It’s that time of year again when the days are getting cooler, the nights are getting longer and strange giant mosquito-type creatures suddenly emerge. These odd critters appear on walls, windows, in garages and porches. So, what are these rather strange looking beings? Well, I’m referring to what I know as, the “Daddy Long Legs” but you might well know them as a Mosquito Hawk, or a Mosquito Eater, or a Gallinipper or even a Gollywhopper! It seems there are many nicknames for what is correctly called a Crane Fly. Oh, and they most definitely are not mosquitos or even spiders (mercifully!)
Crane flies (we’d better call them by their correct name!) are indeed flies and belong to the family called Tipulidae, which are the largest group of flies (totalling some 15,000) and are made up of medium to large flies. They are a successful clan, being widespread throughout temperate and tropical regions of the world.
Size wise, the crane flies measure up to an impressive 35mm (1.5 inches), having slender bodies and very long legs. They do, in fact, look like very large mosquitos and I find myself feeling mighty glad that they aren’t capable of biting like their smaller dopplegangers! Maybe it is their resemblance to the mosquito that has led folks to believe that they like to consume them! (which they don’t by the way).
As well as attracting a wide variety of nicknames, the crane fly also boasts being the subject of a common urban myth that it is, in fact, highly venomous. Fortunately, it absolutely isn’t and it most certainly doesn’t bite, which judging from its size, is lucky for us! Another widely believed tale is that these guys like mosquitos to feature on their menu – wrong! They are, in fact, incapable of consuming any insects, living on simply nectar, or perhaps not even eating at all during their briefly short two week lifespans.
Whilst the adult crane flies don’t like to munch on anything much, their larvae, which are commonly known as leatherjackets, are a different story! Dwelling in damp soil, these critters can be a little too fond of tucking into plant roots and leaves, earning them the dubious reputation of being classed as an agricultural pest! One year, they even managed to upset cricket fans by having a feast on the grass at Lords Cricket Ground, in London, resulting in bald patches appearing on the pitch and causing the ball to spin in a totally different direction to usual!
Whilst leatherjackets may not be a welcome sight in crop fields or gardens, they are nonetheless an important food source for other inspects, birds, reptiles, fish and mammals. They also play an important role in maintaining the health of the soil that they live in, helping to improve microbial levels.
Once the leatherjacket has managed to munch itself to the right size, it pupates and the adult crane fly emerges. The main reason for the crane fly’s existence is to mate and this is their number one priority after emerging from the pupae.
So, how can you tell a male from a female? Well, the females have slender tipped bodies (due to the ovipositor (= egg layer) in their tails); whilst the males have squarer ended abdomens. The females lay out a little enticing scent trail for the boys to follow; they pair up and get together. Once this is achieved, the female lays her eggs (around 300) which hatch into leatherjackets and the process begins all over again. Sadly, once this is completed, the crane fly has fulfilled its mission as an adult and soon dies. However, in nature nothing is wasted and like their larval stage, crane flies are an important food source for many other creatures.
One nifty trick crane flies have up their wings is their deciduous legs – they are able to lose one or two of these spindly appendages without any problem at all!
Although they are rather delicate looking, crane flies are far from light on their wings and are quite cumbersome fliers – you’ll surely have been annoyed by the constant bumping and buzzing of a crane fly that has come into your home, doubtless attracted by a light – being mainly nocturnal they are drawn to illumination like the proverbial moths to flames!
Despite these chaps being reasonably common, they don’t seem to have attracted too much attention from researchers and we don’t know a huge amount about them – so maybe there’s a case to find out a bit more about these cool daddies!