Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Caddis-Worms and the Caddis-Flies

Teacher's Story

dropcap image EOPLE are to be pitied who have never tried to fathom the mysteries of the bottom of brook or pond. Just to lie flat, face downward, and watch for a time all that happens down there in that water world, is far more interesting than witnessing any play ever given at matinee. At first one sees nothing, since all the swift-moving creatures have whisked out of sight, because they have learned to be shy of moving shadows; but soon the crayfish thrusts out his boxing gloves from some crevice, then a school of tiny minnows "stay their wavy bodies 'gainst the stream;" and then something strange happens! A bit of rubbish on the bottom of the brook walks off. Perhaps it is a dream, or we are under the enchantment of the water witches! But no, there goes another, and now a little bundle of sand and pebbles takes unto itself legs. These mysteries can only be solved with a dip-net and a pail half filled with water, in which we may carry home the treasure trove.

When we finally lodge our catch in the aquarium jar, our mysterious moving sticks and stones resolve themselves into little houses built in various fashions, and each containing one inmate. Some of the houses are made of sticks fastened together lengthwise; some are built like log cabins, crosswise; some consist simply of a hollow stem cut a convenient length; and some are made of sand and pebbles, and one, the liveliest of all, is a little tube made of bits of rubbish and silk spun in a spiral, making a little cornucopia.


Log cabin caddis-worms in their cases feeding upon a water plant.

Photo by J. T. Lloyd.

On the whole, the species which live in the log cabins are the most convenient to study. Whatever the shape of the case or house, it has a very tough lining of silk, which is smooth within, and forms the framework to which the sticks and stones are fastened. These little dwellings always have a front door and a back door. Out of the front door may protrude the dark-colored head followed by two dark segments and six perfectly active legs, the front pair being so much shorter than the other two pairs that they look almost like mouth palpi. In time of utter peace, more of the little hermit is thrust out and we see the hind segment of the thorax which is whitish, and behind this the abdomen of nine segments. At the sides of the abdomen, and apparently between the segments, are little tassels of short, white thread-like gills. These are filled with air, impure from contact with the blood, and which exchanges its impurities speedily for the oxygen from the air which is mixed with the water. Water is kept flowing in at the front door of the cabin, over the gills and out at the back door, by the rhythmic movement of the body of the little hermit, and thus a supply of oxygen is steadily maintained.


A caddis-fly.

Photo by J. T. Lloyd.

The caddis-worm is not grown fast to its case as is the snail to its shell. If we hold down with forceps a case in which the occupant is wrong side up, after a few struggles to turn itself over, case and all, it will turn over within the case. It keeps its hold upon the case by two forward-curving hooks, one on each side of the tip of the rear segment. These hooks are inserted in the tough silk and hold fast. It also has on top of the first segment of the abdomen a tubercle, which may be extended at will; this helps to brace the larva in its stronghold, and also permits the water to flow freely around the insect. So the little hermit is entrenched in its cell at both ends. When the log-cabin species wishes to swim, it pushes almost its entire body out of the case, thrusts back the head, spreads the legs wide apart, and then doubles up, thus moving through the water spasmodically, in a manner that reminds us of the crayfish's swimming except that the caddis-worm goes head first. This log cabin species can turn its case over dexterously by movements of its legs.


A caddis-worm removed from its case.

Showing gills and the hooks on the last segment for holding fast to the case.

The front legs of the caddis-worm are so much shorter than the other two pairs that they look like palpi, and their use is to hold close to the jaws bits of food, which are being eaten. The other legs are used for this too if the little legs cannot manage it; perhaps also these short front legs help hold the bits of building material in place while the web is woven to hold it there. The caddis-worm, like the true caterpillars, has the opening of the silk gland near the lower lip. The food of most caddis-worms is vegetable, usually the various species of water plants; but there are some species which are carnivorous, like the net-builder, which is a fisherman.


Pupa of caddis-fly removed from its case. Note the thread-like gills.

Photo by J. T. Lloyd.

The caddis-worm case protects its inmate in two ways: First, from the sight of the enemy, and second, from its jaws. A fish comes along and sees a nice white worm and darts after it, only to find a bundle of unappetizing sticks where the worm was. All of the hungry predatory creatures of the pond and stream would be glad to get the caddis-worm, if they knew where it went. Sometimes caddis-worm cases have been found in the stomachs of fishes; perhaps they serve as fish breakfast-food.


Caddis-worm case fastened to leaf for pupation period.

Photo by J. T. Lloyd.

While it is difficult to see the exact operation of building the caddis-worm house, the general proceeding may be readily observed. Take a vigorous half-grown larva, tear off part of the sticks and bits of leaves that make the log cabin, and then place the little builder in a tumbler with half an inch of water at the bottom, in which are many bright flower petals cut into strips, fit for caddis lumber. In a few hours the little house will look like a blossom with several rows of bright petals set around its doorway.


Grating of silk over the door of a caddis-worm case to protect the pupa.

Photomicrograph by J. T. Lloyd.

When the caddis-worm gets ready to pupate, it fastens its case to some object in the water and then closes its front and back doors. Different species accomplish this in different ways; some spin and fasten a silken covering over the doors; often this is in the form of a pretty grating; others simply fasten the material of which the case is made across the door. But though the door be shut, it is so arranged as to allow the water to flow through and to bring oxygen to the thread-like gills, which are on the pupæ as well as on the larvæ. When ready to emerge, the pupa crawls out of its case and climbs to some object above the water, sheds its pupa skin, and the adult insect flies off. In some species, living in swift water, the adult issues directly from the water, its wings expanding as soon as touched by the air.



