Alderfly larvae look a lot like fishflies and hellgrammites but are usually much smaller. Note that like fishflies, they lack gill tufts below the abdomen. There are 7 pairs of pointed appendages along the abdomen. The abdomen is tipped with a single tail filament that points straight back. Alderflies can be fairly light-colored, tan or brownish.
Like the larvae of fishflies and dobsonflies, alderflies have 3 pairs of jointed legs in the upper part of the body, with each leg tipped with a tiny, 2-parted pincer; and the mouthparts are large pincers.
Take care if handling alderfly larvae; they can pinch you with their stout mouthparts. Either hold them just behind the head, or use forceps to handle them.
Similar species: Fishfly larvae are usually larger and have 8 pairs of pointed, fleshy appendages along the abdomen; although, like alderflies, they lack external abdominal gill tufts, fishflies have a pair of short fleshy filaments and a pair of hooks at the abdomen tip. Hellgrammites (larval dobsonflies) are usually dark brown or black, usually much larger, and have 8 pairs of pointed, leglike appendages along the abdomen, each with a cottony or hairy gill tuft as the base. There is a pair of hooked, leglike appendages at the hind tip — not a single tail filament.
Larval length: usually no more than 1 inch; varies with species.
Habitat and Conservation
Different species prefer different types of aquatic habitats. The larvae of some alderflies prefer slow-moving, detritus-littered waters, such as lakes and ponds, while others prefer silt-bottomed pools in quieter sections of rivers and streams. Some can tolerate polluted waters. The short-lived adults are usually found among vegetation near water.
Alderfly larvae, depending on species, are omnivorous or predatory, using their stout mouth pincers for grasping and chewing smaller aquatic invertebrates or organic materials. Alderflies generally do not eat during their brief time as flying adults.
Alderflies are one of two families in the insect order Megaloptera (the name means “large wings”). The other family in this order comprises the fishflies and dobsonflies. In the past, megalopteran insects were considered part of a much larger order Neuroptera (“nerve-winged” or “net-winged” insects); today Neuroptera is a smaller group, including lacewings, mantidflies, antlions, and owlflies.
Like many other insects with aquatic larvae, most of an alderfly’s life is spent in water, growing through immature stages, with only a brief period experienced as a winged adult. Females lay eggs on leaves or branches near water, and the young move into the water soon after hatching. As aquatic larvae they eat, grow, and molt. They crawl out of water to pupate in a sheltered place; sometimes in the soil, sometimes in rotting wood or behind loose bark.
Alderfly larvae, like many other aquatic invertebrates, provide food for growing fish and are therefore important for healthy fisheries.
Alderfly larvae eat smaller invertebrates and are in turn eaten by larger aquatic organisms, such as crayfish and fish. They are also eaten by the larvae of their close relatives, the fishflies, which are larger. If they survive to adulthood, they can become food for a variety of insectivorous animals such as flycatching birds and spiders.