In some animals, especially insects, larvae represent a special feeding stage in the life cycle. Some insects pass through more or less wormlike larval stages, enter the outwardly inactive, or pupal, form, and emerge from the pupal case as adults (see pupa). The importance of larvae in the life cycle of insects varies greatly, as does the proportion of the life span spent in larval, pupal, and adult stages. In many insects, the adult life is relatively short, consisting mostly of mating and egg laying, while the larvae live for many months or, in some species, for several years. Insect larvae feed voraciously, necessarily becoming larger than the adult, as considerable energy and material are needed for the profound changes made during pupation. For this reason, insect larvae often cause far more damage to stored crops and textiles than adult insects.
Insect larvae generally have a thinner exoskeleton than the adult; many are white and soft. The characteristic fly larvae are maggots, often developing in decaying plant or animal material. Mosquito larvae are the familiar aquatic wrigglers; they breathe air and are killed by a thin film of oil on the water that prevents contact with air. Maggots and wrigglers are legless, as are all larvae of the insect order Diptera. Beetle larvae, including the whitish forms called grubs and the long brownish wireworms, are quite diverse, but all are equipped with the six legs characteristic of adults. Moths and butterflies have wormlike caterpillars as larvae, each equipped with the six legs characteristic of adults and false legs known as prolegs to support the long abdominal section. Some, like the milkweed worm (the larva of the monarch butterfly), are relatively naked, while other caterpillars are covered by hairy bristles, sometimes equipped with irritating chemicals that can cause intense itching. The young of the social insects (bees, ants, wasps, and termites) are legless but otherwise grublike. Although all social-insect larvae are ultimately dependent on the parent colony for food, they are considered true larvae because they pass through a pupal stage.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.