Can Water Striders Fly? Uncovering the Truth about These Aquatic Insects

Water striders, also known as pond skaters or water spiders, are unique insects known for their ability to glide gracefully across the surface of the water. They take advantage of the water’s surface tension and rely on their water-repellent legs to stay afloat. As fascinating as they are, one might wonder if they have the ability to fly.

Despite their resemblance to big mosquitoes or spiders, water striders belong to the family Gerridae, and they indeed have wings. While not all species of water striders have the same capabilities, many of them can take to the air. This ability allows them to escape predators, cover greater distances, and find new mating opportunities.

Basic Characteristics of Water Striders

Physical Appearance

Water striders are unique insects with:

  • Long, slender legs
  • Velvety hair on their bodies
  • Water-repellent hairs on hind and middle legs

These adaptations allow them to effectively skate on the water’s surface.

Habitat

Water striders can typically be found in:

  • Freshwater habitats
  • Ponds
  • Lakes

They belong to the Gerridae family and are also known as pond skaters. Their range includes various regions across North America.

Diet and Prey

As carnivorous insects, water striders feed on:

  • Small invertebrates
  • Insects caught on the water’s surface

They use their shorter front legs to grab prey while skimming the water surface with their second and third set of legs.

Comparison Table: Water Striders and Pond Skaters

Feature Water Striders Pond Skaters
Legs Long, slender, water-repellent Long, slender, water-repellent
Habitat Freshwater, ponds, lakes Freshwater, ponds, lakes
Diet Small invertebrates, insects Small invertebrates, insects
Family Gerridae Gerridae

Water Striders’ Unique Abilities

Walking on Water

Water striders are fascinating insects due to their ability to walk on water. They achieve this through water-repellent hairs on their hind and middle legs, which enable them to skate on the water’s surface without sinking1.

Impact on Surface Tension

Their legs are long and slender, distributing the weight of their body over a large surface area2. This helps maintain surface tension and allows water striders to stay afloat. Here’s a comparison of how their legs impact surface tension:

Legs Characteristics Effect on Surface Tension
Long and slender legs Maintains surface tension
Flexible legs Adapts to water movement

Swimming and Sailing Abilities

  • Able to hop off the water’s surface3
  • Many species can fly
  • Breathe through openings in their body

Although water striders can move effortlessly on water, they are not known to swim. Their unique features mentioned above allow them to navigate the water surface without the need for swimming. They can sail across the water using their legs and water surface interactions4.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Mating and Courtship

Water striders exhibit a fascinating mating behavior, where males actively pursue females to mate. During courtship, the male water strider carefully approaches the female and initiates contact by lightly tapping on her back legs. Some species also use vibrations on the water surface for communication.

Eggs and Larvae Development

Water strider females lay their eggs on plants near or on the water surface. Eggs are often hidden between plant leaves or on stems, providing them with some degree of protection against predators. The larvae that hatch from these eggs resemble small versions of adult water striders.

  • Eggs: Attached to plants near water
  • Larvae: Resemble small adults

Life Cycle Stages

The water strider’s life cycle consists of egg, larval, nymph, and adult stages. Let’s compare these stages in the table below:

Stage Description
Egg Laid on plants, near or on water surface
Larval Resemble small adults, begin feeding
Nymph Similar to adults, molt and grow
Adult Reproduce and continue life cycle

As larvae develop, they molt and grow through several nymph stages before reaching adulthood. Adult water striders can live for a few months and are excellent hunters, preying on various insects and larvae that fall into the water. They must also watch out for predators like birds, which can snatch them off the water’s surface.

Predators and Survival Mechanisms

Natural Predators

Water striders face various predators in their aquatic environments:

  • Fish: Many fish species are known to consume water striders.
  • Frogs: Amphibians like frogs consider them as a potential meal.
  • Birds: Aerial predators, such as birds, also target water striders.
  • Turtles: Reptiles, like turtles, are known to prey on these insects.

Adaptations for Survival

Water striders possess unique adaptations to help them evade predators and survive in their habitats.

  • Quick Movement: They can quickly skate on the water surface, escaping danger.
  • Camouflage: Their coloration allows them to blend in with the surrounding water.
  • Lightweight Bodies: Water striders maintain surface tension by distributing weight evenly on their hydrophobic legs.

A comparison of water striders’ prey and their survival adaptations:

Prey Consumed Survival Adaptations
Mosquito larvae Quick Movement
Land insects & spiders on surface Camouflage
Lightweight Bodies (hydrophobic legs)

These adaptations help water striders to not only escape predators, but also to hunt their preferred prey, such as mosquito larvae. The quick movement they exhibit on the water surface helps them effectively detect struggling prey, contributing to their success as predators.

