The duck-faced lacewing, its baby and an ancient Egyptian inscription

by Matthew Cobb

Another set of fascinating insect tw**ts popped up while I slept. Morgan Jackson (@BioInFocus) tweeted a link to this fantastic insect, photographed by J. Gállego, a Spanish photographer who specialises in the fauna and flora of Spain and North Africa:

Here’s picture of the beast head on (keep away from those mouthparts!):

Some of you may have guessed, this is a larval form of a rather beautiful insect – a Neuropterid. This includes things lacewings, owlflies and antlions, and used to be in the same group as the Megaloptera (which includes the Dobson fly we discussed the other day). Antlion larvae live in pits, into which ants fall (hence their name), which was also the inspiration for that beast in one of the episodes of Star Wars. After Morgan had tweeted this bizarre larva – why on earth does it have such a long ‘neck’? – he then tweeted this:


Here’s the picture Morgan linked to – a stupendous image by the great Piotr Naskrecki from You can see what he means about ‘crazy hind-wings’:

Spoon-winged lacewings (?Nemia sp.) from Richtersveld National Park, South Africa [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]

Here’s a close-up of the beast, again by Piotr Naskrecki, in which you can really see that they are duck-faced…

The head and mouthparts of spoon-winged lacewings is elongated and well-adapted for fitting into long corollas of flowers [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]

These things look more like Mecoptera or scorpion flies (neither scorpions nor flies, obvs). Very odd.

J. Gállego has a photo of a different species, which might be the adult of the weird larva at the top – Nemoptera bipennis:

Here’s another beautiful Nemoptera bipennis from Toni Garcia de la Cruz.

File:Nemoptera bipennis.jpg

You can find many other photos of the adults on the internet, including these and a great page of loads of Neuropterid images collated by Jonathan Wojcik. There’s even a nice Youtube video:

The function of those long hindwings is unclear (though they look remarkably like the streamers seen in some birds, for which sexual selectionis a probable explanation), but Naskrecki has a different take:

The function of this unusual morphology is still not entirely known. In species with particularly enlarged hind wings their function appears to be to deter some predators by giving a false impression of the insect as much larger—and thus potentially stronger—than it really is. In species with long, thread-like wings their function may be related to the aerodynamics of the flight, and in members of the subfamily Crocinae the hind wings play a sensory function in cavernicolous habitats that these insects occupy.

I was particularly struck by this comment from Piotr:

Interestingly, because of some species’ preference of sheltered, cave-like habitats, the larvae of these insects were first discovered in tombs of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt in the early 1800′s, giving rise to a nearly mythological status of these insects.

A couple of years back I was in the back rooms of the Manchester Museum (part of the University of Manchester), where some colleagues were preparing an ancient Egyptian tombstone (I think). I was struck by a hieroglyph of an insect of some kind, which I was told was a bee, so I took a photo of it that has been sitting on my phone ever since. I wasn’t happy with the identification of the thing as a bee (it doesn’t look anything like one – look at those antennae!), but that is apparently how it is interpreted, and other inscriptions relating to honey and everything all make sense.

But looking at it now, it looks much more like a duck-faced lacewing (dig those antennae!):


The shape underneath the abdomen is apparently one of the back pair of legs, and can be seen more clearly on this inscription from Luxor:

File:Luxor, hieroglyphs on an obelisk inside the Temple of Hatshepsut, Egypt, Oct 2004.jpg

So. Either the Ancient Egyptians didn’t know their bees from the duck-faced lacewings (it seems unlikely), or the bee symbol was adapted from an earlier symbol which was (for whatever reason) of a duck-faced lacewing. Any Egyptologists care to comment?


  1. Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Does it quack too?

  2. John Harshman
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    If nature were being at all fair, that ant lion would be the larva of a different neuropteroid, a snakefly Raphidioptera.

  3. Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    While we’re on the subject of bugs, here are some amazing photos:

  4. darrelle
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    But, what about that neck? It seems as if it would be absurdly detrimental but, it did evolve. Any experts have anything to offer on this?

  5. Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Amazing organisms that I never heard of! These are fantastic. The first crazy-hind-winged one reminds me of a Lyre-tailed Nightjar; see
    and scroll down. This bird’s tail plumes even have white tips like the insects’. Of course these are tail feathers rather than wing feathers, but there is also the Pennant-winged Nightjar whose long plumes really are part of the wings.

  6. Posted September 25, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Incredible stuff. I couldn’t help but notice the 4-legged depictions in the hieroglyphs. (whereas they seem to have gotten the scarab beetles more or less correct). Any link between stuff like this and other 4-legged insects of Leviticus, etc.?

    • Posted September 25, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      The stylised representation of the ‘bee’ includes four legs under the thorax and a shape under the abdomen which is clearly supposed to be one of the rear pairs of legs. I think they know that these ‘bees’ have three pairs of legs, but the style has led to this rather odd representation.

      • Posted September 25, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Ah. I was wondering about that… or if those were depictions of them “crazy hind wings”

  7. Posted September 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink


  8. cherrybombsim
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    The bee is not a very common hieroglyph. About the only times you see it are when it is used as an ideograph for the word “bee”, or in the archaic expression used in the two pictures you posted. The origins of the expression are a little bit murky, so I suppose it’s possible that it actually is some different insect, although pretty much everybody has assumed it is a bee.

    • John Harshman
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      It clearly has a hymemopteran “waist”, which lacewings don’t. Put down the antennae as anomalous.

      • Posted September 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        I have seen that hieroglyph on monuments in Egypt and would bet that it is hornet – or some sort of wasp.

        • cherrybombsim
          Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          Yeah. You see it a lot because the gist of it is “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” But it is a relict usage from the language as it used to be 1000 years before these monuments were chiseled. So nobody is really sure how it is pronounced or whether it actually has anything to do with bees.

  9. Zwirko
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I think the hieroglyph is just highly stylised and shouldn’t be taken too literally. In paintings, the wings are often shown with veins lined up in parallel rows like venetian blinds – again, not an accurate depiction.

  10. Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    I looked around for any insight into these bizarre insects, and I am not able to find conclusive explanations about the larva or adult. The larvae are generally found in caves, and so perhaps their elongated prothorax is used to hang their jaws in space to capture passing insects. That is only a guess on my part.
    The elongated wings are speculated to have a sensory function, but could also be used in heat adsorption.

  11. Dominic
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Cobb does it again – a great bit of observation to work out that those carvings are lacewings. You should write it up & submit to an Egyptological journal!

  12. Gayle Gibson
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    This is about as cool as it gets! I will look at it again from the Egyptian point of view – i have never even noticed that line under the abdomen. I’ll have to check on a few hundred pictures. The world is a pretty marvellous place. Thank you for this, gau;e

    >>> Why Evolution Is True 9/25/2013 1:13 PM >>>

    whyevolutionistrue posted: “by Matthew Cobb Another set of fascinating insect tw**ts popped up while I slept. Morgan Jackson (@BioInFocus) tweeted a link to this fantastic insect, photographed by J. Gállego, a Spanish photographer who specialises in the fauna and flora of Spain a”

  13. marksolock
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] J. Gállego, a Spanish nature photographer who works in Spain and North Africa. Visit his blog and Why Evolution is True for more on this amazing larva and the fantastic lacewing that it turns […]

  2. […] Photo: J. Gallego/Macroinstantes – via Why Evolution is True […]

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