Gardening

Lacewings: how to ID and attract this amazing, beneficial insect

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Lacewings are gorgeous, net-winged insects (Neuroptera) that can play an essential role as pollinators and pest control in your garden. In this article, you’ll find out how to create their ideal habitat and identify them at each stage of their lifecycle.


One of our favorite things to do in our yarden is go out on “insect safaris.” Looking closely at our plants always reveals an entire world teeming with life. It’s always fun to see familiar insect faces like ladybugs, honeybees, dragonflies, and praying mantises.

Since we have a water feature (duck pond), we get lots of dragonflies in our gardens each summer. To optimize their pest control potential, we intentionally create hunting perches for them throughout our garden. This is a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis), enjoying a view from atop a perch in one of our blackberry patches (in this case, one of last year's dead canes). Who hates dragonflies? Mosquitos. An adult dragonfly can eat 30-100 mosquitos per day. Since their larvae are aquatic predators that can take up two years to mature, they also spend the first part of their lives consuming huge numbers of mosquito larvae as well.

Since we built a duck pond, we get lots of dragonflies in our gardens each summer. To optimize their pest control potential, we intentionally create hunting perches for them throughout our garden. This is a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis), enjoying a view from atop a perch in one of our blackberry patches (in this case, one of last year’s dead canes). Who hates dragonflies? Mosquitos. An adult dragonfly can eat 30-100 mosquitos per day. Since their larvae are aquatic predators that can take up two years to mature, they also spend the first part of their lives consuming huge numbers of mosquito larvae as well.

Most people are familiar with these charismatic insects, but there are countless other lesser known and equally beneficial insects that haven’t become as popular or well-known. One of many such insects is the lacewing

How to identify lacewings 

Lacewings are a diverse family of insects with an estimated 2,000 different species around the world. The most common lacewings we see in our southeastern US garden are lumped into the category of green lacewings or common lacewings.  Determining the exact species of lacewings we see is impossible since we’re not entomologists. In fact, some species of lacewings are visually identical and can only be distinguished based on their specific courtship songs/vibrations.  This is akin to having two genetically distinct species of humans who look identical but one group of humans only listens to Marvin Gay prior to copulation while the other group exclusively utilizes Whitney Houston’s greatest hits.   

A gorgeous green lacewing resting on our porch after an evening and morning spent cavorting and drinking (nectar).

A gorgeous green lacewing resting on our porch after an evening and morning spent cavorting and drinking (nectar).

When are lacewings active? 

Adult lacewings usually hide away on the undersides of leaves during the day. They come out just after dark then again just before dawn. (If you want to impress your friends, you can inform them that lacewings are crepuscular, which is distinct from being nocturnal.)  During their journeys of flight, adult lacewings pollinate flowers, mate, and lay eggs. In some species of lacewings, the adults are also predatory, not just relying on pollen and nectar for food. 

If you happen to see a dainty, green-colored 1″ insect that looks like a miniature fairy floating in your lamp or flashlight beam, you’ve probably spotted a lacewing. We say “floating” because lacewings are not particularly strong or fast flyers.  Given that lacewings are only out at night, one of their chief predators is bats. Thus, they’ve developed an interesting defense mechanism… When they hear the ultrasonic call of nearby bats, they close their wings and drop to the ground. 

What do lacewing eggs, larvae, and cocoons look like? 

Lacewing eggs

Lacewing eggs are almost imperceptibly small to the human eye and ingeniously designed to avoid being eaten by other predatory insects.  An adult female lacewing attaches a white thread to a leaf (often on the underside). The thread extends outward into the air about 1/8″ and the tip houses a small white-colored egg. When predators encounter the base of the thread they assume there’s nothing worth eating and move on. 

A lacewing egg on the side of a persimmon leaf.

A lacewing egg on the side of a persimmon leaf.

We’ve seen lacewing eggs laid both individually and in groups. They’re aways laid on plants where pest insects such as aphids are present for reasons you can read about below…  

Lacewing larvae 

Lacewing larvae are one of our favorite insects and a great reminder of how wildly divergent the same species of insect can look at each stage in its lifecycle. Not only do they look like miniature alligators, but they have a comparable appetite.

How big are lacewing larvae? Here's one navigating the martian surface of my hand for size reference. We've read that lacewing larvae can bite people if they feel threatened, but haven't personally experienced this.

How big are lacewing larvae? Here’s one navigating the surface of my hand for size reference. We’ve read that lacewing larvae can bite people if they feel threatened, but haven’t personally experienced this.

