Dear Readers, I like to think of myself as pretty immune to fear when it comes to insects, though obviously I have a healthy respect for those that can bite and sting and will give them the space that they need. But as a child I had a completely irrational terror of the common-or-garden cranefly, or daddy-long-legs as they’re known in the UK. There’s something about the way that they fly so erratically that still gives me the shivers, though I’m much more under control than I used to be. After all, these creatures are harmless and, once hatched, have vanishingly short lives. For me they are the quintessential sign of autumn, as they bask in the sunshine or search for places to lay their eggs. Mum and Dad’s bungalow walls in Dorset were often covered in them, and it was a rare evening when a daddy-long-legs didn’t fly in and bash itself half to death against the ceiling light.
These are a very ancient type of fly: they were probably bumbling around 245 million years ago, and there are over 15,000 species of cranefly, in 500 genera. I was delighted to hear that scientists describe them as ‘deciduous’, not because they lose their leaves easily but because their legs detach very easily from their bodies, presumably as a way to thwart predators. In my more unenlightened days I would sometimes attempt to swat craneflies, and was always horrified at how easily their legs would come off. Furthermore, sometimes I would assume that the insect was dead only to hear it rustling some hours later, finally lifting off out of the wastepaper basket where its supposed corpse had been deposited and flying around the room like some zombie invertebrate. These days, I will carefully catch an errant cranefly in a glass and take it outside, which is much kinder. Mostly craneflies cannot feed as adults, and are really just waiting to mate, lay their eggs and die. I am pretty sure that the one in the photo is a gravid female.
While most baby animals have a kind of charm, it’s hard to find find anything cute about a larval cranefly, or leatherjacket. In many of those 15,000 species, the larva is a detritivore, helping to tidy up rotting vegetation. Alas, the commonest UK craneflies (Tipula sp.) include some species where the larvae feed on the roots of living plants – you will sometimes dig up a leatherjacket when trying to sort out a lawn, for example. Fortunately, the larvae are also a juicy snack for many birds, including crows, magpies, jackdaws and especially rooks. There was one famous incident in 1935 when there were so many leatherjackets under the wicket at Lords cricket ground that the groundstaff were tasked with digging them up and burning them (surely putting them on a bird table would have been a more ecological way to deal with the situation, but these were less enlightened times). Our old friend Wikipedia notes that ‘the pitch took unaccustomed spin for the rest of the season’.
This was clearly a problem across the country in the mid 1930s, and for your delectation, here is a 1936 article from The Guardian, which is a pure delight. As a sample, here is a description of a leatherjacket from the piece in question:
‘a horrible thing like a midget concertina, more or less the same at both ends, without any legs‘.
I have no idea what Paris Green is, but I do like the idea of turning over the soil to expose the grubs to their natural enemies.
I really do want to work on my attitude to craneflies, though. Their lives are short, and they can’t help having detachable legs and little aeronautical skill. Their heads look rather like those of miniature carousel horses, and I find that that helps a bit, though you could argue that it would be a roundabout from hell.
However, the largest cranefly in the world was recently discovered in China, and has the scientific name Holurusia mikado.
Sadly, many newspapers recorded the species as a mosquito, even though the insect barely feeds, and only eats nectar when it does. Poor cranefly! I can feel my empathy winning out over fear, as it so often does. It can’t be a lot of fun being a cranefly. To end, here’s a rather sad summing up of the life of the daddy-long-legs, written by Craig Brown at the height of an ‘explosion’ of craneflies in 2006, and included in ‘Bugs Britannica’ by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey.
“It is, I suppose, this sense of their utter uselessness that makes us pity them, and perhaps even, in our more downhearted moments, identify with them. Their life is all such an effort – and to what purpose?….Swarms of male daddy longlegs dance around like drunken morons on the lookout for lady friends. Copulation sounds like a grim affair for both parties. ‘The male genitalia include a pair of claspers which grip the female genital valves’, says one encyclopedia, ‘but in order to do so the male’s abdomen has to be twisted through 180 degrees’. Their only pleasure in life seems to be cleaning their legs, which they do obsessively after each meal, pulling them one at a time through their jaws. After all this, they bluster into a light-bulb, have a pot-shot taken at them, lose half their legs, crawl around for a bit, lose the other half, and then die. It’s not a life to be envied, I think, as I reach for the dustpan and brush”.