Amazing Facts and Discoveries

Hydrophobic Properties

Water striders, also known as water skippers, jesus bugs, and water skeeters, have unique adaptations allowing them to effortlessly glide on water surfaces. Their legs have hydrofuge hairpiles that repel water, providing them the buoyancy needed to stay afloat. These microscopic hairs covering their thorax, abdomen, and appendages are crucial for survival.

Interaction with Water Molecules

To “walk” on water, water striders spread their weight over a large surface area using their long, slender legs. The interaction with water molecules ensures that they maintain their buoyancy. When sensing vibrations in the water, they can quickly move towards their prey or away from predators.

Comparison Table:

Water Strider Characteristics Other Aquatic Insects
Hydrophobic hairs No hydrophobic hairs
Walk on water Efficient swimmers
Use vibrations for navigation Rely on vision, chemical signals

Crucial Role in Aquatic Ecology

Water striders play a vital role in the ecology of marshes, creeks, mud puddles, vernal pools, and even puddles. Their presence indicates a healthy water ecosystem. One of their significant ecological contributions is controlling mosquito larvae and insect populations.

Footnotes

  1. https://education.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/water-striders

  2. https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/surface-tension-allows-a-water-strider-walk-water

  3. https://uwm.edu/field-station/wetland-homage-v-water-strider/

  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7231474/

Reader Emails

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 – Water Strider

 

What is this?
Daniel,
Thanks for the assassin bug reply, that was fast! Could you also identify these insects? Your site is terrific!
Merry & Brett

Hi Merry and Brett,
The Water Strider, Family Gerridae, is a True Bug. They dart about on the surface film of water feeding on small animals that fall into the water or float up from below. Some are wingless and others capable of flight. They are called Skaters in Canada and Jesus Bugs in Texas because they walk on water.

Letter 2 – Water Strider

 

Water Strider
Location:  North Middle Tennessee
July 27, 2010 4:33 pm
Hi Daniel,
Took a trek down to the creek today here are some water striders from the trip. They are very common around here but have always caught my interest. From my childhood memories they are very difficult to catch, from today they are difficult to photograph. Thank You for all that you do and have a wonderful day.
Richard

Water Strider

Hi Richard,
Thanks for sending us your images of Water Striders so we can provide them for our readership.  They are fascinating to watch as they skate across the surface of ponds and streams while waiting for luckless insects to fall in, providing them with a meal.

Letter 3 – Water Strider

 

Subject: Red water strider
Location: Bradys Lake, Monroe county, NE PA
June 26, 2013 4:47 pm
Water strider found in a freshwater swampy lake in northeastern PA today 6-26-13. Never saw a red one. Our common one is Gerris, which are black ( and larger) but we never saw a red one. This one is about 3/4 the size of a an adult Gerris.
Signature: Barb in PA

Water Strider
Water Strider

Hi Barb,
When we read your subject line and saw the thumbnail attachment, we suspected a phoretic mite colony on the Water Strider, but upon enlarging the photo, that does not appear to be the case.  We don’t know why this Water Strider is red, but it does not seem typical.  The lack of wings indicates this is an immature specimen, hence its smaller size.

Letter 4 – Smaller Water Striders

 

Subject: aquatic insect
Location: No. Yuba River, Sierra County, California
July 21, 2017 10:27 pm
Hi there!
I saw these bugs on top of the river water in a slow side pool. They were skating around like crazy! Looked like there were 100’s of them. I photographed them yesterday on the North Yuba River, in Sierra County , Ca , near the town of Goodyear’s Bar. They are about the size of a small freckle! What the heck are they? Any info would be a great help! Thanks
Signature: Katie O’

Smaller Water Striders

Dear Katie O’,
These are Water Striders in the family Gerridae, and according to BugGuide, they are found on the:  “surface of ponds and slow-moving streams/rivers.”  Your individuals appear to be immature nymphs.  Water Striders feed on small insects that fall onto the surface of the water.

Smaller Water Striders
Hi Daniel!
Thank you so much for ID-ing those crazy bugs!  The mystery is solved!  Water Strider nymphs!  I never would have figured that out on my own!  Thank you so much for your help!
Sincerely,
Katie O’
Update:  October 14, 2018
We just received a comment from Paula indicating these might be Smaller Water Striders in the family Veliidae, also known as Riffle Bugs according to BugGuide, and we agree that her correction is probably accurate.

