7 Cool Facts About Water Striders

Water strider. Photo © orestART / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Water striders are one of the most interesting and enjoyable aquatic creatures to observe. Best of all, they’re found widely across the Northern Hemisphere – in lakes, creeks, urban ponds, water features and even mud puddles.

Their lives on the water’s surface make them easy for even a young child to observe. Last week, my two-year-old and I watched a throng of water striders (also known as water skippers or pond skaters) on a small, local canal. Even though the canal was just beginning to fill with water, the water striders were already there.

There have been some 1,700 species of water striders identified. While they superficially resemble spiders, they’re actually insects, members of the family Gerridae.

Here are seven cool facts about water striders.

  1. How water striders walk on water

    Photo © Jin Kemoole / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    The first thing you notice about water striders is their rapid skipping across the water surface. Most insects of a water strider’s weight would quickly sink and drown. How do they stay on the surface?

    Recent research provides the answer. Water strider legs are covered in thousands of microscopic hairs scored with tiny groves. As reported in National Geographic, “These groves trap air, increasing water resistance of the water’s striders legs and overall buoyancy of the insect.”

    The water skipper’s legs are so buoyant they can support fifteen times the insect’s weight without sinking. Even in a rainstorm, or in waves, the strider stays afloat.

    If a water strider’s legs go underwater, it’s very difficult for them to push to the surface.

    Their legs are more buoyant than even ducks’ feathers.

    The ultra-floatation capabilities of water skipper legs may have applications for human use, such as self-cleaning surfaces and antidew materials.

  2. More about those legs

    Photo © Alexander / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    The strider’s legs do more than repel water; they’re also configured to allow efficient and rapid movement across the surface.

    As with all insects, the water strider has three pairs of legs. The front legs are much shorter, and allow the strider to quickly grab prey on the surface. The middle legs act as paddles. The back legs are the longest and provide additional power, and also enable the strider to steer and “brake.”

    The buoyancy and paddling legs allows striders to be fast. Very, very fast. The National Geographic article reports striders are capable of “speeds of a hundred body lengths per second. To match them, a 6-foot-tall person would have to swim at over 400 miles an hour.”

    Unfortunately for the water strider, these extraordinary capabilities don’t extend to land. Their legs are almost useless on hard surfaces.

  3. Water striders are efficient predators

    Photo © Aiwok (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    That speed is essential for the strider’s most important task: snatching prey off the water’s surface. While striders don’t bite people, they are highly efficient predators. A water strider rapidly grabs a small insect with its front legs, then uses its mouthparts to pierce the prey’s body and suck out its juices.

    They are particularly effective predators of mosquito larvae. As the Backyard Arthropod Project blog writes, “Since mosquito larvae breathe through a snorkel that they poke through the surface of the water, the water striders can grab them by the snorkel and eat them. I approve of this.”

    As do I. It’s always good to have some striders around. However, if there are too many water striders around and they run out of mosquito larvae, they eat each other.

  4. Their courtship is not very romantic

    Water striders using surface tension when mating. Photo © Markus Gayda [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Even people who are normally creeped out by insects tend to enjoy water striders. Everything about them seems pretty benign. Except for their mating habits.

    If you watch a pond’s water striders long enough, you often see two water striders on top of one another. Yes, that’s what you think it is. However, females have evolved a “genital shield” to guard against unwanted males mating with them.

    The male water striders have coevolved a strategy so that the female is more likely to submit to advances. The male taps the water’s surface in a way attractive to aquatic predators. Since the female is beneath the male, and nearer the water, she will be the one first gobbled up by a fish or other hungry creature. Thus, it behooves the female to submit quickly and not deploy the shield (or “insect chastity belt,” as one reporter put it).

    For water striders, love is a battlefield. Ecologists call this “antagonistic coevolution.” Popular bloggers call this a lot of things, many of them unsuitable for a family audience.

  5. They can fly, too. Sometimes.

    Photo © arian.suresh / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Many strider species have wings of varying lengths, depending on habitat conditions. Species frequenting calm waters typically have large wings. Species that live in swift waters have short ones, as long wings could be easily damaged.

    But other species have wings only when they’re likely to need them. Called polymorphism, it is the mechanism that enables a parent to have one brood of young without wings, while the next brood has them. This allows water striders to be very adaptable to changing water and habitat conditions.

    For instance, if the strider is living in small wetland and temperatures are rising, the habitat is likely to disappear. Thus a mechanism is triggered so the next generation of water striders has wings, allowing them to fly away from their drying wetland. But if the wetland is lush, wet and expansive, the strider has young without wings – the wings take more energy to maintain, and there’s no benefit to having them if they aren’t needed.

    This capability allows striders to colonize all sorts of aquatic habitats, including tiny ponds and even mud puddles. If the habitat doesn’t last, the next generation has the ability to move on.

  6. Water striders could be flying over you, right now

    Water striders on the Congaree river near Columbia, South Carolina. Photo © Hunter Desportes / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer, in his readable natural history book A Walk Around the Pond, shares this story from his friend James Sternburg.

    “Every spring, Jim … thoroughly cleans and fills his plastic-lined pond with freshwater. Year after year, adult water striders arrive within a day or even minutes after the pond is filled. He has told me, with what I think is only a little exaggeration, that ‘the air must be crowded with cruising water striders looking for a pond.’”

    I’ve noticed this, too. When my son and I checked out the local canal, it was just beginning to fill, yet water striders were already occupying every pool of water. I’ve found striders on puddles in arid high desert mountains, miles from running water. How can they find these new habitats?

    Waldbauer points to research that suggests aquatic insects are attracted to any reflecting surface. If a strider sees such a surface, it checks it out. It suggests that Waldbauer’s friend is probably not too far off the mark, either. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, right now there’s probably a number of water striders flying around over you, looking for new water to colonize.

  7. Water striders take to the sea, too

    Halobates sp. Photo © Cory Campora [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    It’s common to hear biologists say that our planet is dominated by insects. And it’s hard to argue: after all, there are at least 900,000 insect species, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s known species. The sheer numbers of ants, termites, bees and other species is staggering.

    But this is true only on land and in freshwater habitats. By sea, insects are often conspicuously absent. Of those 900,000 species, only a few hundred are found in the ocean.

    Some water strider species are among them. These species lack wings and can be found far out to sea. There is some disagreement as to their habits and diet, but many sources suggest they feed on fluids secreted by dead floating animals.

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  1. Thanks for this great info on one of my favorite insects! Going to see if I can relocate some to an artificial pond in my backyard. None have colonized it on their own.

  2. I have always wanted to know more about these lovely creatures! The shadows they cast are amazing. But…isn’t a “grove” a small group of trees? And a groove something that could catch air? (you can delete this if I am right, I hate criticizing someone in public).

    1. Hi Marian, Don’t worry – this is a good question. Grove is being used metaphorically here – a “grove” of the microscopic hairs, standing up like a forest.

  3. Love them. We grew up calling them “four oarsmen.” My kids and I enjoyed feeding them adult mosquitoes.

  4. John: You might not have to relocate them. We have a garden pond half a mile from the nearest water, and they found it as did green frogs and the odd bullfrog.

  5. Great article….never realized we had ocean going striders…watched them for hours and still find these creatures fascinating.

  6. Thank you! Serendipity? As I stared across the river observing ospreys on their nest and swallows scooping up insects late afternoon earlier this week, I just happened to be contemplating that I haven’t seen water striders for quite a few years, and… how little I actually know about their habits & habitats.

  7. Thank you for this article – Water Striders – Life one never thinks about – at least not until a fun article like this. I will check out the pond in the backyard to see what I can find. mah

  8. I have a good friend who likes to sit in streams. He questioned your comment that water striders don’t bite people. He has been bitten so often that he started wearing long socks to avoid being bitten. He said that the bite results in skin swelling like a big mosquito bite.

  9. Matt – I was sitting by a pond in Lithia Park in Ashland, OR today and watched Water Striders skimming the water. I also watched as they went across some floating leaves and were able to hop or jump across. I never knew what these creatures were called, so when I got home I got on my computer and found this website. There are a lot of facts about these creatures that I would have never know. I appreciate this information. I’m always ready to learn something new. Thanks for the info.

  10. I once found a water skipper frozen in ice, took it home and thawed it out, and it was still alive!! I’ve often wondered if all or most insects can do this, or if it is more specific to water skippers.

