Effects of contaminants on adult aquatic insect emergence are less well understood than effects on insect larvae. We compared responses of larval density and adult emergence along a metal contamination gradient. Nonlinear threshold responses were generally observed for larvae and emergers. Larval densities decreased significantly at low metal concentrations but precipitously at concentrations of metal mixtures above aquatic life criteria (Cumulative Criterion Accumulation Ratio (CCAR) ≥ 1). In contrast, adult emergence declined precipitously at low metal concentrations (CCAR ≤ 1), followed by a modest decline above this threshold. Adult emergence was a more sensitive indicator of the effect of low metals concentrations on aquatic insect communities compared to larvae, presumably because emergence is limited by a combination of larval survival and other factors limiting successful emergence. Thus effects of exposure to larvae are not manifest until later in life (during metamorphosis and emergence). This loss in emergence reduces prey subsidies to riparian communities at concentrations considered safe for aquatic life. Our results also challenge the widely held assumption that adult emergence is a constant proportion of larval densities in all streams.