Parasitic Worms of Insects
Reviewed by Bruce A. Barrett
Division of Plant Sciences
Horsehair worms or hairworms are a group of nematode-like long worms (Phylum Nematomorpha; Class Gordioidea). Their name is based on an old superstition that the worms arise from horsehairs that happen to fall into the water. The body of a horsehair worm is threadlike (1 millimeter in diameter) and can be very long, up to 36 centimeters (14 inches). They vary in color from almost white to light tan to dark brown. The adults, which do not feed, are free-living and can be found in water (running or standing) and damp soil.
Eggs are deposited in water or damp soil. After hatching, the juvenile worm enters the body of an arthropod, such as beetles, cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, centipedes, millipedes, cabbage worms and probably many other insects. The larva either penetrates the host's body wall or is ingested. After a period of time, ranging from several weeks to months, during which numerous molts occur, the worms leave the host. Emergence from the host only occurs when the host is near water. The presence of the mature worm inside seems to "drive" the host to water.
Adult horsehair worms may attract attention by forming a loose, intertwined "ball" squirming and twisting about on the soil, vegetable plants (such as cabbage heads), water troughs, toilet bowls or any place where the host happened to be when the worm left its body.
Horsehair worms do not cause any injury to people or plants, but are actually beneficial because they kill the insect in which they develop.
Other common worm parasites of insects belong to the roundworm Family Mermithidae (Phylum Nematoda). These nematodes are free-living in the adult stage and parasitic in an animal host for at least part of their juvenile stage. Mermithid nematodes are long and slender, similar to horsehair worms, and usually range in length from 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches). They are gray to black in color.
The adult mermithid is found in the soil (occasionally under stones) or mud and does not feed. Its life span varies from a few days to months, depending upon the stored supply. Eggs are deposited in the soil; after hatching, the larvae enter a host's body, either through ingestion or by penetrating the host's body wall.
After a period of time, the immature worm will leave its host to complete its development in the soil environment. Mermithid nematodes parasitize almost all groups of insects and are considered beneficial organisms.
Written by Bruce A. Barrett and Darryl P. Sanders, Department of Entomology
G7710, reviewed May 2010