Elusive Island Lacewings

Entomologist Norm Penny finds lacewings on the Academy's current expedition to the remote African islands of São Tomé and Principe.

Looking for green lacewings in a tropical forest is worse than searching for a needle in a haystack. With pale-green bodies and translucent wings, these insects easily disappear into their lush surroundings. On the small tropical islands of Sao Tome and Principe, virtually nothing is known about green lacewings (genus Chrysoperla). In fact, only a single record exists for each island.

Thus, "it was a pleasant surprise," entomologist Norm Penny reports from the field, when he caught one on São Tomé the very first night. On Principe, it "proved physically grueling trying to climb the steep slopes and collect in the hot tropical sun." Despite near exhaustion, he and a Principean assistant named Baltazar found several specimens of various sizes. Two of these were found in a cacao plantation, the first record from a cash crop.

green lacewings
Green Lacewings (Chrysoperla) from São Tomé. Photo by Dong Lin.
Norm Penny
Norm Penny observing a lacewing.
Photo by Dong Lin.

Lacewing larvae feed on agricultural pests such as aphids and moth caterpillars and are commonly used in the U.S. to protect crops. Penny's findings have opened the possibility of using lacewings to protect the islands' cacao crop.

Lacewings can be difficult to find. In 1989, during a trip to Papua New Guinea, it took Penny and a team of entomologists five weeks of intense searching before they found any. Three years ago, Penny spent six weeks collecting in a forest at Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar, and came up with only four specimens.Only eighteen days into this trip, Penny has collected 55 specimens of at least eight green lacewing species from the islands.

Lacewing larvae feed on slow-moving insects such as aphids and moth caterpillars, using their long hollow jaws to grip their prey and suck out its body fluids.