we decided on the following very basic protocol:
-2 feeders, one surrounded by open space, and one close to a shrub, hedge, or tree,
-2 10-minute bird counts conducted at set times in the morning and afternoon, and a series of 10-minute counts scattered throughout the day, with 30-minute breaks between observation periods.
These simple counts will provide surprisingly rich information. First, the position of the feeders is significant. Les has noticed (as those of you who regularly feed birds in your garden may also know) that one of his feeders consistently attracts more birds. Though many factors likely play into this reality, one is of particular interest; the “busy” feeder hangs from a tree, affording visitors a quick and easy escape either further into the tree or into the nearby bushes, while the less popular feeder stands in the open. This addresses a phenomenon within behavioural ecology called the “landscape of fear.”
This model contends that species which are often predated modify their behaviour within a habitat based on where they perceive themselves to be at the greatest risk of predation. For instance, returning to our bird feeder example, let’s imagine a Cape Sparrow who has a choice between two garden feeders: Feeder 1, a crowded spot next to a shrub, or Feeder 2, a quiet feeder in the middle of the garden. Even though the quality of food at both feeders is identical, whichever feeder our sparrow chooses requires a sort of trade-off.
If he chooses Feeder 1, he can easily escape from predators, but has to compete with several other birds for food—that takes energy. If he chooses Feeder 2, he no longer has to compete for food, but is at a greater risk of being spotted and snatched by a predator before he can retreat.
Placing one feeder in each location and monitoring which attracts how many birds, of what species, and when can spark thought-provoking questions into the other factors playing into how each bird makes its foraging gamble. Are some sparrows “bolder” than others, and more likely to engage in risky behaviour? Does that risky behaviour pay off, or are “bold” birds more likely to be eaten? Are species which forage in groups more likely to visit a risky, exposed feeder? Does foraging in a group actually reduce the risk of predation? What about visibility? Will some birds engage in riskier behaviour when visibility is poor, and they have a lower chance of being spotted by a predator? These are a just a few examples—there are SO many questions we can ask based only on where we place a bird feeder in the garden!
Feeders are also great opportunities to look at inter-species interactions—which birds are territorial around the feeder (another energy-costly behaviour!) and when? Are male birds more likely than females to be territorial, or vice versa? Does behaviour change seasonally? Though many of these questions have seemingly intuitive answers, they may still bring a few surprises!
Here’s a challenge for all you garden birders: spend 10 minutes each day with a notebook and a pencil watching birds in your garden, and simply write things down as you notice them. Do you notice the number and diversity of species? Do you notice variations in plumage? Or behaviours and interactions? Try this for a week or two, and then review your notes, paying close attention to what you noticed. This is a simple trick for learning what you are curious about. Once you have an idea that interests you, put that curiosity to use! Make a spreadsheet to track the species in your garden each day. Take photos of birds in moult or with unusual markings (and submit them to BOP on the Virtual Museum!). Choose one or two species to focus on, and use an ethogram to keep a detailed account of the behaviours you observe in a thirty-minute block of time. Check out the “Birds” section in this resource from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland for a few tips on creating an ethogram.
For a simulation of foraging ecology, check out this link. The model allows you to experiment with how predation survival changes when birds forage in groups versus individually.
In addition to generating some interesting ecological ponderings, conducting counts is a great way of monitoring changes in local species composition and phenology over time. What birds are active in the morning? What birds are active day-long? What birds are present for only a few months of the year? What species are moulting, and when? Something as simple as two or three daily counts (and a few photographs for BirdPix) can provide a detailed picture of the species and traits which are most prevalent in a given place at a given time, again, paving the way for more complex and nuanced questions of seasonality, movement, and range.
Well, this has been a very long-winded way of saying…
Gardens are a great place to study ecological principles, and
You can start your own study at home!
I will be checking in every few months or so with an update on my garden situation, and in the meantime, I would love to hear your stories! Have you already noticed interesting patterns, behaviours, or changes at your garden feeders? What questions arise from your observations? Comment on this post or send an email to get in touch. We may even include one or two interesting stories in a future issue of the BDI Bridge.
Further reading on the ecology of fear (this is the article that started it all):
March has marched right past! And we are heading into the Easter holidays. We wish you all a wonderful Easter Weekend full of BioMAPping adventures!
Read on for the latest BDI News….
OdonataMAP – Vital Odonata Areas
One of the main things we have been working on behind the scenes, is determining Vital Odonata Areas for South Africa. In other words, areas of conservation priority for dragonflies and damselflies across South Africa.
The selection of sites of special importance to biodiversity conservation is traditionally qualitative, or at best semi-quantitative. For example, the guidelines for the selection of Important Bird Areas (Grimmett & Jones 1989) contain statements such as “The site is known or thought regularly to hold significant numbers of a globally threatened species” (BirdLife International 2021). This is a criterion that can be challenged in several ways on quantitative grounds; for example, the terms “regularly” and “significant numbers” are left undefined, and the criterion becomes thus open to interpretation in multiple ways. This is an expert-driven approach (O’Dea et al. 2006)
A quantitative approach of conservation site selection has aimed to obtain the smallest set of sites which included all species in at least one of them (Margules et al. 1988, Vane-Wright et al. 1991, Pressey et al. 1993). The initial algorithms employed for the “reserve selection problem” used a heuristic procedure known as the “greedy algorithm” and these were shown to be sub-optimal (Underhill 1994); they were replaced by linear programming tools that provide optimal solutions using readily available software (Rodrigues & Gaston 2002). There are many variations of the theme.
However, the reserve selection problem differs from the Important-Bird-Areas approach. The first is an algorithm, the second consists of expert opinion. The sites selected by the two approaches can differ radically (O’Dea et al. 2006). One of the assumptions of the quantitative approach is that it species distribution database is complete, and in particular that there are no false negatives, places where the species occurs, but where it has not been recorded. The main problem effectively highlighted by O’Dea et al. (2006) is that the experts cannot hold all the alternative combinations of potential sites in mind at once. However, they are able to consider the smorgasbord of other factors that are part of site selection, and not only species distribution.
The approach proposed by the BDI and the Freshwater Research Centre aims to overcome three issues: (1) It makes use of “complete” distribution maps which are created by the algorithm of Underhill (in prep.) to generate maps from patchy data using imputing approaches; (2) It uses an algorithm to select a set of candidate sites (and to rank them), ensuring that no site is overlooked; (3) This relatively small number of ranked candidate sites, and the species that the algorithm believes occur there, are presented to an expert panel, who can examine them for feasibility.
More on this soon! So watch this space! 🙂
The AB and the ABC: Action in the Baltic, and the April Bulbul Challenge!
On Tuesday, the 30th of March 2021, we had a great session, a Citizen Scientist Hour about birds! Thank you very much to all for attending and special thanks to the speakers.
The videos are now on the BDI YouTube channel, so you can enjoy the talks again, or watch them for the first time if you missed them:
Two amazing journeys: Rwanda and Nigeria!
On the 25th of March we had two amazing talks, one from a journey to a beautiful National Park in Rwanda, and the other about the journey of the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project. We these two talks we celebrated that the milestone of 100 videos on our YouTube Channel: