1. The net-winged midges (Diptera: Blephariceridae) are a highly specialized group whose morphological characteristics and specific habitat requirements suggest a limited potential for dispersal. Levels of genetic variation were examined within streams, between streams in the same range and between mountain ranges in larval populations of Elporia barnardi in the south-western Cape of South Africa. The aim was to examine the hypothesis that population structure would reflect the poor potential for dispersal.
2. Significant deviations from Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium in 17 of the 57 individual comparisons indicate a non-random mating population. Given the swarming behaviour and life history traits, larvae sampled may reflect the product of limited matings.
3. Analysis of population substructuring revealed significant levels of differentiation among geographically proximate populations. Large differences between streams within Table Mountain, similar in magnitude to those between mountain ranges, suggest that movement of individuals out of the stream catchment is rare. Observed FST values are more similar to those of fully aquatic species than other lotic insects with winged adult stages.
4. Results suggest that mountain ridges provided effective physical barriers to the dispersal of E. barnardi, with the catchment representing the effective population unit.