Daddy longlegs

Posted: Friday 24 August 2012
by Kate Bradbury

Have you ever looked at a crane fly close up? They’re amazing, like a cross between an elephant and a helicopter [...]

Female crane fly, on a clover leaf

Have you ever looked at a crane fly close up? They’re amazing, like a cross between an elephant and a helicopter, if you can imagine such a thing. They have this wonderful long face, goggle eyes and six long, spindly legs. But they’re more elegant than elephants or helicopters; they appear to dance, bobbing about like fairies.

There are some 300 species of crane fly in the UK. Some of them have spotted bodies and others have distinct patterned wings. The most common species, Tipula paludosa, is more of a subdued grey. But it’s no less beautiful, in my view.

Apparently 2012 has been kind to crane flies, as they thrive in damp habitats. The ‘leatherjacket’ larvae eat the roots of plants – most notably grass – and in large numbers they can cause unsightly patches in lawns. Luckily my lawn is still a lush green, despite the crane flies. But the odd brown patch wouldn’t bother me too much anyway.

Leatherjackets are an important food source for starlings, whose populations have crashed since 1980. Numbers are thought to be falling all over Europe – they’ve declined by 41 per cent in Greater Manchester alone. It’s not yet known exactly why starling numbers are declining so drastically, but one suggested explanation is that more intensive methods of agriculture are preventing crane flies from breeding successfully.

They breed well enough in gardens, if we let them. Males can be told apart from females by the shape of their bodies. The end of the males’ abdomen is swollen and sort of squared off (I think it looks like it’s been badly wrapped in cellotape), while females have a pointed end, suitable for pushing eggs into the soil. I love watching female crane flies laying eggs in my lawn. They’re so graceful.

Their six dangly legs can easily become detached. Yesterday I found a male with just four. He flew (or bobbed) up and away and landed in a cobweb. I watched him struggle for a minute before carefully rescuing him – he had just two legs by the end of his ordeal. The detachability of the legs is thought to have something to do with escaping from predation (including cobwebs). Crane flies don’t seem to look where they’re going, so being able to fly from danger without a couple of legs seems like a good evolutionary compromise for being a bit clumsy. Legs aren’t necessary when finding a mate, apparently.

Later I found a female (pictured, above), resting in the clover. Perhaps she paired up with old two-legs and they made babies in my lawn. I just need some hungry starlings to come and eat them.

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Talkback: Daddy longlegs
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Sylvia Robbins 31/08/2012 at 16:35

Whatever you say about the Daddies, I shall always panic when they appear in the house at night, flitting round the light. I've always been terrified but at age 70 I have been known to rescue sleeping ones and put outside. I steeled myself to look at pictures of them in books.
It's strange because spiders are no problem.

FloBear 31/08/2012 at 16:39

With you there, Sylvia. Anything that can't seem to fly straight - Daddies, Cockchafers, Stag beetles etc - gets me running for cover.No problem with bats, birds or dragonflies.

lavenderlass 31/08/2012 at 18:55

I' m with you both on Daddies etc., but the worst is moths.  I just get settled in bed with a book and one will come flittering round the light.  I turn the light off quick as trying to catch them is a mammoth task and I hate killing them.  Funny the only thing I don't mind killing are slugs and snails.

backyardee 01/09/2012 at 07:34

never fear ladies, they have just emerged as adults, and will be mating and laying eggs in lawns which will cause all sorts of headaches for all sorts of folks.

gardeningfantic 01/09/2012 at 08:44

oh yeah they give me the eebie geebie too..  you can here htem in the dark tapping against the ceiling when trying to sleep..

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