In the vast and diverse world of insects, the cactus fly stands out as a particularly intriguing specimen.
Belonging to the Neriidae family, these flies have carved out a niche for themselves in the arid landscapes where cacti dominate.
Their unique appearance and behavior patterns not only make them a subject of interest for entomologists but also for gardeners and plant enthusiasts who encounter them.
This article offers a deep dive into the captivating world of cactus flies, shedding light on their characteristics, lifecycle, and interactions with their primary habitat – the cactus.
Longhorn Cactus Fly
What Is a Cactus Fly?
Cactus flies are fascinating insects that belong to the Neriidae family and are known for their unique appearance and interesting behavior.
Let’s take a closer look at their family and the Longhorn Cactus Fly, Odontoloxozus longicornis.
The Neriidae family includes about 100 known species of small to medium-sized flies. Some of the main characteristics of this family are:
- Prominent wings
- Slender, long-legged
- Striped bodies
- Breed in rotting vegetation
One well-known member of the Neriidae family is the Longhorn Cactus Fly, Odontoloxozus longicornis.
Longhorn Cactus Fly Odontoloxozus Longicornis
The Longhorn Cactus Fly, Odontoloxozus longicornis, is a specific type of cactus fly. Its features include:
- Distinctive long antennae
- Brown with yellow face.
- Attracted to cactus plants, especially the flowering parts
Cactus Fly Habitat and Behaviour
Geographic Locations and Plants
Cactus flies are found in desert areas, particularly in the Southwest United States, such as Phoenix, Arizona.
Outside the US, they’re found in Costa Rica. They have also been found in Mexico and south of Cisco, Texas.
They are known to inhabit regions where cacti and other succulent plants thrive due to the growing medium of sand and dry soil.
Some common cacti species that Cactus flies are associated with include:
- Saguaro cactus
These plant species vary in size but are all well-suited to the harsh desert conditions.
Banana Stalk Fly
The Desert Lifestyle
Cactus flies are uniquely adapted to their desert environment. Their characteristics include:
- Ability to withstand high temperatures
- Efficient reproduction in dry conditions
- Feeding on nectar from desert plants
Cactus flies serve as pollinators for the saguaro cactus, one of the largest cactus species in the United States, which can grow up to 40 feet tall.
Cactus Fly Lifecycle
Water and Moisture Requirements
Cactus flies, like other flies, need water and moisture in their environment. They have adapted to survive in the arid conditions where cacti thrive.
Cacti are known to have unique versions of leaves called spines, which provide shade and collect dew2.
As cactus fly larvae require moisture to develop, the spines’ ability to collect dew and the roots’ ability to absorb water2 create a suitable environment for their growth.
Additionally, the cactus’s pores open at night, which helps keep the overall moisture level in the vicinity3.
Telostylinus lineolatus male. Source: © 2011 Jee & Rani Nature Photography (License: CC BY-SA 4.0), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Do Cactus Flies Bite or Sting?
Cactus flies (from the Neriidae family) do not bite or sting humans.
They are primarily herbivores, with their larvae feeding on decaying or diseased cactus tissue.
Adult cactus flies typically feed on nectar or other plant-based substances.
Unlike some other types of flies, cactus flies are not known to be aggressive towards humans or to possess any biting or stinging mechanism.
Do They Carry Diseases?
Cactus flies are not known to transmit diseases to humans.
They are primarily associated with cacti and other plants, with their larvae feeding on decaying or diseased cactus tissue.
While many flies are vectors for diseases, cactus flies are not among those commonly associated with disease transmission to humans or animals.
However, like any insect, they can potentially carry bacteria or other microorganisms on their bodies, but this is not typically a concern in terms of human health.
It’s always a good practice to wash hands after handling any insect or soil to prevent potential contamination.
Damage To Cactus Plants
Cactus Fly Prevention and Control
Creating a Healthy Garden Environment
To prevent cactus flies, maintain a healthy garden environment. Consider the following:
- Care for seedlings: Ensure proper care of cactus seedlings in moist soil, especially during winter months.
- Use coarse sand: Add coarse sand to garden soil to improve drainage and reduce moist conditions favored by cactus flies.
- Monitor moisture: Avoid over-watering to prevent creating a suitable environment for cactus flies.
