Scorpionflies and their relatives belong to the order Mecoptera, a fascinating group of insects with more than 80 species in North America. They are so-named because males in the genus Panorpa (family Panorpidae) have bulbous reproductive organs mounted on the tips of their abdomens that suggest the stinger of a scorpion. However, unlike their arachnid namesakes, scorpionflies are incapable of inflicting any sting whatsoever and are harmless to humans.
The mourning scorpionfly, Panorpa lugubris, is easily distinguished from all other North American Panorpa by its mostly black wings sprinkled with a few white spots. Its body is also black, but with bright and contrasting patches of reddish orange. This species inhabits both the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, from Virginia south through the Carolinas, Georgia, and west across the Florida panhandle to Louisiana.
Adults prefer open habitats with sandy soils and are often found flitting about in sandhills and old fields. They are typically encountered in the fall and early winter, but some individuals are out and about from mid-April through early June.
I observed some of my first mourning scorpionflies late one morning in September at Old Dominion University’s Blackwater Ecological Preserve in Isle of Wight County. Within the sand ridges of this preserve are two of Virginia’s rarest plant communities–longleaf pine-turkey oak flatwoods and longleaf pine savannas. What the scorpionflies called home was a patch of ground with open and sandy substrate punctuated by patches of low-growing huckleberries (dwarf and blue) and sheep-laurels. The overstory consists primarily of pond and longleaf pine, with an occasional loblolly thrown in for good measure.
Both males and females were found quietly perched with their heads upward on the vertical stems of the huckleberries, but quickly scattered as I approached. Some flew short distances and attempted to land on other low, vertical surfaces. Upon landing, they ran short distances over open ground with amazing speed before once again taking to the air. Others simply dropped down into the vegetation, listing to one side, and remained motionless among the detritus.
In North Carolina, mourning scorpionflies have been found scavenging parasitized tobacco hornworms in recently harvested tobacco fields. Captive adults happily dine on offerings of dead grasshoppers, but the larvae are somewhat more omnivorous. They too scavenge dead insects, but will also consume bits of mushrooms, tobacco stalks, and tobacco seed capsules.
For more information on mourning scorpionflies see Evans, A.V. & O.S. Flint, Jr. 2009. The Mourning scorpionfly, Panorpa lugubris, in Virginia (Mecoptera: Panorpidae). Banisteria 33: 58-61.
For a terrific overview of order the Mecoptera in North American check out this issue of the Kansas School Naturalist written by George Byers Entomology Professor Emeritus at the Snow University of Kansas and a world authority of mecopterans.
©2009, A.V. Evans