During last year’s Fall Tiger Beetle Collecting Trip, I spent a day visiting cemeteries in the Post Oak Savannah region of northeastern Texas to look for tiger beetles associated with open sand in and around the cemeteries. It had been a good day, and I thought I would try to squeeze in one more visit to a locality I had visited earlier in the day. By the time I arrived at Sand Flat Cemetery in Henderson Co., however, it was almost 6 p.m.—the sun was still up, but the shadows were long and no tiger beetles were found. Not all insects, however, are so quick to turn in as tiger beetles, so I lingered for awhile and eventually found an area where several large bee flies (family Bombyliidae) were seen flying and briefly perching on the ground or the tips of plains snakecotton (Froelichia floridana). Since this was the last stop of the day and there were no tiger beetles to demand my attention, I spent a fair bit of time trying to photograph these very skittish flies and ended up with photos of two different individuals that I was happy with.
Alex Harman was the first to suggest they might represent the species Poecilanthrax lucifer based on a quick iPhone photo that I posted on Facebook, a hunch that was eventually confirmed by Bishop Museum dipterist Neil Evenhuis based on these photos sent to him by e-mail. Poecilanthrax is a strictly North American (sensu lato) genus that, at the time of its last revision by Painter & Hall (1960), contained 35 species. Although distributed from Canada south through Central America, the greatest abundance of species and individuals is found in the Great Basin region, and, so far as is known, the larvae develop as parasites inside caterpillars of various cutworms and armyworms (family Noctuidae).
Poecilanthrax lucifer is one of the more widely distributed species in the genus, occurring predominantly in the West Indies and southern Gulf States but also ranging south into Central America and north into Arkansas and southern Illinois. It is distinguished from other species in the genus by its conspicuous black and yellow tomentose (densely covered with short matted woolly hairs) crossbands on the abdomen and the bases of the larger veins yellow or tan and contrasting with the remainder of the wing color pattern.
Like other species in the genus, P. lucifer is known to parasitize noctuid caterpillars, having been reared from fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) and exhibiting parasitism rates of up to 25%. This species is unique in the genus, however, in that it has also been reported as a hyperparasite (parasite of a parasite) of Myzine haemorrhoidalis (family Tiphiidae), a primary parasite of white grubs (genus Phyllophaga) in Puerto Rico. The life histories of many species in the genus remain unknown, however, so perhaps other species in the genus will eventually be found to act as hyperparasites as well. All species of Poecilanthrax appear to be univoltine (one generation per year) in natural habitats; however, P. lucifer and a few others that frequent agricultural areas have been found to become facultatively bivoltine or multivoltine due to the extended seasonal availability of pest caterpillars that often occur in these situations.
The scientific name of Poecilanthrax lucifer is perhaps one of the more ominous sounding names I’ve encountered. “Anthrax” is, of course, commonly associated with the often deadly infectious bacterial disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, while “lucifer” is none other than Satan himself! However, I suspect that the name of the genus refers not to the disease, but rather its original Greek meaning of “charcoal” in reference to the often black color of the adult flies. Likewise, the original Latin meaning of the word “Lucifer” is “morning star” or “Venus” when used as a noun and “light-bringing” when used as an adjective—only after a series of corruptions through repeated transcriptions and translations of the Bible did it become a name synonymous with the Devil. Thus, a name that could be interpreted as “Satanic deadly disease” might actually mean the “black bringer of light”.
Painter, R. H. & J. C. Hall. 1960. A monograph of the genus Poecilanthrax (Diptera: Bombyliidae). Kansas State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, Agricultural Experiment Station, Technical Bulletin 106, 132 pp. [HathiTrust pdf].
© Ted C. MacRae 2016