Discovering Species – Daddy Long Legs

For a couple of week’s worth of mornings earlier in the month, I was being pelted in the face by daddy long legs. Their flailing legs and wings have been slapping me in the cheeks, nose, mouth, eyes and ears – basically all exposed parts of my head. I was quite indifferent to them before, but being unable to get away from them at work, a bit of a dislike for these leggy, clingy little creatures started creeping in. I try not to be “speciesist” though, so thought I’d do some research to answer some questions which I thought might endear me to the gangly things. They’re not exactly known to be a “cute” and well loved species, but I am sure they’re not really so bad.

What are they?
Common names
Daddy Long Legs, Crane fly (and in the USA, apparently “mosquito hawk”, “mosquito eater”, “gallinipper” and “gollywhopper”)

Scientific name

Diptera (flies)

N.B “Daddy Long Legs” (I’ve found) is also used as a name for two types of arachnids: Opiliones (“harvestmen”) and Phocidae (“cellar spiders”)

According to NatureSpot, there are about 300 species of crane fly in the UK.

Why do they fly straight at my face?
I feel personally attacked when my face is seemingly targeted time and time again. It’s probably due to my tendency to personify everything – I can’t help but imagine their little motives. I assume that the face-attacks are actually because of the sheer number of them about, and maybe a lack of co-ordination on their part, but I thought I’d look into it a bit further. I tried to, anyway, but failed to find any information about their eyesight or “agility”. (If anyone can tell me about these things then please let me know!) They look a bit awkward in their movements to me though, so I imagine they find it difficult to avoid big creatures traipsing about such as myself. I also realise that I’m invading their space, rather than the other way around, so I shouldn’t complain.

Why are there so many about at once?
I work on a grassland site and this is the first time I’ve ever seen so many daddy long legs in one place. Looking into their life cycle, I seem to have found the answer. After the adults lay eggs in the soil in late summer, the larvae feed and develop underground until the following summer. In late summer, fully developed adult crane flies emerge to mate, lay eggs and restart the cycle. As the adults are said to only survive for a few days, emerging at the same time allows them to continue their life cycle.

What do they eat?
Whilst trying to travel through an enormous, seemingly endless cloud of daddy long legs, I can’t help but also wonder what they’re all living on. I came across this one on a gate post the other day, which looked like it was eating (or trying to eat) the lichen.

I’ve read that they don’t tend to eat at this time of year/as adults, as they are focused on mating and laying eggs. I’ve also read that they prefer to eat sugary nectar as adults, and that their mouthparts aren’t sophisticated enough to eat at all. Another source simply says that their feeding habits are not known, so the information out there is mixed.

I’m not sure what this one I videoed was actually doing… (maybe just resting or drinking?) I do like to watch invertebrates a bit closer, though. I feel like I see something of their character. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but to me, this one looks quite innocent and curious. Just paying a bit more attention has definitely helped to endear me to them a little.

As what I’ve read suggests the adults may not eat, this didn’t answer what their diet consists of. Apparently it’s the larvae (leatherjackets) which feed, on the roots of grass or small plants, or even on other animals. Some species feed on decaying vegetation rather than live plant roots.

Where else do they live?
Crane flies are a group of over 15,000 species found all over the world, with individual species of crane fly having their own local distributions. Their habitats can range from freshwater to terrestrial, with some species being able to survive in the marine environment.

In my research, I found that the hot, dry summers we’ve been having in recent years can cause the ground to harden, which prevents crane flies from emerging from the ground. Dry soil conditions may also cause failure of many of their eggs to hatch. This apparently means that their numbers have been decreasing. Some people find crane fly larvae to be a problem for their garden or crops due to leatherjackets eating roots and thereby killing grasses and crops, and therefore actively seek to exclude/exterminate them from their land. However, these larvae are also an important food source for other animals, including birds such as corvid species and starlings as well as waders on wet grassland sites. I also saw hundreds of gulls and starlings (and the odd swallow) gathered in the exact area that the most daddy long legs were at, I assume to catch some of the adult flies. The size and “gangly” nature of the adult crane fly is said to make them easy targets for hungry birds.

Learning some of the basics about daddy long legs has definitely helped me appreciate their place in the world. Making the effort to take notice of them up close forces me to realise they are just as fascinating as some of the more conventionally “exciting” species, and if you started reading this feeling indifferent or a bit negatively towards this harmless species, I hope it’s helped you to appreciate them a little more (or at least maybe dislike them less) too!

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