Letter 5 – Mystery: Unknown creature from Hawaii is a Water Strider

 

Purple beach bug
April 17, 2010
I was on the beach yesterday and noticed a lot of these little critters flopping about. I was right near the water line, and I’m not sure if these were water critters that were getting beached or if they were beach critters that were getting swamped. They are small, about 2-3mm in length. As you can see, they have long appendages, but I couldn’t tell you for sure whether they are all legs or legs and antennae. Between the wind and the water, I couldn’t get one to stay still long enough to really see. Any ideas?
Dreamybee
Windward/North shore, O’ahu, Hawaii

Possibly Water Strider

Dear Dreamybee,
Many things in the world of insects and other arthropods resemble other creatures and mimicry is often used as a survival strategy.  Our first impression, before lightening your image, was that this might be a Harvester missing a few legs, but we quickly ruled that out.  The creature does appear to have six legs and antennae which is consistent with it being an insect.  The front legs appear to be raptoral, a characteristic of many true bugs including predatory aquatic bugs.  The behavior you describe was key to our hypothesis that this is some species of Water Strider in the infraorder Gerromorpha which is represented by several families on BugGuide.  The inhabitants of family Gerridae are known as the Water Striders, and according to BugGuide the habitat is the  “surface of temporary or permanent ponds, and slow-moving areas of streams and rivers.
”  One of the photos posted on BugGuide looks very similar to the shape of your creature.  Another family in the infraorder Gerromorpha is Veliidae, and the inhabitants are called the Broad-Shouldered Water Striders.  One image posted to BugGuide from Florida and it is listed as a Marine Water Strider, Trochopus plumbeus.  While we do not think that either of the images on BugGuide are your species, we do feel that they are close enough in appearance and behavior to lend credence to our hypothesis.  We eagerly welcome more authoritative assistance with this identification.

Eric Eaton provides information
April 19, 2010
The “unknown creature” from the Hawaiian beach is indeed a water strider, possibly of the genus Halobates, which are pelagic (“open ocean”) water striders.  There are, however, at least a couple of other genera of marine water striders in Hawaii.  The person who sent the image might consult the Bishop Museum in Hawaii to see what they have to say.
Eric

Letter 6 – Pelagic Water Strider from Hawaii

 

Hawaiian salt water gerride
Location: Maui west side
March 7, 2011 10:49 pm
These striders are out in the waves of the Lahaina area. I only see them in smooth water, they go somewhere else when the wind comes up. Those back fins are used for speed, I have not been able to get a photo of a live one. It looks like they can dive under water, but I’m not positive since they are so fast they seem to disappear. Is there an ID for ocean striders?
Signature: w

Pelagic Water Strider

Dear w,
Thanks for sending these photos of Pelagic Water Striders found in the open ocean.  Your observations are quite informative.  We have located an online pdf originally published in 1937 entitled “Biological Notes on the Pelagic Water Striders (Halobates) of the Hawaiian Islands, with Description of a New Species from Waikiki (Gerridae, Hemiptera).” The article identifies the pelagic species
Halobates sericeus and indicates another species Halobates hawaiiensis, which is found closer to shore, apparently in calmer waters.  Here is an excerpt from this published paper by ROBERT I. USINGER :  “The reputed diving ability of these bugs is a subject of considerable controversy. Thus Murray,3 Walker,4 and Henry5 state positively that these bugs dive beneath the surface, while Hay6 and Delsman7 were unable, under any circumstances, to induce them to dive. My own observations are as follows. Neither in captivity nor under natural conditions was I ever able to force Halobates nymphs or adults to dive beneath the surface. In Micronesia I have stood in shallow water amidst many thousands of these bugs and have tried in every way to frighten them or force them to dive. They jump frequently and may move in this way so quickly that they seem to disappear. On the other hand I took a glass plate and forced a number of individuals a foot or two below the surface, holding them there to observe their actions. They were able to swim with very jerky, awkward movements first downward, thence out beyond the edge of the glass and up toward the surface where they quickly broke through the surface film to freedom.”  BugGuide indicates that the genus Halobates contains:  “The only true marine insects. Can be found in the open ocean“, but BugGuide does not have any images.

Pelagic Water Strider

Reader Emails

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 – Water Strider

 

What is this?
Daniel,
Thanks for the assassin bug reply, that was fast! Could you also identify these insects? Your site is terrific!
Merry & Brett

Hi Merry and Brett,
The Water Strider, Family Gerridae, is a True Bug. They dart about on the surface film of water feeding on small animals that fall into the water or float up from below. Some are wingless and others capable of flight. They are called Skaters in Canada and Jesus Bugs in Texas because they walk on water.

