Creepy or cute?

Sawflies, suborder Symphyta, are in the order Hymentoptera alongside bees, wasps, and ants. Their larvae are remarkably caterpillar-like, sometimes confounding entomologists until the larvae are observed up close.

There are some key differences: sawflies have many more prolegs than lepidopteran caterpillars (lep caterpillars have a maximum of 5 pairs, sawflies have 6 pairs or more), and they have only one eyespot on each side of the head (lep caterpillars have 6 stemmata arranged in a half-circle).

For some reason, the eyespots creep me out. I keep thinking that it should make them even more cartoonish and adorable, but I just cannot get on board with loving sawfly larvae. What do you think? Is this guy creepy or cute? Sawfly larvae can be gregarious, and give themselves away with characteristic resting poses. If you see a bunch of caterpillars along a leaf edge waving their rear ends in the air, you are looking at some sawfly larvae. They also tend to have a slimy looking sheen to them.

Oh, and did I mention some species spit?

They spit. At least this one does, in the family Cimbicidae. Many sawfly larvae simply regurgitate their nastiness, but these have the audacity to express fluid in a stream from glands above their spiracles.

Interestingly, in some parts of the world sawfly larvae are called “spitfires”, even though they do not spit forcibly – instead regurgitating fluid or everting it from glands. Only some species in Cimbicidae can actually hit you in the face from a tree branch a foot away (which the one in the video did, before I started filming).

For more information:

Eisner, T. 1994. Integumental Slime and Wax Secretion: Defensive adaptations of sawfly larvae. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 20:10. Link

Posted on June 14, 2012, in Hymenoptera, Invertebrates, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think they can be very cool looking, but a lot of times they register as prematurely-born or space-alien versions of caterpillars. The caterpillar-sawfly larva comparison is kind of automatic for me, lodged in the brain probably because I first learned what a sawfly larva is as “not a caterpillar”; and it’s probably not fair to compare them to caterpillars (despite the obvious superficial similarity) because caterpillars are like, I don’t know, the Black Labs of the insect world. Or something like that. 🙂

  2. The body looks cuddly and soft (and even delicious becaus I feel reminded of a Kiwi-fruit) but this skull-like head is definetely creepy.

  3. I LOVE sawflies. Everybody at the lab here in Kane thinks they’re gross, too, but that just makes me more attracted to them. I’ve kept a few as pets and they’re also big sweeties. I love their legs and face and curly little possum tail!
    (And to prove my affection, a week or so ago I made a fuckyeahsawfly account on tumblr to share them with the woooorrld)

  4. What is in the fluid that the sawflies “spit”? I know some caterpillars can apparently spit formic acid, but many just regurgitate distasteful fluid…

    • I don’t know! I’m having a hard time finding more information about it. I’m going to keep digging. It didn’t seem to smell and didn’t bother me though it got sprayed on my face.

  5. Alisha Peterson

    I tried to articulate my distaste for sawflies for a long time and finally realized that they give me a feeling identical to uncanny valley felt for CG/robotic representations of humans.

    I agree with you that the mixture of cuteness, interesting behavior, and admittedly sometimes pretty markings should lead to at least a warm fondness… They just have that strange uncanny valley ick-factor for me.

    I figured it was just one more mark of my own personal weirdness, :p

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Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

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