Saturday, July 30, 2016

A web spinner that isn't a spider.

And it's also not a termite. Even though every time I saw one of these little winged insects, I thought they were termites.

Have you seen this bug?

For years, I had been misidentifying these small flying insect as termites.  Small, black, long wings folded down the back.  I would see them occasionally in the house, especially on warm summer evenings.  Just one or two, here and there.  Nothing like a swarm.  Just a wayward bug that found its way inside, attracted by the lights and aided by an open door. 

I didn’t give them much thought until earlier this summer, when I started to see a lot more of them, particularly around my front door. Still, it didn’t seem like a swarm, exactly.  And I couldn’t really tell where they were coming from.   They seemed to be attracted to the porch light, and many of them died right there on the porch.  Still thinking they were termites, I pointed out a few of the dead ones to my regular exterminator (*gasp* the Buglady uses an exterminator?!  Yes.  It turns out, the Buglady doesn’t like ants in her house any more than you do.  So I have the outside of the house sprayed, and it keeps the ants from coming in.)

Anyway, the ant guy looked at the dead “termites”, and probably agreed that’s what they were, because he didn’t correct me, and in fact, recommended I call their Termite department.  (yes, the Buglady doesn’t want termites chewing up her house any more than you do, either, so I have an annual termite inspection, too.)

Two days later, still experiencing the numerous termite-looking bugs hanging out, and dying around my front porch, I showed them to the Termite Inspector, who promptly identified them as Winged Ants.  Not destructive, no problem, and the pesticide that the regular exterminator guy was using around the outside of the house was obviously killing them.  So, we’re done.

But I wasn’t done.  I had seen winged ants before, and I recalled their body shape was different from these dead porch insects.  So, I decided to search online.  I discovered that the subject “winged ant or termite?” was actually pretty common.  And there are plenty of comparative illustrations.  Here is an example of one of them.

Image from

Notice the ant has a distinct bend in its antennae, a slender “waist”, and different sized wings, where the termite has non-bending antennae, a full waist, and same-sized antennae.  OK, my porch bugs still looked more like the termites to me.  But if they weren’t termites, what were they???  Back online I went…

One of my favorite local insect ID sites is Arthropods of Orange County, CA, and it was there that I found my bug.  Not a termite OR a winged ant.  It was something I had never heard of:  a Black Webspinner, Oligotoma nigra.  Once I had a name to put with the face, I was able to find out more about them:

The females are wingless, and spend their lives in the soil.  All the Webspinners we see flying around and attracted to lights are therefore males.  These little guys live just under the surface of the soil, or under rocks and logs, and feed on dead plant material, as well as moss and lichen.  They create silk tunnels from special glands in their forelegs.  Both adults and juveniles are able to do this, and their web tunnels can be quite extensive when there are a lot of individuals living close to each other and “adding to” the webs of parents and siblings, creates a colony of sorts. 

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