Letter 2 – Water Strider

 

Water Strider
Location:  North Middle Tennessee
July 27, 2010 4:33 pm
Hi Daniel,
Took a trek down to the creek today here are some water striders from the trip. They are very common around here but have always caught my interest. From my childhood memories they are very difficult to catch, from today they are difficult to photograph. Thank You for all that you do and have a wonderful day.
Richard

Water Strider

Hi Richard,
Thanks for sending us your images of Water Striders so we can provide them for our readership.  They are fascinating to watch as they skate across the surface of ponds and streams while waiting for luckless insects to fall in, providing them with a meal.

Letter 3 – Water Strider

 

Subject: Red water strider
Location: Bradys Lake, Monroe county, NE PA
June 26, 2013 4:47 pm
Water strider found in a freshwater swampy lake in northeastern PA today 6-26-13. Never saw a red one. Our common one is Gerris, which are black ( and larger) but we never saw a red one. This one is about 3/4 the size of a an adult Gerris.
Signature: Barb in PA

Water Strider
Water Strider

Hi Barb,
When we read your subject line and saw the thumbnail attachment, we suspected a phoretic mite colony on the Water Strider, but upon enlarging the photo, that does not appear to be the case.  We don’t know why this Water Strider is red, but it does not seem typical.  The lack of wings indicates this is an immature specimen, hence its smaller size.

Letter 4 – Smaller Water Striders

 

Subject: aquatic insect
Location: No. Yuba River, Sierra County, California
July 21, 2017 10:27 pm
Hi there!
I saw these bugs on top of the river water in a slow side pool. They were skating around like crazy! Looked like there were 100’s of them. I photographed them yesterday on the North Yuba River, in Sierra County , Ca , near the town of Goodyear’s Bar. They are about the size of a small freckle! What the heck are they? Any info would be a great help! Thanks
Signature: Katie O’

Smaller Water Striders

Dear Katie O’,
These are Water Striders in the family Gerridae, and according to BugGuide, they are found on the:  “surface of ponds and slow-moving streams/rivers.”  Your individuals appear to be immature nymphs.  Water Striders feed on small insects that fall onto the surface of the water.

Smaller Water Striders
Hi Daniel!
Thank you so much for ID-ing those crazy bugs!  The mystery is solved!  Water Strider nymphs!  I never would have figured that out on my own!  Thank you so much for your help!
Sincerely,
Katie O’
Update:  October 14, 2018
We just received a comment from Paula indicating these might be Smaller Water Striders in the family Veliidae, also known as Riffle Bugs according to BugGuide, and we agree that her correction is probably accurate.

Letter 5 – Mystery: Unknown creature from Hawaii is a Water Strider

 

Purple beach bug
April 17, 2010
I was on the beach yesterday and noticed a lot of these little critters flopping about. I was right near the water line, and I’m not sure if these were water critters that were getting beached or if they were beach critters that were getting swamped. They are small, about 2-3mm in length. As you can see, they have long appendages, but I couldn’t tell you for sure whether they are all legs or legs and antennae. Between the wind and the water, I couldn’t get one to stay still long enough to really see. Any ideas?
Dreamybee
Windward/North shore, O’ahu, Hawaii

Possibly Water Strider

Dear Dreamybee,
Many things in the world of insects and other arthropods resemble other creatures and mimicry is often used as a survival strategy.  Our first impression, before lightening your image, was that this might be a Harvester missing a few legs, but we quickly ruled that out.  The creature does appear to have six legs and antennae which is consistent with it being an insect.  The front legs appear to be raptoral, a characteristic of many true bugs including predatory aquatic bugs.  The behavior you describe was key to our hypothesis that this is some species of Water Strider in the infraorder Gerromorpha which is represented by several families on BugGuide.  The inhabitants of family Gerridae are known as the Water Striders, and according to BugGuide the habitat is the  “surface of temporary or permanent ponds, and slow-moving areas of streams and rivers.
”  One of the photos posted on BugGuide looks very similar to the shape of your creature.  Another family in the infraorder Gerromorpha is Veliidae, and the inhabitants are called the Broad-Shouldered Water Striders.  One image posted to BugGuide from Florida and it is listed as a Marine Water Strider, Trochopus plumbeus.  While we do not think that either of the images on BugGuide are your species, we do feel that they are close enough in appearance and behavior to lend credence to our hypothesis.  We eagerly welcome more authoritative assistance with this identification.

