Mecoptera (from the Greek: meco- = "long", -ptera = "wings") are an order of insects with about 550 species in nine families worldwide. Mecoptera are sometimes called scorpionflies after their largest family, Panorpidae, in which the males have enlarged genitals that look similar to the stinger of a scorpion. The Bittacidae, or hangingflies, are a prominent family of elongate insects known for their elaborate mating rituals, in which females choose mates based on the quality of gift prey offered by various males.
While modern Mecoptera are overwhelmingly predators or consumers of dead organisms, early ones might have played an important role before the evolution of other insects in pollinating extinct gymnosperms.
Mecoptera are small to medium insects with slender, elongated bodies. They have relatively simple mouthparts, with long mandibles and fleshy palps, which resemble those of the more primitive true flies. Like many other insects, they possess compound eyes on the sides of their heads, and three ocelli on the top. Most Mecoptera feed on vegetation in moist environments; in hotter climates, they may therefore be active only for short periods of the year.
The wings are narrow in shape, with numerous cross-veins, and somewhat resemble those of primitive insects such as mayflies. A few genera, however, have reduced wings, or have lost them altogether. The abdomen is cylindrical, and typically curves upwards in the male, superficially resembling the tail of a scorpion, the tip containing an enlarged structure called the genital bulb.
The female lays the eggs in close contact with moisture, and the eggs typically absorb water and increase in size after deposition. In species that live in hot conditions, the eggs may not hatch for several months, the larvae only emerging when the dry season has finished. More typically, however, they hatch after a relatively short period of time.
The larvae are usually quite caterpillar-like, with short, clawed, true legs, and a number of abdominal prolegs. They have sclerotised heads with compound eyes and mandibulate mouthparts. The tenth abdominal segment bears either a suction disc, or, less commonly, a pair of hooks. They generally eat vegetation or scavenge for dead insects, although some predatory larvae are known.
The larva crawls into the soil or decaying wood to pupate, and does not spin a cocoon. The pupae are exarate, meaning the limbs are free of the body, and are able to move their mandibles, but are otherwise entirely nonmotile. In drier environments, they may spend several months in diapause, before emerging as adults once the conditions are more suitable.