You might remember spitfires from your childhood. But what are they and are they dangerous?
A big ball of sawfly larvae in a clump on a thin branch.

Sawfly larvae gather in groups to appear larger, deterring potential predators. Photograph by Gnangarra.

 

Remember when your teachers would tell you to keep away from the big tree in the back corner of the oval because of spitfires? In our young minds we imagined miniature dragons spurting fire at any poor soul that got too close. Some of the braver kids might have poked the strange mass of insects with a long stick and then run for their lives. But have you ever heard of spitfires since primary school? There are even myths that spitfires were just something teachers made up to scare children.

Well, we’re here to tell you that they do indeed exist and, aside from the fact that they don’t literally spit fire, what they’re all about.

Larvae child

The term spitfire is most commonly a slang term for several species of sawfly larvae from the family Pergidae. Despite the name, the larvae are not from a fly at all but actually a wasp with four wings and no stinger. And the larvae, while they might look like it, aren’t really caterpillars. The baby sawfly larvae make their homes in gumtrees feeding on eucalyptus leaves and gather in large clusters to appear larger and help protect themselves from predators like birds. The larvae grow to a length of about 5cm. They pupate in a dark brown cocoon in the leaf litter, and the pupal duration can be two or three years before an adult wasp emerges.

Larvae of a sawfly, lying on it's side on a white background.

Despite their caterpillar-like appearance, this sawfly larvae won’t grow into a beautiful butterfly.

Spit it out

Spitfires don’t spit or sting, they actually dribble. When threatened they wriggle their tails and regurgitate from their mouth a thick mustard-coloured goop that is made of concentrated eucalypts and looks like fire. You might feel the fear of death if you accidently came across a cluster of these gothic-looking grubs dribbling goop. But spitfires, their goop and the grown sawfly are harmless to people and animals.

Source: Everything you didn’t need to know about spitfire bugs – Good Living

Part of the trouble of common names over scientific names is that they often get confused for multiple species. For example, some people use the term ‘spitfires’ for an actual caterpillar, called Doratifera vulnerans (also known as the mottled cup moth), which sticks out stinging hairs when disturbed. These little grubs don’t actually spit anything either, but the sting from the hairs can feel a bit like a burn which could be how they got the nickname.

I saw an ancient fly

Sawflies are probably closest to the ancestral form that all hymenopterans (ants, wasps, bees and sawflies) evolved from, which lived about more than 250 million years ago. Scientists at the Australian National Insect Collection are actually studying sawfly fossils from NSW that lived in the Jurassic, when dinosaurs were around! Their name comes from the female’s saw-like egg-laying tube, which she uses to make a slit in a plant leaf or stem, into which she lays her eggs.

The top view of a mature sawfly on a white background.

Adult sawflies are distinct from wasps due to the broad connection between the abdomen and the thorax.

 

Most sawflies are females and lay fertile eggs without mating. Girl power! The eggs hatch in two to eight weeks to form small spitfires. Once the spitfires reach a peak size they crawl down the tree and burrow in the soil where they use their goop to create a cocoon and incubate for a few months. Then, if they’re lucky, the bug emerges as a sawfly, but only lives for around seven to nine days.  Wondering why it’s only ‘if they’re lucky’? It’s because of parasitic wasps. Parasitic wasps lay eggs in or on spitfires and once these eggs mature the parasitic wasps’ babies eat the spitfire. Bleak.

Source: Everything you didn’t need to know about spitfire bugs – Good Living

So next time you see kids swarming around a spitfire party, you can look like the bravest person in the world and confidently stroll up to the mass of bugs without a care in the world. You could also explain to the kids the bugs are harmless but then you’d lose your hero status and help end the myth that has perpetuated through the ages!

15 comments

  1. There are plenty along the Maribyrnong river (western Melbourne) this spring.

  2. Did the indigenous people have any useful purpose for spitfires? Food, medicine, insecticide? Just wondering ?

    1. Hi Jenny, thanks for your patience while we reached out to our researchers. They didn’t have any particular research on Indigenous use of spitfires but they did share this link which they thought you may be interested in: https://www.environment.sa.gov.au/goodliving/posts/2018/01/spitfires.

      Thanks,
      Georgia
      Team CSIRO

  3. I was wondering the same thing as Lana, which is why I landed on this article (very well written and informative!). I was at school in the ACT in the early-to-mid-90s and spitfires were a very common sight, big writhing snakes of migrating from tree to tree and massive clumps in the bigger eucalypts. I honestly can’t recall seeing one for years and I spend a fair amount of time bush walking and trail running. Does anyone know where they went?

  4. Plenty of spitfires about at the base of our large gum tree at Kalangadoo today……Left them go about the way nature wanted them to be.

  5. Very interesting, but does anyone know why we never see them anymore?
    I was in primary school in the early to mid 90’s and everyone I know from my generation has the same memories of spit fires in the trees at school. Similarly none of us have seen them since. I tried googling it and found plenty of people from all across Australia asking why spitfires are no where to be found these days, however no answers to the question.

    1. I have just found a mass of spitfires in our garden gum tree today 1st June. Odd season for them?

What do you think?

We love hearing from you, but we have a few guidelines.