Height: About 3 inches.
Body type: Long and lean.
Eye color: Variable depending on light.
Personality: Carefree, but a bit klutzy and bumbling – I’ve already lost one leg to a spider web.
Hobbies: Flying around lights in the middle of the night.
Ideal date: Baby making -without getting eaten by a bird…
While this profile doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me, apparently it worked just fine for the couple of Crane Flies in the photo. Yes, strange looking, long-legged things are actually a type of fly. Not a spider (six legs if they haven’t lost any, not eight like spiders have). And it’s not a giant mosquito either (you can breathe again now – you’re welcome).
Crane Flies (family = Tipulidae), frequently called Mosquito Hawks, Gollywhoppers, Skeeter Eaters, Jenny Longlegs, or Daddy Longlegs, were always called Mosquito Catchers in my house growing up. Although I can certainly see where the name Daddy Longlegs would be morphologically appropriate, in our house, the name Daddy Longlegs was always reserved for the Harvestmen that seemed to be everywhere (an eight-legged type non-spider arachnid in the order Opiliones). Despite the implications of a name like Mosquito Catcher, Crane Flies actually don’t catch, kill, or eat mosquitoes. Most of the adult flies (like in the pictures) don’t even have the mouthparts necessary to eat something. Funny the critter names and things you are told as a child that you later find out are totally inaccurate, lol. To be fair though, I was never afraid of the “Mosquito Catchers” that always got in the house, since I thought they were eating our mosquitoes…
Instead of hunting mosquitoes, the vast majority of Crane Flies are actually decomposers. They eat a variety of decomposing organic matter, algae, and other super tiny things. While a few species (introduced from Europe) can be pests in certain areas feeding on the roots of agricultural crops, ornamentals, or turf grass, most species are considered beneficial since they break down decomposing matter and release nutrients back into the system providing an essential ecosystem service. It’s the grub-like larvae (=baby flies) that do all the decomposing and eating though. The adults (=flies) only live for maybe a week or two and their sole purpose is to find a mate and make more baby Crane Flies. The adults may take a bit of flower nectar occasionally for a quick extra burst of energy, or get distracted by bright nighttime lights that people often leave on, but they have a mission, and not a lot of time to complete it.
There are more that 570 different species of Crane Fly found throughout North America, and more than 4,000 species worldwide. They typically live in habitats that have moist or wet conditions for at least part of the year, as these areas are more likely to have nice rich decaying matter to feed their babies. Aquatic or semi-aquatic type habitats like streams and ponds are also fair game to set up house (or to deposit eggs – they don’t actually make any kind of houses). While I can tell the Crane Flies in these photos are most likely in the genus Tipula, a species level identification to figure out which of the hundreds of species it could be would unfortunately require a fly taxonomic specialist (=Dipterist) to examine the flies under a microscope. We will just assume these are some of the native decomposer species, as they most likely are :)
Next time you see one of these large, gangly, and most awkward critters, just remember they are on a mission of love - and completely harmless… So go ahead and release the lost ones distracted by the porch lights back outside. Even if they aren’t helping reduce the mosquito population like many of us have been incorrectly told, they are likely improving your soil and the larger environment. Just be careful of their long legs – dropping legs that get caught by predators is one of their few defenses. And we don’t want to make it any harder for them to find a Mrs or Mr Daddy Longlegs….
To read more about Crane Flies, check out:
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