Natural and Artificial Control Methods
Several natural and artificial control methods can help manage cactus fly populations:
- Natural control: Employ carnivorous plants such as sundew or butterwort as natural predators of cactus flies.
- Gnat traps: Utilize gnat traps to capture adult flies and disrupt their life cycle.
- Sticky traps: Set up sticky traps coated with petroleum jelly to catch cactus flies without the use of chemicals.
- Consult a bugman: Seek professional assistance from a bugman if the cactus fly problem persists.
Here’s a comparison table of the control methods mentioned:
|Chemical-free, natural predators
|Might not eliminate all flies
|Need to be replaced regularly
|Can be unsightly in garden
|Expert advice, comprehensive approach
|Can be expensive, may use chemicals
By implementing these prevention and control methods, you can effectively manage cactus flies in your garden.
Cactus Fly and Houseplant Care
Understanding Cactus Biology
Cactus plants are a type of succulent, which are known for their ability to store water in their leaves or stems.
This adaptation allows them to survive in arid desert environments, as they have evolved to conserve water and nutrients to thrive in these harsh conditions.
Cacti come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, with unique features such as:
- Stems that can be columnar, spherical, or flattened
- Spines instead of leaves, which help reduce water loss
- Areoles, are small cushion-like structures from which spines and flowers grow
- Flowers that bloom in a wide range of colors, are often pollinated by specialized insect species
Cacti are popular indoor plants in many places, due to their low maintenance requirements and distinctive appearance.
Cactus Fly – Odontoloxozus longicornis
Understanding the biology and behavior of pests like the cactus fly is crucial for effective plant care, especially for those who cherish their cacti gardens.
While cactus flies present certain challenges, with the right knowledge and preventive measures, it’s possible to manage and even prevent infestations.
As with all aspects of gardening, being observant, proactive, and informed is the key to ensuring that your plants remain healthy and vibrant.
Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a newbie, being aware of potential threats like the cactus fly will equip you to tackle challenges head-on and continue enjoying the beauty and resilience of cacti.
Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.
Letter 1 – Banana Stalk Fly from Australia
Subject: What bugs are these?
Location: Cairns, QLD, Australia
December 3, 2016 7:11 am
Found these in my yard.
Like another of your submitted images, we believe this is a Stilt Legged Fly in the family Micropezidae, but unlike the previous image, we have not been successful in finding any matching images from Australia online. We are postdating this submission to go live to our site when we are out of the office for the holidays at the end of the month.
Correction Courtesy of Karl: Banana Stalk Fly
Hi Daniel and CE:
This is actually a Banana Stalk Fly (Family Neriidae); we usually call them Cactus Flies in North America. Depending on which source you read, there are either two or three species in Australia. Of these, I believe Telostylinus lineolatus is the closest match. Regards, Karl
Thanks so much Karl. Interestingly, we have a mating pair of Banana Stalk Flies from Hawaii in our archives, and that posting is also listed as Stilt Legged Flies. We will create a Cactus Fly subcategory for both postings.
Letter 2 – Mexican Cactus Fly
Large Deep Blue flying insect
October 11, 2009
I saw this gorgeous thing here in Souther California on the first of October this year. It is over an inch long with a heavy body, fast flyer and able to hover easily although it didn’t stay still for very long.
High in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California
Your photos don’t have the necessary details to make any identification a certainty, however, since we also live in the Los Angeles area and we have seen the Mexican Cactus Fly, Copestylum mexicanum, in our own garden, we are guessing that it is probably the insect you photographed. The Mexican Cactus Fly is one of the Flower Flies or Hover Flies in the family Syrphidae. According to Charles Hogue in his book Insects of the Los Angeles Basin: “This is a giant member of the flower fly family (its body length is 5/8 to 3/4 in, or 15 to 20 mm), with a shiny smooth purplish-black body.” Hogue also writes: “the larvae are large … pale cylindrical maggots that feed in the rotting, soupy interior of dead and decaying tissues of cacti.” You may also see numerous images of stationery specimens posted to BugGuide.
Many thanks. The insect I saw seemed to have a brighter coloring, but everything else looks the same.
Wow- they’re big!
