Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Strange white stuff

with 22 comments

Finding sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis) along creeks in Austin is commonplace. When I looked at this sycamore leaf along Bull Creek on July 25th I saw something I’d noticed once before, years earlier, but had never tracked down. Val Bugh came to the rescue this time: “the white stuff is a secretion that a female dobsonfly uses to cover her egg masses. Makes them look like bird droppings. The leaf should be over water so the hatchling hellgrammites will drop in.”

Me, I can’t help thinking the Hellgrammites were once a religious sect of the fire-and-brimstone type. In fact the American Heritage Dictionary says that the first part of the word probably is indeed hell, based on the insect’s painful bite. And we remember the old adage that hell hath no fury like a female dobsonfly scorned.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 3, 2017 at 4:40 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , , , ,

22 Responses

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  1. How curious! I had a look at a photo of the dobsonfly and it reminds me in some ways of an antlion. I’ve never seen an antlion in real life but learnt about them when I was a small child from a lovely picture book on insects and their habits.


    September 3, 2017 at 7:16 AM

    • The insect world is a strange place, isn’t it? So alien. And yet its members are so numerous. We’re the odd ones out.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 3, 2017 at 5:52 PM

  2. Beautiful contrast of green and white. It appears one had escaped. Interesting!
    I like the word HELLGRAMMITES. I think I’ll use it to describe my neighbors. Oops!


    September 3, 2017 at 7:48 AM

  3. Very cool discovery, Steven — thanks for the enlightenment.

    Jet Eliot

    September 3, 2017 at 10:04 AM

  4. A new one for me, Steve, thank you!

    Lavinia Ross

    September 3, 2017 at 6:20 PM

    • A new one for most of us, I bet. I’d seen this once before without finding out what it is.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 3, 2017 at 8:34 PM

  5. amazing ..


    September 3, 2017 at 9:26 PM

  6. Ah, ha! More William Congreve for our delight. His pen could be as sharp as this insect’s bite, so it’s a good match.

    I tried without success to find an example of the sort of decoration they remind me of: padded and lace-trimmed additions to Victorian dresses. They’re quite beautiful, and make a lovely contrast with the green leaf. I tried without success to find the origin of dobsonfly. One of my British friends is named Dobson. I’ll have to ask if she knows she has an insect named after one of the family.


    September 3, 2017 at 9:34 PM

    • No reason to grieve the absence of Congreve here.

      I checked several dictionaries for “dobsonfly” and the best I could find was in the Collins Dictionary:


      “C20: origin uncertain, perhaps after the surname Dobson.”

      But then who was that Dobson?

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2017 at 11:29 PM

      • I found this interesting note on BugGuide: “The word “dobson” sounds like a folk etymology for another word for the larva, possibly of Native American origin. Another possibility is that it is a reference to another aquatic creature, the dolphin (from French daulphin). Note that originally “dobson” was a term for the larva.” Everybody’s got a theory.

        I thought for a while that George Edward Dobson might have been honored by having his name attached to the insect, but he was a bat and insectivore specialist.


        September 6, 2017 at 7:09 PM

        • I think you’ve summed it up well with “everybody’s got a theory.” I’d read that “dobson” originally referred to the larva; great oaks from little acorns grow, so to speak.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 7, 2017 at 12:26 AM

  7. They are much more elegant than bird droppings; well at least more elegant than the bird droppings which drop on my windows.


    September 4, 2017 at 5:02 AM

  8. Are you sure that Hellgrammites are not really just Grammar Nazis? You know, people who just can’t help but correct one’s grammar? (I try to do this only to people to whom I am, in fact, a Gramma(r)!

    Judy Baumann

    September 4, 2017 at 8:09 AM

  9. What a great name, and lovely fishy shapes …

    anna warren portfolio

    September 5, 2017 at 2:21 AM

  10. Thanks Steve … I hadn’t heard of this fly and her clever egg distribution.


    September 6, 2017 at 2:05 PM

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