Photo by J. T. Lloyd.

Caddis-flies are familiar to us all even if we do not know them by name. They are night fliers and flame worshippers. Their parchment-like or leathery wings are folded like a roof over the back, and from the side the caddis-fly appears as an elongated triangle with unequal sides. The front wings are long and the hind ones shorter and wider; the antennæ are long and threadlike and always waving about for impressions; the eyes are round and beadlike; the tarsi, or feet, are long and these insects have an awkward way of walking on the entire tarsus which gives them an appearance of kneeling. Most of the species are dull-colored, brownish or gray, the entire insect often being of one color. Caddis-flies would not be so fond of burning themselves in lamps if they had the human sense of smell, for the stench they make when scorching is nauseating. The mother caddis-flies lay their eggs in the water. Perhaps some species drop the eggs in when hovering above, but in some cases the insect must make a diving bell of her wings and go down into the water to place her eggs securely. The wings are covered with hairs and not with scales, and therefore they are better fitted for diving than would be those of the moth. I have seen caddis-flies swim vigorously.


A spiral ribbon caddis-worm case. The inmate of this case is a rapid swimmer.

Photo by J. T. Lloyd.


Case and caddis-worm.

Comstock's Manual.

References—Aquatic Insects, Miall; Manual for the Study of Insects, Comstock.


The Caddis-Worms and Caddis-Flies

Leading thought—The caddis-worms build around themselves little houses out of bits of sticks, leaves or stones. They crawl about on the bottom of the pond or stream, protected from sight, and able to withdraw into their houses when attacked. The adult of the caddis-worm is a winged moth-like creature which comes in numbers to the light at night.

Method—With a dip-net the caddis-worms may be captured and then may be placed in the school aquarium. Duckweed and other water plants should be kept growing in the aquarium. The log cabin species is best for this study, because it lives in stagnant water and will therefore thrive in an aquarium.


1. Where do you find the caddis-worms? Can you see them easily on the bottom of the stream or pond? Why?

2. Of what are the caddis-worm houses made? How many kinds have you ever found? How many kinds of materials can you find on one case? Describe one as exactly as possible. Find an empty case and describe it inside. Why is it so smooth inside? How is it made so smooth? Are all the cases the same size?

3. What does the caddis-worm do when it wishes to walk around? What is the color of the head and the two segments back of it? What is the color of the body? Why is this difference of color between the head and body protective? Is the caddis-worm grown fast to its case, as the turtle is to its shell?

4. Note the legs. Which is the shorter pair? How many pairs? What is the use of the legs so much shorter than the others? If the caddis-worm case happens to be wrong side up, how does it turn over?

5. When it wishes to come to the surface or swim, what does the caddis-worm do? When reaching far out of its case does it ever lose its hold? How does it hold on? Pull the caddis-worm out of its case and see the hooks at the end of the body with which it holds fast.

6. How does the caddis-worm breathe? When it reaches far out of its case, note the breathing gills. Describe them. Can you see how many there are on the segments? How is the blood purified through these gills?

7. What are the caddis-worm's enemies? How does it escape them? Touch one when it is walking, what does it do?

8. On top of the first segment of the abdomen is a tubercle. Do you suppose that this helps to hold the caddis-worm in its case?

9. What does the caddis-worm eat? Describe how it acts when eating.

10. How does the caddis-worm build its case? Watch one when it makes an addition to its case, and describe all that you can see.

11. Can you find any of the cases with the front and back doors closed? How are they closed? Open one and see if there is a pupa within it. Can you see the growing wings, antennæ and legs? Has it breathing filaments like the larva? Cover the aquarium with mosquito netting so as to get all the moths which emerge. See if you can discover how the pupa changes into a caddis-fly.

12. How does the caddis-fly fold its wings? What is the general shape of the insect when seen from the side with wings closed? What is the texture of the wings? How many wings are there? Which pair is the longer?

13. Describe the eyes. The antennæ. Does the caddis-fly walk on its toes, or on its complete foot?

14. Examine the moths which come around the lights at night in the spring and summer. Can you tell the caddis-flies from other insects? Do they dash into the light? Do they seem anxious to burn themselves?

Supplementary reading—"A Little Fisherman," Ways of the Six-Footed, Comstock.


Spiral case of caddis-worm made of small pebbles and sand.

Comstock's Manual.

     Little brook, so simple so unassuming—and yet how many things love thee!

     Lo! Sun and Moon look down and glass themselves in thy waters.

     And the trout balances itself hour-long against the stream, watching for its prey;  or retires under a stone to rest.

     And the water-rats nibble off the willow leaves and carry them below the wave to their nests—or sit on a dry stone to trim their whiskers.

     And the May-fly practices for the millionth time the miracle of the resurrection, floating up an ungainly grub from the mud below, and in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye (even from the jaws of the baffled trout) emerging, an aerial fairy with   pearl-green wings.

     And the caddis-fly from its quaint disguise likewise emerges.

     And the prick-eared earth-people, the rabbits, in the stillness of early morning play beside thee undisturbed, while the level sunbeams yet grope through the dewy   grass.

     And the squirrel on a tree-root—its tail stretched far behind—leans forward to kiss thee,

     Little brook, for so many things love thee.

—Edward Carpenter.

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