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What Is That Insect?

Jeffrey Hahn, Asst. Extension Entomologist

An interesting insect, found under unusual circumstances, was reported recently. A gentleman had a large dead branch pruned out of his maple in February. It had rotted in the center and was a hazard that needed to be removed. He cut the limb into smaller pieces and stacked them in April. He noticed in one branch section where the wood had rotted an accumulation of mud.

Photo 1: Rat-tailed maggots.
Kyle Jensen.

He removed the mud and uncovered several pinkish larvae with long 'tails'. They were legless with no obvious head. These insect larvae are rat-tailed maggots, Eristalis spp. The most commonly encountered species is Eristalis tenax. The body of a mature rat-tailed maggot is about 3/4 inch long with the telescopic breathing tube (the 'tail') as long as two inches. This insect belongs to the family Syrphidae which are commonly called flower flies or hover flies because adults are typically found around flowers and are able to hover in place when flying.

Rat-tailed maggots typically live in stagnant, low oxygenated water with high levels of organic matter. They have been found in sewage water, manure pits, and other types of polluted water as well as ponds with a lot of algae. They are also commonly found in rotting, decaying organic matter, including animal carcasses, damp compost, and wet, decaying leaves.

They are essentially harmless to people, although there have been some reported cases where they are involved in myiasis, i.e. infesting living tissue of people and animals. Rat-tailed maggots in particular would infest gastrointestinal tissue. Fortunately, this would be considered extremely rare and unusual in Minnesota.

There is not a good explanation for why these rat-tailed maggots were found in the rotting limb of a tree. There is a precedent for rat-tailed maggots being associated with moist, decaying plant matter so it is somewhat conceivable for them to be found in rotting wood. But for them to spend their lifetime in the rotting center of a tree limb still attached would be considered unusual at best.
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