Sawflies are a group of insects that many people haven’t even heard of. Part of the reason is because, in appearance and behaviour, they are like a hybrid between two major groups: their larval stages look like caterpillars (larvae of Butterflies and Moths ie. Lepidoptera), and their adult stages look like bees or wasps (Order Hymenoptera). Despite appearances and lifestyle, it is the latter category that they actually fall under: Hymenoptera which also includes the Bees, Wasps, and Ants. The major features that set sawflies apart from their relatives is that they eat plants, and they don’t have the constricted “wasp waist”. You might find this a little confusing, as Bees certainly don’t have an obviously thin waist, but they actually do have a constriction between their thorax and abdomen, it’s just more difficult to see than in many wasp species.
Like many insect Orders, the name Hymenoptera refers to a distinct aspect of the members’ wings (‘ptera’ is derived from the Greek for wing). Hymenoptera doesn’t have an easy translation though, like say Diptera for the True Flies (di = two, ptera = wings). The beginning part of the word is either from the word “hymen” which means membranous, or from the word “hymeno” which refers to the Greek God of Marriage. Hymenopteran wings are membranous, but they also have tiny hooks that link their fore- and hind-wings, meaning that they could be said to be “married” wings as well (Grissell, 2010). Whatever the case, the group is one that includes thousands of species of wasps, bees, ants, and of course, sawflies.
The common name “sawfly” is describing the way the female sawfly lays her eggs. Instead of a stinger or stinger-like ovipositor (egg-layer) at the end of her abdomen (like most of the other Hymenopterans), the female sawfly has a saw-like ovipositor, a cutting tool that she uses to open up plant tissue, and then inserts her eggs within.
This is what the Introduced Pine Sawfly (Diprion similis) does to pine needles. D. similis prefers White Pine (Pinus strobus) as its host plant (in North America), but will lay eggs and successfully grow to maturity on several other pine species. The female lays about 10 tiny eggs inside a pine needle (Cranshaw, 2004). After inserting the eggs, the female seals them in with a secretion that hardens for protection (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). The larvae that hatch from the eggs begin to feed on the pine needles. For the first part of their life, they will remain together but begin to disperse as they grow older. These larvae prefer to feed on needles that are at least 1 year old, probably because the younger needles are full of more toxins (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). As they consume needles, they grow, from 2.5 mm long upon first hatching to almost 3 cm before the larva is said to be “mature”. They don’t grow continuously, but rather have to molt and enter a new size class each time they’ve gained enough nutrients. For female larvae, they have six growth stages between molts and the males have five (CABI, 2020).
During this time, you would be forgiven for thinking they were caterpillars, because they look very similar. The way to tell caterpillars from sawflies is to count the number of legs. Their first set of legs will be six, and jointed for both groups, but they will also have a number of legs behind these called “prolegs”. If the larva you’re looking at has more than 5 pairs of prolegs, it’s a sawfly. Another giveaway is the distinct single eyes of sawfly larvae, as opposed to tiny ocelli (miniature eyes in clusters) in caterpillars.
Once they’ve reached their final larval stage, they spin a cocoon around themselves with silk, and transform within. Diprion similis larvae prefer to form their cocoons in the pine trees where they feed, rather than on the ground like many other sawflies.
In Europe and most of North America there are two generations per year, which means that what happens next depends on what time of the year it is. If the larvae have grown enough and created their cocoons in the summer, they will develop within in about 2 weeks into adults, but if they have reached this point near the end of fall, they will enter diapause (essentially insect hibernation) for several weeks before emerging in the spring (CABI, 2020). When they emerge, the adult sawflies are entirely different creatures, just as butterflies and moths are very distinct from their caterpillar young. The adults have wings, and with these they search for mates.
Males are attracted to females by pheromones (a chemical signal between members of the same species), as one would guess by the male’s elaborate antennae. The males can be attracted to a female across 61 m of open field, which is a great distance for an insect only a matter of centimeters long (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). Once mated, the female lays eggs in pine needles, and we are back at the beginning of their life history.
One note about mating: it isn’t necessary for the female to mate to be able to lay eggs. She shares with the other Hymenoptera a bizarre (to us) chromosome setup known as haplodiploidy. Females have one set of chromosomes (the mother’s) and males have two (mother and father). What this means in practice is that a female sawfly can lay an egg that will develop into a fully functional male offspring without ever going through the trouble of mating. This has implications for the spread of such organisms, as not all members of the population need to pair up to contribute to the next generation.
Which brings me to my final discussion of this species: they are commonly referred to as the Introduced Pine Sawfly because they were accidentally introduced into North America from Europe, likely in plant nursery stock imported in 1914. They have become well established in North America since then. Thankfully, they only very rarely reach a high enough population density to be considered an “outbreak” invasive species, and though they feed on tree leaves (needles), many predators and parasitoids feed on them (Wagner and Raffa, 1993).
The last time we were camping at Algonquin Provincial Park, I encountered quite a few of their larvae likely because they were in the fairly mobile phase before finding a spot to spin a cocoon (it was the end of September, the beginning of October). They may be an introduced species, and they may feed on White Pines, defoliating some of the branches, but as with any organism, they have a story all their own, and I think it’s worth telling.
Wagner, Michael R. and Raffa, Kenneth F. Sawfly Life History Adaptations to Woody Plants, 1993.
Cranshaw, Whitney. Garden Insects of North America. 2004.
Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.
Grissell, Eric. Bees, Wasps, and Ants. 2010.
CABI, 2020. Diprion similis. In: Invasive Species Compendium. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. www.cabi.org/isc.