  11. We found a lot of water strikers on a pond near my house. We caught 4 of them and put them in my bucket to take home. We found a dead spider and a dead fly and put them in with the striders but they didn’t eat them.
    We are going to put them back in the pond tonight.
    MASON (age 4 and a half)

  12. I vaguely recall having read that they were poisonous. Is that so? If not, how come the fish don’t seem to feed on them?

  13. there needs to be something about the water striders habitat.

  14. I didn’t know I was interested in water striders until I read these seven facts. Thanks, Matt, for adding some wonder to my day.

  15. They do bite, I was just wading in my pond & felt something bite my foot. Looked down & it was a water strider. It only left a tiny red mark, stung for a bit but pain has subsided within 15 minutes.

  16. We have insects like water stryders that do not swim on the water surface. They stay under surface. What are they?

  17. Does any fish ever eat the water strider? Why or why not??

    1. According to most sources, fish rarely eat water striders. There is some disagreement on why fish avoid them, but they may excrete a chemical fish find distasteful.

      Anglers use flies and lures that imitate beetles, ants, frogs, snakes, mice, ducks, and even bats…but in all my years of fishing and frequenting tackle shops, I have never seen a lure that imitates a water strider.

  18. Why do all of you evolutionist write evolve in everything you talk about? It is not needed in the subject matter, yet you always place it there. Maybe you should start calling your Professors,

    1. Most likely the blog writers of these articles are summarizing how these creatures developed over a period of time. Science explains how ‘evolution’ has adapted these insects to walk and run across water. It wasn’t instantaneous that the “water strider” mastered its environment, the strider evolved into what we see today.

  19. Do fish such as rainbow trout not eat water striders because they are poisonous?

    What are the main predators of water striders on mountain and meadow brooks and streams?

  20. […] Did you know that water skippers can walk on water because they have many tiny grooved hairs on their legs that trap air? That’s right; they have their very own flotation device! These hair-trapping legs make them so buoyant they can support fifteen times their weight. They have six legs, like all insects, but the front pair are short, which enables them to quickly grab prey. We can thank a water skipper for eating mosquito larvae, which means fewer mosquitos! The larvae remain under water, and out of reach, but they breathe through a snorkel. The water skipper grabs the snorkel and eats the larvae! To learn many more fun facts about the water skipper, check out Cool Green Science – 7 Cool Facts About Water Striders by Matthew L. Miller. […]

  21. […] Biomimicry, also called bionics, uses structures found in nature to solve everyday problems. A well-known example is the Velcro strip, which a Swiss engineer, Georges de Mestral copied from the burdocks that stuck to his dog and clothes on a walk through the fields. With modern instruments like the electron microscope, scientists can reveal how nature has cleverly solved many well-known engineering problems: how can the gecko walk on ceilings? How can the water strider walk on water? […]

  22. Thanks for the info! I wondered how they found my pond and now I know not only that they they flew in but everything else about them! Great article.

  23. I was watching these little creatures the other day and trying to photograph the ripples they make. Some interesting patterns. I wondered to myself if somehow they use the ripples in the water to communicate. Well, maybe some farfetched thinking on my part, but that’s just how my mind works.

  24. Where do water striders come from? They all of a sudden appear in my pool, do they hatch someplace and move to the pool?

    1. Hi Don,
      Thanks for the question. Water striders can fly. They fly over areas and search for any open water, so they likely came from a nearby pond, stream or river.

  25. What causes thin legged water striders to cast wide, circular and oblong shadows? My guess is that the large shadows result from refracted light but is it refracted by the depression of the water by the legs or tips of their legs, or by a water or air particle captured by their legs? Or some other cause?

  26. I have a pet water strider. He doesn’t seem to like the pieces of kibble I feed him. Any tips?

  27. Hi my name is Rosemarie andruchow I grew up on a farm and now I live in the city. We have a different looking water spider but also have the ones on your page I would like to get a pic of them then you can help me figure out what they are
    Thanks hope to hear from you

  28. Finally an answer! Have wondered for years how water skippers magically appear in my watering troughs several hundred yards from a reservoir. And separated by thick stand of trees. Selective wing production! Who knew. Nice to have some control over how your children develop.

