I’ve been walking the rows of soybean fields for many years now, and while it might seem that I would have very quickly seen all there was to see in terms of insects associated with the crop, this is not the case. The major players are almost always present—lepidopteran caterpillars such as velvetbean caterpillar (Anticarsia gemmatalis) and soybean looper (Chrysodeixis includens), and stink bugs such as southern green stink bug (Nezara viridula), red-banded stink bug (Piezodorus guildinii) and brown stink bugs (Euschistus spp.). However, numerous other insects can be found at one time or another—some of great importance from the perspective of the farmer producer but others with very little impact on the crop. During a tour of soybean fields in Mississippi this past September, I saw a large number of “signal flies”¹ (family Platystomatidae) on the foliage of the soybean plants that I presumed to represent the soybean nodule fly, Rivellia quadrifasciata.²
¹ I originally learned these to be “picture-winged flies”—a name now more commonly used to refer to members of the family Ulidiidae—which I learned as “Otitidae”!
² This species can be separated with certainty from the closely related and largely sympatric species R. colei only by examination of male genitalia (Namba 1956). Rivellia quadrifasciata is more common and widespread than R. colei and is the species cited in literature in association with soybean.
Rivellia quadrifasciata is widely distributed in the eastern U.S. where it originally fed probably on tick trefoil, Desmodium spp. (Foote et al. 1987), but has since adapted to soybean, Glycines max (Eastman & Wuensche 1977), and black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia (McMichael et al. 1990). Despite its relatively recent adaptation to soybean as a favored host plant, the species does not appear to cause much economic damage to the crop. The small, white, maggot-like larvae live in the soil and feed on the Rhizobium nodules of the roots that are used by the plant for nitrogen-fixation. Soybean, of course, is famous for its compensatory abilities and can withstand considerable nodule injury without yield impact, and as a result losses from this insect are considered minor (Heatherly & Hodges 1998).
Of more interest from a natural history perspective, these flies—like other members of the Platystomatidae—are almost always seen with their wings in a constant “waving” motion as they walk about on the host leaves. This seems clearly an intraspecific “signaling” behavior (and the source of the family’s common name), with the pattern of markings on the wings and the particular sequence of movements of the wings combining to provide species-specific signals for mate recruitment. Some Asian members of the family are famous for the remarkably elongated eye stalks of the males, which aid in intraspecific male-to-male combat behaviors that provide selection pressure for even more elongate eye stalks. Sadly, our North American species exhibit no such modifications of the head, but their strangely tubular mouthparts do give them the appearance of wearing a “gas mask.”
Information on the biology of adult platystomatids is limited, but a wide range of adult foods, e.g. nectar, honeydew, plant sap, bird droppings, and carrion, have been reported for this species, and R. quadrifasciata males have been observed to feed females globules of liquid during mating.
Eastman, C. E. & A. L. Wuensche. 1977. A new insect damaging nodule of soybeans: Rivellia quadrifasciata (Macquarl). Journal of the Georgia Entomological Society 12:190–199.
Foote, B. A., B. D. Bowker & B. A. McMichael. 1987. Host plants for North American species of Rivellia (Diptera, Platystomatidae). Entomological News 98:135–139 [Biodiversity Heritage].
Heatherly & Hodges. 1998. Soybean Production in the Midsouth. CRC Press LLC, Boca Raton, Florida, 416 pp. [Google Books].
McMichael, B. A., B. A. Foote & B. D. Bowker, B. D. 1990. Biology of Rivellia melliginis (Diptera: Platystomatidae), a consumer of the nitrogen-fixing root nodules of black locust (Leguminosae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 83(5):967–974 [abstract].
Namba, R. 1956. A revision of the flies of the genus Rivellia (Otitidae, Diptera) of America north of Mexico. Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum 106:21–84 [Biodiversity Heritage].
Copyright Ted C. MacRae 2013