Letter 3 – Mexican Cactus Fly
Blue Shiny Bee
Blue Shiny Bee
Location: Torrey Pines, CA
April 11, 2011 10:58 pm
This fat flying bee was hovering around the path and kept coming to the same place – guarding his territory? His large shape reminds me of the Carpenter Bee, but I haven’t been able to identify him. He had a very shiny iridescent blue abdomen. His wings seemed either white or clear with a dark pattern on the forewing and towards the attachment (tegula?) His face was white or at least light. I’ll attach three photos. The first one is best.
Signature: Laura M
This is a true Fly, not a Bee. Most Flies have a single pair of wings while Bees have two pairs. We do not have time to research the species at the moment, but we will take the time to post all three of your marvelous action photos so that our readership can take a stab at this identification while we are at work today. The markings on the wings should help in the identification.
We actually followed our suspicions and we believe we are correct that this is a Mexican Cactus Fly, Copestylum mexicanum, a species well represented on BugGuide.
Daniel – thank you so very much! I didn’t know flies could have such large abdomens, or be as large as this was.
Your very speedy answer is very much appreciated!
Letter 4 – Cactus Fly from Singapore
Subject: Small Insect, Red Eyes
February 2, 2013 10:37 pm
Hi there, I found this very minute bug roaming around the rotting stump of a fallen tree. This one is quite lighter in color than the other bugs similar to it. It has those pair of big red eyes. I’m not sure what this is really as it does not seem to be a fly (or could be)? Anyway, hope you guys could identify this one as closely as possible. Oh, sometimes it would wave its two front legs in a movement as if cleaning some sticky debris off its limbs.
This is in fact a Fly in the family Neriidae which are commonly called Cactus Flies because the “larvae are decomposers of cactus” according to BugGuide. It might be a Banana Stalk Fly, Telostylinus lineolatus. The family is sometimes referred to as Stilt Legged Flies as well, though that name can also refer to the members of the closely related family Micropezidae. According to the Evolutionary Biology Lab: “Neriidae is a relatively small family of true flies (Diptera) with long, stilt-like legs. Most species are found in the tropics. Neriids have very interesting behaviours, and many species are strikingly sexually dimorphic, with males having much longer legs, heads and/or antennae than females. Like piophilid flies, neriid larvae have the ability to leap during the stage just before pupation when they migrate from the larval feeding substrate to the pupation site. Very little research has been done on this interesting group of flies.”
Letter 5 – Cactus Joint Bugs
This picture was taken in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Can you identify these cactus bugs?
Blue Bell, PA
These are Cactus Joint Bugs or Prickly Pear Bugs, Chelinidea tabulata, which is a robust species, varying in color from yellow tho reddish brown, dark olive green or nearly blackish. the length is12 – 15 mm. The nymphs are brownish or dusky with pale green or reddish abdomen. The bugs are nocturnal, often congregating in large numbers on the joints of cactus and causing yellowing, withering, and gradual death of the plants. The species occurs in the arid regions of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Southern California. C. vittiger is a similar closely related species.
Letter 6 – Cactus Fly
Geographic location of the bug: Phoenix, Arizona
Time: 09:07 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: maybe 6 or 7 mm long
How you want your letter signed: Daniel Gronseth
This unusual critter is a Cactus Fly in the family Neriidae, probably the Longhorn Cactus Fly, Odontoloxozus longicornis, which is pictured on BugGuide. According to BugGuide the habitat is: “Deserts; larvae in decomposing cacti.” Thanks to your submission, we have created a Cactus Fly category, moved previously uncategorized postings into the new category, and moved previous postings originally categorized as Stilt Legged Flies into the correct family category.
Letter 7 – Cactus Fly
Subject: Large black “fly” with clear wings
Geographic location of the bug: Safari Park Escondido CA
Time: 02:58 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: Not sure if this is a rodent bot (?), hope not.
How you want your letter signed: Linda
We love your in flight image of a Mexican Cactus Fly, one of the Hover Flies in the family Syrphidae. Despite its name, the Mexican Cactus Fly is a native species. The Mexican Cactus Fly is one of the larger Flies we have seen in our Mount Washington, Los Angeles neighborhood.
