by Roy Lukes

Not As Scary As She Looks

The American Pelecinid is sting-free, beautiful and harmless to people. It also helps control the June bug population.

There is a strikingly beautiful insect, the American Pelecinid (pel-i-CY-nid), now on the wing, that will be commonly seen and most often misunderstood until well into September. This weak-flying, large, shiny black creature, especially the female with her exceedingly long ovipositor, often startles people into thinking that itís a dangerous stinging wasp to be avoided.

Actually the ferocious-appearing insect is stingless and feeds upon nectar and water. Being in the huge insect order, Hymenoptera, along with, for example, ichneumans, wasps and bees, they have two sets of wings. In the case of the Pelecinid, its hindwings are only one-third the length of the forewings. Actually the wings are proportionally small in comparison to the large size of the two-inch female making her flight relatively slow.

I can easily imagine the first response of many unsuspecting people upon first seeing this insect and rearing back Ė "What kind of a weird bug is that?" Little do they realize that all insects are not bugs. Yes, there are about 50,000 species of bugs in the world including soldier bugs, stink bugs, ambush bugs, bedbugs, water striders, cicadas, spittlebugs, leafhoppers and aphids, but there are also several hundred thousand other insects species that are not bugs.

Unfortunately common interests of people and many insects overlap. Take for example farm, orchard and garden crops and one can itemize hundreds of insects or their larvae eating the very things you are hoping to harvest. Sadly a massive application of pesticides, if that were the final solution to the problem, ends up killing as many or more beneficial insects as harmful species.

Hardly a summer passes without extensive damage being done to lawns by skunks digging and ripping up the turf in order to locate the fat juicy larvae of the May Beetle, also called the Junebug. The bulky, shiny, reddish-brown to nearly black adult, one of about 1300 North American species, laid eggs in the lawn or fields bordering woods a few summers ago. The eggs hatched into white larvae with brown heads. Eventually by the third summer they had grown to about two inches in length.

The Junebug name of the adult is misleading because they are not bugs but rather beetles. They are members of a rather well-known group called scarab beetles having a bad reputation because of damage done by either larvae or adults or both.

Getting back to the star of this story, the American Pelecinid, most folks would see little but a dangerous creature in this handsome insect. This happens to be the only Pelecinid species in the entire country. Females are fairly common, especially in Eastern North America, while males are extremely rare.

The two-inch long female has a lengthy slender abdomen and ovipositor. She shoves her needle-like abdomen deep into the soil to locate host larvae below. Finding one she lays one egg at a time, each on a separate host. The Pelecinid larvae hatch and burrow into the hosts, killing them. Scavenging on the remains, they eventually pupate there.

Now comes the surprise. The host larvae upon which the American Pelecinids lay their eggs happen to be those of the Junebugs! Here is a case where the unknowing person would be inclined to flatten and kill the slender black wasps while at the same time plugging up the gaping holes made in their lawn the night before by a skunk in search of the very same grubs that the wasp was probing for.

In this case itís the fearsome, slow-flying, stingless, totally harmless American Pelecinids you should be protecting in order that their natural parasitic tendencies (of the larvae) will help to control the Junebug population.

Very likely the thousands of square miles of carefully manicured lawns along with the vast acreage of food crops have helped greatly to increase the May Beetle population by leaps and bounds. Now if only we could figure out a way to expand the number of American Pelecinids we wouldnít have so much trouble with the skunks digging up the lawns!

This column appeared in the Door County Advocate on 08/16/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Roy Lukes. All rights reserved.