I've written about the larvae of the Green Lacewing, Leucochrysa pavida, before, but never with (what I felt) were adequate photographs. These little creatures are very hard to image. They're small, mostly covered up, and when they expose themselves they're generally on the move.
It was time to figure out how to overcome the photographic challenges. I'm involved in a project that features an essay about lacewing larvae, and a good photo was a must. Lacewing larvae of the type shown below are not rare, but can be a challenge to locate for reasons that will soon be obvious. I asked Chris Bedel, Director of the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, if he might keep an eye out for lacewing larvae and capture me some livestock if he found any. Chris did, and I was able to set up a shoot under more controlled conditions than one would find outside, on the trunk of a tree. My rig was the Canon 5D Mark III with the twin-lite flash setup rigged to the spectacular MP-E 65 mega-macro lens. Still wasn't easy, and I probably shot off a hundred shots to get a few keepers.
The end result is a lichen Ghillie Suit. The insect moves with a halting stumble-step that might remind a birder of the curious mincing paces of an American Woodcock. Looking up under the costume, as here, we see that the lichens conceal a formidable predator. Check those mandibles!
Lacewing larvae of many species prey on aphids, and this one is no exception. Its only problem is that ants often guard arboreal aphid colonies, as the ants get a reward of nutrient-rich aphid honeydew for their troubles. Ants are extremely good at warding off threats to their charges; entomological pit bulls, you might say. The lacewing larva gets around this problem by means of its camouflaged suit. It moves right into aphid colonies, fooling the ant guards with its outstanding disguise. Other potential victims are no doubt fooled as well. Who would notice that the little lichen clump was slowly moving their way?
The death-dealing mandibles at the right are what the creature uses to seize its prey, which will then be punctured by the mouthparts and sucked dry. Radiating around its body are long struts capped with stiff hairlike bristles. These serve to support the lichen "house" on its back.
If all goes well for the lacewing larva, it will eventually morph into a small but beautiful winged insect with gossamer net-veined wings that is extremely different than the animal seen here. If you search enough lichen-spackled tree trunks and limbs, eventually you'll make the acquaintance of one of these things.
Nature truly is amazing.
Thanks to Chris Bedel for his help in securing these lichen-lions!