  29. I put some frog eggs in a mesh bag so that the goldfish couldn’t eat them. Tadpoles hatched quickly but the day after the tadpoles hatched each and every one of them was gone. I did notice some skippers in the mesh bag. Did they eat the tiny tadpoles, do you think?

  30. Do water striders eat fish food that I put in my small pond?

  31. Aquatic insects that live on the surface of water, how do they prevent being electrocuted when lightning strikes the water surface?

  32. Fantastic article and photos, Matthew! Water strider have always interested me. I just captured a few today out here in Washington state and put them in an aquarium. Tomorrow I intend to get some macro pictures, mainly of their prey catching pincers in order to compare them with that same kind of thing used by the “daddy long leg” arachnids. You’ve inspired me to try to pictures of their feet, too. Once done I’ll let the little guys go back home.

  33. I would like to forward a photo of a possible water strider to Mr. Miller for identification purposes.
    Charlot Taylor

  34. Thank you so much! I’m eating lunch by a river and watching these amazing little insects stay in one place! Amazing! God is so cool!

  35. This is very interesting. I found this article for school and I find this very interesting.

  36. Dear Matthew,
    You mention fish as predators of water striders. In over 30 years of fishing both streams and lakes, I have continually wondered why the apparently slow moving striders I see in large groups never get eaten by trout. I literally wondered if they taste bad to trout!
    You article also mentions that striders are extraordinarily fast. Do you think trout have learned or evolved not to bother with them because they are uncatchable? Or something completely different?
    Many thanks for any insights.

    1. Hi David,
      It’s a good question. I’m an angler too, and I have also never seen a fish take a water strider. While literature states fish will eat them, I have never seen this. And tellingly, while I seen flies imitating beetles, lantern flies, cicadas, frogs and even mice, I have never seen a water strider fly. If they worked, someone would tie them! I suspect the water striders are often on the edges of streams, so are likely difficult to catch. I also do think they are quite adept at avoiding fish. I can find nothing substantive suggesting they taste bad but it probably bears more research. Thanks for your question, and happy fishing!

      Matt Miller
      Cool Green Science editor

  37. I live in the Bahamas and see them in the mangrove flats that surround the islands. Thank you for the informative article !

  38. I am trying to hatch some frogspawn or tadpoles. I thought it would be a great idea to add some environmental animals, so I put water skippers in with them. I only put six because it was a small container, but I was interested in what they ate, and this website helped a lot thanks!

  39. Really enjoyed this, I’ve discovered many things I did not know!

  40. Do you have the link to the National Geographic email you mentioned? Thank you!

  41. Mostly good info. But water striders most definitely do bite. In the creek by our campsite yesterday, they were most interested in tasting my feet. Felt like little stings, went away after a bit. A day later, the bites are itchy like crazy. Fascinating little things to watch though, along with the pollywogs and crayfish.

  42. I live in NCarolina with a moderate sized pond on the property. The water striders appear to move so fast that the human eye cannot follow their motion. How fast are they moving? Your article was very interesting. Thanks

  43. Are water striders attractive prey to birds, for example, Eastern Kingbirds? Do they taste good or bad?

  44. Always enjoyed them growing up ☺️. Thanks for being back some happy childhood memories 💞.

  45. Question, not comment.
    Why are the shadows (at the bottom of the pond) of water striders so large?

  46. Quite fascinating information, thanks.
    We have them in, or should I say on our pool in France. We keep chemical levels as low as possible as I’m quite happy to share with a few creatures being used to swimming in lakes. They are always on the hunt for insects that fall in. They get scooped out when we swim but are soon back so I guess we have the flying variety. I did get bitten once, leastways I am 98% certain it was a pond skater.
    This year they seem to be our only pool- sharers, other years we have had a few whirlygig beetles and water boatmen. Wasps, bees and bats come to drink – I put a bowl with a stone in it on the edge for the insects so they have the option of a safer place without getting drowned. The bats fly by and dip, a privilege to see if you’re in the pool at nght.

  47. Hi Mathew, thank you for this awesome entry. I was happy to find this article on the fascinating, joyous
    strider creatures.
    Would you please comment on the kind of tag game they seem to play?
    I was watching them float and approach another one just to eject away full speed the instant it touched the other’s leg.
    I’m very interested in learning about this behaviour. Would you please elaborate? Thank you.


    North Vancouver, BC