Lacewing larvae are voracious predators that can eat through hundreds of aphids in a week. In addition to aphids, lacewing larvae eat other common pest insects including spider mites, thrips, whitefly, leafhoppers, and mealybugs. Lacewing larvae can also eat each other, especially if other food sources are scarce. We’re not sure who would win in a battle between a lacewing larva and a ladybug larva.

A lacewing larva chowing down on one aphid while a group of other unsuspecting aphids continue grazing nearby. By the end of the day, this plant had no more aphids. (Aphids are common pest insects in case you didn't know.)

A lacewing larva chowing down on one aphid while a group of other unsuspecting aphids continue grazing nearby. By the end of the day, this plant had no more aphids. (Aphids are common pest insects in case you didn’t know.)

Lacewing larvae go through three instar stages before pupating. 

Lacewing pupae/cocoons 

At the end of the third instar stage, lacewing larvae pupate, forming a small white cocoon. Lacewing cocoons look like tiny white cotton balls.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a lacewing cocoon in our garden in time for this article, so we’ll update with a photo when we do. 

Lacewings’ lifecycle 

Lacewings have a similar lifecycle to many other insects: egg > larva > pupa/cocoon > adult.  The timespan of each stage varies by species and weather/temperature:

  • Eggs: 3-10 days 
  • Larvae: 10-14 days
  • Pupa: 5-8 days 
  • Adult: 4-6 weeks 

In our climate, lacewings overwinter as pupae on plants or fallen leaves before hatching as adults in the spring. 

A lacewing larva eating an aphid on the underside of a Rosa rugosa leaf.

A lacewing larva eating an aphid on the underside of a Rosa rugosa leaf.

Organic gardening with insects in mind

If you have — or plan to have — an organic garden, we highly suggest you cultivate a healthy relationship with various other organisms in your garden, including lacewings.  Three tips to help: 

1. Realize that 95% of insects are beneficial or benign.

Insects are absolutely critical to the health of your garden. They pollinate your plants, predate your pest insects, and boost your soil fertility.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
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Lacewing? Tiny praying mantis? Nope, this is a Green Mantisfly (Zeugomantispa minuta). It’s more closely related to lacewings, but looks like a miniature praying mantis. This is an adult, and you can see its raptorial front legs which it uses just like a praying mantis to hunt prey. If you’ve ever wondered what insects help keep spider numbers in check, you’re looking at one of the primary culprits. The larvae of mantisflies find spiders and hitch a ride on their backs. If it’s a male spider, they’ll wait until it mates, then switch over to the female’s back. Once on a female, they’ll wait until she lays her eggs, then feast away on the spider eggs inside the egg sack. Another good predator to be on the lookout for in your garden or farm. #mantisfly #mantidfly #neuroptera #predatoryinsects #gardeningtips

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2. Balance any innate fear with curiosity and understanding.

Even if you have an innate fear of insects and arachnids, try to temper your fear with curiosity.  Before killing a critter, make a habit of finding out what it is and what it does. Chances are that once you learn about it, you’ll realize it’s not only completely harmless to you, it’s actually helpful to your garden.

3. Learn to work with insects for your best garden ever.

By: a) growing a wide diversity of plants, b) adding lots of flowering plants into your garden ecosystem, and c) not using synthetic pesticides, you’ll help create a vibrant garden where pest insects and plant diseases are less likely to proliferate. 

Yes, we have organic control methods for Japanese beetles, but we also rely on predators to do a lot of the work, too. Here’s a Florida predatory stink bug (often mistaken for pest harlequin bugs) making a meal of a Japanese beetle that was trying to make a meal of aronia leaves. Try to know what your predatory insects look like at each stage in their life cycle so you don’t accidentally kill a friend. Also remember that without pest insects, you won’t have predatory insects.

Yes, we have organic control methods for Japanese beetles, but we also rely on predators to do a lot of the work, too. Here’s a Florida predatory stink bug (often mistaken for pest harlequin bugs) making a meal of a Japanese beetle that was trying to make a meal of aronia leaves. Try to know what your predatory insects look like at each stage in their life cycle so you don’t accidentally kill a friend. Also remember that without pest insects, you won’t have predatory insects.

Less work, more food, healthier planet. Yes please!  We hope you’ve learned a bit more about lacewings and will enjoy insect safaris with your family in your own garden. Let us know when you spot your first lacewing egg, larvae, cocoon, or adult!  KIGI,

How to ID and attract lacewings

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