One of the most bizarre insects that inhabits our backyards is a critter known by a number of unnerving names such as the devil’s riding horse, devil’s darning needle, witch’s horse, and musk mare.
The names referring to horses relate to the fact that the much smaller male of the species is often seen attached to the back of a female. If you closely look at the picture accompanying this blog, you will notice a male clinging to the back of a much larger female.
The name musk mare refers to the insect’s ability to spray would-be predators with a foul-smelling fluid. It is believed this defensive spray helps thwart the attacks of ants, beetles, and even mice.
With that in mind, if you stumble across a devil’s darning needle, do not get your face too close to the insect. Should one happen to spray you; the chemical might cause temporarily blindness as well as irritation to your mucous membranes.
This insect is fairly large. Males may be only 1.5 inches long, whereas females can attain a length of 5 inches.
Even though this invertebrate may have been living in your backyard for years, you may never have seen one. However, your chances of seeing one are greater in the fall than at any other time of the year.
The places where you are most apt discover one of this fascinating insects are hidden in grass, secluded beneath the loose bark of a trees, as well as under logs, and other objects littering the ground.
Interestingly, in spite of the insect’s frightening names, it is not a ferocious, flesh-eating predator. It prefers instead to graze on the leaves of a variety of trees and shrubs including oaks, roses, rosemary, privet, and crepe myrtle.
I am surprised that, although I have spent a large portion of my life outdoors, I have never seen a witch’s horse. However, a couple of weeks ago my daughter found the two illustrated here. I guess that goes to show you can spend a lifetime watching wildlife and never see everything that is living just outside your backdoor.
I found one on a tree while out on a hike along the Chatooga river. I had know idea what it was or even that it was two until I got home and zoomed in on my picture. I still had a hard time deciding if it was one very bizarre insect or two. Thank you for this timely post!
I am happy that I was able to help you identify this bizarre insect. I believe it is one of those insects that may be more common than we realize, but never see very often.