Insect of the Year

Since the "Insect of the Year" board of trustees was established in 1999 – primarily by the then director of the German Entomological Institute, Prof. Dr. Holger Dathe – this commission selects each year an insect species that should enjoy greater fame because of its special importance for the ecosystem, its particular rarity, its aesthetic value or even its "ordinariness".

The Insect of the Year is intended to bring an exemplary species (and insects in general) closer to people. Well-known entomologists, representatives of research institutions and nature conservation organisations from Germany, Austria and Switzerland together make an important and difficult decision, the choice among about one million described insect species (even if "only" about 35,000 of them occur in Germany) and select the species that is to represent the inconspicuous and yet so important "creepy-crawlies" among humans for a whole year.

Insect of the year 2022: The Black-necked Snakefly

The Black-necked Snakefly (Venustoraphidia nigricollis) © Harald Bruckner

A strikingly long neck, crystal-clear wings and a size of six to 15 millimetres characterise all Snakeflies (Raphidioptera). These animals are the least speciose order of the insect class; only about 250 Snakefly species are known worldwide. "In Central Europe, there are 16 described species so far - one of which is our 'Insect of the Year 2022': the Black-necked Snakefly (Venustoraphidia nigricollis). For a long time, this species was considered to be one of the rarest Snakeflies - until it was realised that the adults with the characteristic black neck shield mainly reside in the canopy layer of trees," explains Prof. Dr Thomas Schmitt, Director of the Senckenberg German Entomological Institute in Müncheberg and Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

A special example of the occurrence of Snakeflies is in the centre of Vienna: surrounded by roaring traffic, two Snakeflie species have settled in the pine trees standing in Maria-Theresien-Platz in the Austrian capital. The annual mass appearance of the slender insects around a several-century-old farm in Upper Austria is unique in the world. At an altitude of 800 metres, a species introduced from the Mediterranean region has settled here, whose sexually mature animals can be observed in large numbers every year during the mating season from May to July.

From the many fossil finds, we can conclude that Snakeflies, such as Venustoraphidia nigricollis, were much more widespread and species-rich in Earth history. © Harald Bruckner

All Snakeflies are land dwellers in all life stages. The sexually mature insects are diurnal and often feed on aphids and scale insects. With a sufficient population density, bark-living Snakefly larvae can be useful as "counterparts" of insect pests, such as bark beetles. "Despite their well-developed wings, the animals are nevertheless not good flyers, but rather move by buzzing, hopping or fluttering and never over long distances," Schmitt adds about the biology of the insects.

Raphidia mediterranea, a Snakefly spread to Central Europe by human activity, whose larvae have been developing in large numbers for years in the thatched roof of an old farmhouse in Upper Austria. © Harald Bruckner

The distribution of Snakeflies is limited to parts of the northern hemisphere, as they need a significant drop in temperature for their development, such as occurs in the Central European winter. From the many fossil finds, on the other hand, it can be concluded that the insects were much more widespread and species-rich in Earth's history. "The impact of the meteorite at the end of the Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago, not only killed off the dinosaurs - the resulting climatic changes allowed only the cold-adapted forms of the Snakeflies to survive," explains Schmitt and continues: "Their appearance, however, was already very similar to that of today's species. You can therefore also call the Snakeflies 'living fossils'."

Although Snakeflies in Central Europe can potentially colonise all forests and also forest-like areas such as parks or gardens, there is still no evidence from many areas. "Schmitt continues: "Most of the Central European species can be identified from photographs - an exciting task for citizen scientists!