Letter 8 – Cactus Fly chilled for photo
Location: Mt Washington, Los Angeles, California
October 10, 2011
When Daniel arrived at the What’s That Bug? offices after a long day at work, this Mexican Cactus Fly was buzzing loudly at the porch light. This elusive fly does not like to sit still in the garden, and Daniel has never been successful at getting a photo of a living specimen. He quickly snatched this one and chilled it for a photo opportunity. The incandescent lights and ungainly position of the Mexican Cactus Fly don’t really make the most attractive photo, but at least there is a photo to post of this skittish species. According to BugGuide: “Larvae feed on rotting cactus. Adults feed on nectar from various flowers.”
Letter 9 – Cactus Fly, not a Marsh Fly
Summer visitor to chapparal country in Southern California
First of all, I love your website. The variety of life on this planet is more fantastic than any other I’ve visited (at least in recent memory)! My wife and I have long wondered about a winged insect that shows up each year as the weather warms. It seems to like red wine; whenever we go in the backyard with a glass they seem to end up treating our glasses as their personal spa. Since it’s quite dark and looks a bit like the villains in the ‘Babylon 5’ TV series, we call them ‘Shadow Bugs’. They don’t seem harmful; at least they haven’t bitten us yet! We live on the edge of a rocky hill covered in chapparal (cactus, sage, and other desert shrubs). My wife grew up very near here, but in a more urban area and never saw one until we moved to our current house. I would estimate that this critter is between 3/4 of an inch and 1 inch long. In hopes that you can tell us what they are I’m enclosing two pictures. Thanks!
After doing some research, we believe this to be a Marsh Fly in the genus Sepedon. We located some images on BugGuide that look very similar. Perhaps some expert will write in with an exact species.
Correction: Cactus Fly
Provided by Eric Eaton (09/23/2007)
The “marsh fly” is actually a “cactus fly” in the family Neriidae. Fantastic image! We could use it over at Bugguide, as this family is under-represented. Larvae of these insects develop in rotting cacti.
(09/23/2007) Maybe a Marsh Fly – not a marsh fly
I enjoy the site. Your “Maybe a Marsh Fly” from 9/21/2007 is actually a Cactus Fly – Odontoloxozus longicornis. The larvae hang out in decaying cactus. Interesting that the adults like red wine, I’ll forced to experiment with that. Darn. Cheers,
Letter 10 – Mexican Cactus Fly
LARGE Black Fly – Copestylum mexicanum?
Location: Hawthorne, CA
October 23, 2011 7:51 pm
I notice you have some photos of this large, bold fly here at your site. My question is, is mine also a Mexican Cactus Fly? It’s another ”new to the yard” bug, and I didn’t notice that it’s body was blue . . .
Signature: Thanks, Anna Carreon
Your identification of the Mexican Cactus Fly is correct. The body is actually black with a blue sheen. The blue sheen only shows when the light strikes the fly’s body from the right angle.
Thanks Daniel! I noticed that in a related post you say that this is a skittish fly. For some reason, our yard seemed to calm this particular specimen. It stayed for long periods of time and didn’t seem to mind the camera being very close to it. Not the first skittish bug this has happened with. We wonder why this is.
Letter 11 – Mexican Cactus Fly
Subject: large shiny black fly
Location: Walnut Creek, CA
December 22, 2014 10:42 pm
This fly is larger than a large housefly and is conspicuously hairless compared to a housefly. It is jet black and has interesting colored patches on its wings.
This is a wonderful image of an impressive fly in the family Syrphidae, commonly called a Mexican Cactus Fly, Copestylum mexicanum. According to BugGuide: “Larvae feed on rotting cactus” and adults are frequently seen visiting flowers.
Thank you, Daniel! It somehow makes a big difference to the enjoyment of an image to know who the subject is. Dirk
Letter 12 – Mexican Cactus Fly
Subject: bee fly
Geographic location of the bug: San Diego, California
Time: 03:56 PM EDT
Size of a medium bumblebee. There were a dozen working the flowers in the photo.
How you want your letter signed: Gerald Friesen
Letter 13 – Mexican Cactus Fly
Subject: Mexican Cactus Fly?
Geographic location of the bug: Tucson, Arizona
Time: 03:29 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: I photographed these flies as they visited flowers at the Tucson Botanical Gardens in Tucson, Arizona. I think that they may be Mexican Cactus Flies; and I was hoping that you could confirm that. Of course, you may use the photos if so desired.