Eric Eaton provides information
April 19, 2010
The “unknown creature” from the Hawaiian beach is indeed a water strider, possibly of the genus Halobates, which are pelagic (“open ocean”) water striders.  There are, however, at least a couple of other genera of marine water striders in Hawaii.  The person who sent the image might consult the Bishop Museum in Hawaii to see what they have to say.
Eric

Letter 6 – Pelagic Water Strider from Hawaii

 

Hawaiian salt water gerride
Location: Maui west side
March 7, 2011 10:49 pm
These striders are out in the waves of the Lahaina area. I only see them in smooth water, they go somewhere else when the wind comes up. Those back fins are used for speed, I have not been able to get a photo of a live one. It looks like they can dive under water, but I’m not positive since they are so fast they seem to disappear. Is there an ID for ocean striders?
Signature: w

Pelagic Water Strider

Dear w,
Thanks for sending these photos of Pelagic Water Striders found in the open ocean.  Your observations are quite informative.  We have located an online pdf originally published in 1937 entitled “Biological Notes on the Pelagic Water Striders (Halobates) of the Hawaiian Islands, with Description of a New Species from Waikiki (Gerridae, Hemiptera).” The article identifies the pelagic species
Halobates sericeus and indicates another species Halobates hawaiiensis, which is found closer to shore, apparently in calmer waters.  Here is an excerpt from this published paper by ROBERT I. USINGER :  “The reputed diving ability of these bugs is a subject of considerable controversy. Thus Murray,3 Walker,4 and Henry5 state positively that these bugs dive beneath the surface, while Hay6 and Delsman7 were unable, under any circumstances, to induce them to dive. My own observations are as follows. Neither in captivity nor under natural conditions was I ever able to force Halobates nymphs or adults to dive beneath the surface. In Micronesia I have stood in shallow water amidst many thousands of these bugs and have tried in every way to frighten them or force them to dive. They jump frequently and may move in this way so quickly that they seem to disappear. On the other hand I took a glass plate and forced a number of individuals a foot or two below the surface, holding them there to observe their actions. They were able to swim with very jerky, awkward movements first downward, thence out beyond the edge of the glass and up toward the surface where they quickly broke through the surface film to freedom.”  BugGuide indicates that the genus Halobates contains:  “The only true marine insects. Can be found in the open ocean“, but BugGuide does not have any images.

Pelagic Water Strider

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

7 thoughts on “Can Water Striders Fly? Uncovering the Truth about These Aquatic Insects”

  1. The hemipteran family Gerridae includes a subfamily (Halobatinae) of marine insects called Sea Skaters, mostly in the genus Halobates. They are widely distributed in the tropical oceans of the world. Five species in this genus have become fully adapted to living on the open ocean (pelagic), but most are restricted to sheltered nearshore areas and have much more limited ranges. The latter group includes the species H. hawaiiensis that is limited to the Central Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii. All species are wingless and appear quite similar. I wasn’t able to locate an image of H. hawaiiensis, but Dreamybee’s photo looks very similar to H. germanus (http://namamonoblog.jugem.jp/?eid=197), a pelagic species from the Indian and West Pacific oceans. There is a very detailed description of the genus and H. hawaiiensis in a document that can be downloaded at: http://hbs.bishopmuseum.org/pi/pdf/3(2)-223-305.pdf

    Reply
  2. a real interesting aspect to these bugs is that they like to congregate in the foot print of a passing human. I don’t know whether they are schlurping up human foot oil or maybe the shape of a foot print gives them enough protection from the wind that they can stay in the foot print and nibble on other things… they move very quickly and jump/bounce around a lot.. I have a photo on my FB page right now

    Reply
  3. Are you sure these aren’t Veliidae? https://bugguide.net/node/view/26281
    They look more like Veliidae – Riffle Bugs (hind femur not longer than abdomen) than typical water striders – Gerridae. Even Gerridae nymphs have hind femurs longer than their abdomen. Veliidae adults are very tiny (as in the size of a small freckle) and many are wingless as adults.

    Reply
  4. Are you sure these aren’t Veliidae? https://bugguide.net/node/view/26281
    They look more like Veliidae – Riffle Bugs (hind femur not longer than abdomen) than typical water striders – Gerridae. Even Gerridae nymphs have hind femurs longer than their abdomen. Veliidae adults are very tiny (as in the size of a small freckle) and many are wingless as adults.

    Reply

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