Whilst meandering about the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, I strolled along one of the old gravel roads that had become overgrown with little bluestem and Indiangrass and other native Blackland Prairie flora intent on reclaiming the area. In some places, the trail vanished beneath a sea of growth waving vigorously in the day’s strong winds.
Fresh deer and coyote tracks marked the wet soil, deep tracks showing not so much weight but overwhelming dampness from heavy rains. Migratory and resident birds filled the air with song and flitted about the hardwood forest bordering the old road. The strong smell of musk forced me to detour around what could only have been a skunk hiding in the shadows. And as the sun climbed over the trees and warmed the cool morning, insects swarmed into the light.
A red-shouldered hawk exploded from the trees nearby and made an immediate u-turn, quickly vanishing between ligneous arms heavy with falling leaves. I held my breath momentarily, watching after the large bird, letting the chatter of cardinals and kinglets and a cacophony of avian voices cloak me in greeting.
Yet as I stood looking up, gusts of wind brushing tall-grass stems against my legs, a brief flash of color on the ground caught my attention. Something lurked beneath the still verdant cover, something walking about in deep shadows. So I knelt to take a closer look.
Not a real scorpion. Not a real fly. But reminiscent of both. A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis). Even in a place where flash would have been useless and little light penetrated, its distinctive colors and telltale tail made clear I was facing one of the more unique insect species to be found in Texas.
Though I wished for a better view, for better light, I chose not to disturb him lest I chase him away from his meal, the remains of a crushed grasshopper already too far gone for identification. As I looked at his unique and unmistakable profile, a second scorpionfly scampered out from the grass.
A female. His mate? Or just a friend? No matter the relationship, the two seemed more than tolerant of each other. She never moved close to the grasshopper meal, instead walking along the edge of the gravel. All the while, he stood guard over the dead insect.
My presence, camera and head stuck beneath the waving grass, seemed less than acceptable to both, yet I felt neither wanted to leave the banquet laid out before them. Mind you, I probably would react the same way if unwelcome paparazzi sat at my dinner table while I tried to eat.
So why would I put my face in such a position when dealing with an insect as menacing as this? That scorpion tail no doubt could deliver quite a sting.
Actually, scorpionflies are harmless. Only males have the scorpion-like abdomen, and it’s not a stinger at all. That happens to be his genitalia. He holds his family jewels above his body in what resembles the typical defensive posture of scorpions. Females lack the tail.
Kleptoparasites in that they are known to steal prey from spider webs (without getting caught in the web themselves), scorpionflies also take live prey by capturing other insects with their legs. In addition—and obviously—they consume dead insects. Hidden at the end of their long snout are chewing mouthparts.
I backed away from their bower while keeping an eye on them. Only then did the female move away from the road’s edge and toward the grasshopper. The male, meanwhile, turned to watch her—and that put him into a position that offered me one good dorsal view between blades of grass. Standing above him, I snapped that image before leaving them to their feast.