How you want your letter signed: Stephen Nelson
This is indeed a Mexican Cactus Fly, Copestylum mexicanum. Though the Mexican Cactus Fly is a member of the Hover Fly family Syrphidae, it does not resemble most other members of the family that look like bees and wasps as protective mimicry.
Letter 14 – Mexican Cactus Fly in Elyria Canyon Park
Mexican Cactus Fly
Location: Elyria Canyon Park, Los Angeles, California
April 14, 2012
After participating in a bird watching hike, Daniel headed home on the path that passes along “dirt” Burnell where four additional lots have recently been purchased and added to the total acerage for the Elyria Canyon Park. The wild mustard was blooming and this large Mexican Cactus Fly, , did not seem at all concerned that it was being photographed. Perhaps because the weather was so cool, this member of the Hover Fly family Syrphidae was not as wary as it might normally be.
According to Charles Hogue in Insects of the Los Angeles Basin: “This is a giant member of the flower fly family (its body length is 5/8 to 3/4 in. or 15 to 20 mm), with a shiny smooth purplish-black body’ it is occasionally seen in the spring and summer in areas where cacti grow. The larvae are large (body length 3/4 in. or 20 mm) pale cylindrical maggots that feed in the rotting, soupy interior of dead and decaying tissues of cacti.”
Letter 15 – Cactus Fly from Philippines
Weird fly from the Philippines (2)
December 27, 2009
What’s this bug?
I saw this guy on the outer wall of our house. At first I though it was some kind of assassin bug, but then I realized it must be some strange kind of fly! I had never seen its kind before.
Could you let me know what it is?… Thanks!
We do not recognize this fly and we will post its image in the hopes that one of our readers may be able to provide a response. If you post a comment to the posting, you will be informed automatically if someone writes to us in the distant future. Your photos are quite good, and we hope we get a proper identification, at least to the family level.
Update: December 30, 2009
After some searching I think I was able to identify this critter… it seems to be a type of cactus fly (Neriidae).
I also found this link:
Thanks again for the reply!
Letter 16 – Mating Banana Stalk Flies from Hawaii
Location: Palolo Valley, Honolulu, HI
December 16, 2010 5:39 pm
Found these two getting busy on the shoe rack this morning… I hope they don’t recognize and remember faces for an attack later on when they’re done… Are these special mosquitoes or something? They sure don’t look like a regular Mosquito!
Wow, what an awesome photo you have sent to us. We have no idea where to begin researching the identity of these unusual looking mating Flies, but we can assure you that they are not mosquitoes. Like so many other creatures in Hawaii, we suspect these might be an introduced species, possibly from Asia.
We quickly found a match for your mating Flies. They are identified on BugGuide as Banana Stalk Flies, Telostylinus lineolatus, in the family Neriidae, the Stilt Legged Flies. The Cook Islands Biodiversity website has a page devoted to the Banana Stalk Fly, and they list the other common names Banana Fly, Push-me-Pull-me Fly and Push-pull Fly. The range is listed as “Sri Lanka – Indonesia / Australia – Marquesas, Hawai‘i” and it is considered a pest species, but the site does not indicate why. The Rainforest Revelations website has this information: “With enormous eyes, this tiny, tropical, stilt-legged fly maintains a confident distance from human approach, by swiftly running around the blind-side of whatever surface it is on. … Telostylinus lineolatus inhabits tropical north Queensland, where it aggregates on flowers and rotting fruit. They are members of Neriidae, which is a relatively small family of true flies (Diptera) with long, stilt-like legs.” The Evolutionary Biology Lab Research website has this information on the family: “Neriidae is a relatively small family of true flies (Diptera) with long, stilt-like legs. Most species are found in the tropics. Neriids have very interesting behaviours, and many species are strikingly sexually dimorphic, with males having much longer legs, heads and/or antennae than females. Like piophilid flies, neriid larvae have the ability to leap during the stage just before pupation when they migrate from the larval feeding substrate to the pupation site. Very little research has been done on this interesting group of flies.”
Correction January 2, 2017
Though we correctly identified the species, we now know that Banana Stalk Flies are in the Cactus Fly family Neriidae.