Sawfly Larvae
Don Herbison-Evans
Stella Crossley

(Photo: courtesy of Tim Ellis, taken in Melbourne, Victoria)

Sawfly larvae are not true Caterpillars, but are the larvae of various species of wasps, or more accurately Symphyta. They have 3 pairs of true legs, and up to 8 pairs of prolegs (true caterpillars only have up to 5 pairs of prolegs).

(Photo: courtesy of Barb Evans, Eurobin, Victoria)

There are about 200 known species of Sawfly in Australia.

(Photo: courtesy of Simon Henry, Australian Capital Territory)

The larvae of some Sawfly species are green, some black, others brown or off-white, and some are striped, and some are spotted. Some are smooth and some have bristles.

(Photo: courtesy of Georgie Harrison, Emerald, Victoria)

Some have brown heads, others black.

Pteryperga galla
(Photo: courtesy of Paula Sjostedt, Eungella, north Queensland)

Some have blunt tails, some pointed. Some have white tails, some black, and some have forked tails.

(Photo: courtesy of Chantelle King, Mt Tambourine, Queensland)

Different species feed on plants from different families. Different species vary in size, some growing to a length of about 5 cms.

(Photo: courtesy of Jenni Horsnell, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales)

The larvae of some species are solitary. The larvae of other sawfly species are so gregarious that they are often found in a knotted ball of many individuals.

(Photo: courtesy of Tony Bailey, Arundel, Queensland)

They characteristically respond to a perceived threat by raising their tails in the air.

(Photo: courtesy of Brooklyn Preinbergs, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory)

When disturbed, they curl or wriggle their tails and exude a nasty brown fluid from their mouths. This latter habit has given them the common name of "Spitfires", although they do not actually spit the fluid, just dribble it.

They sometimes use the tapping of their tails to communicate with each other.

video of sawfly larvae practising for playing the piano?

(Video: courtesy of Holly Charles, Perth Hills, Western Australia)

Some Sawfly larvae pupate in a cocoon, and some pupate naked, Typically they pupate in the leaf litter, and the pupal duration can be up to two years.

(Photo: courtesy of Lynette Queale, South Australia)

An adult wasps, or more accurately Symphytans, of different species vary in wingspan from 1 cm. to 4 cms. Different species have various colour schemes, including black, white, brown, and orange, and some have the odd coloured spot and/or abdominal bands.

adult sawfly of the species Perga dorsalis
(Photo: Don Herbison-Evans)

The female of many species lays her eggs in a slit she cuts between the upper and lower skins a leaf of a food plant: an amazing feat of dexterity.

The larvae and adults of this family are quite harmless to people. They do not sting, unlike their cousins the communal wasps. Sawflies are found all over the world, for example :

  • Australia,
  • UK, and
  • USA.

    Common species of Sawfly larvae in Australia include:

    Caliroa cerasi

    Lophyrotoma zonalis

    Lophyrotoma species

    Perga affinis

    Perga dorsalis

    Philomastix xanthophilax

    Pterygophorus cinctus

    Pteryperga galla

    Zenarge turneri

    Further reading :

    Greg Pyers,
    Reed International Books Australia, Port Melbourne, 1999, pp. 5, 10-11.

    Australian Not-Caterpillars
    Australian Not-Moths
    not Lepidoptera

    (updated 29 October 2012, 18 February 2024)