Country diary: autumn brings the daddy longlegs bouncing in
Langstone, Hampshire: Blundering craneflies are vulnerable to spiders’ webs. But they have a special gift at their disposal
The arrival of autumn heralds the annual cranefly emergence. There are more than 300 species found in the UK, but Tipula paludosa is the most common. As dusk falls and I turn on the lights, they flit around the glowing windows, the unwary snared by the orb-weaver and false widow spiders that have slung their webs across the glass. Those that make it inside the house blunder from corner to corner, bouncing off the walls and ceiling.
Capture and release is a delicate operation, as the gangly insects have what are known as deciduous legs – they detach from the body at the slightest touch. The six spindly appendages, which give them the nickname “daddy longlegs“, stabilise the cranefly’s elongated, slender body during flight and egg-laying, and provide sensory input to help them navigate their environment, but the ability to sacrifice a limb allows them the opportunity to escape the grasp of a predator.
They are often mistaken for other leggy creatures that abound at this time of year – such as harvestmen and cellar spiders – all of which share their colloquial name. It’s this confusion that gave rise to the enduring urban myth that craneflies are one of the most venomous insects in the world. Despite the fact that they resemble giant mosquitoes, they are completely harmless. Their mouthparts are very simple, so they are incapable of consuming anything more than nectar, let alone biting humans. Females do sport a sharp protuberance at the tip of the abdomen, but this is an ovipositor, not a stinger.
While the adults rarely eat, the larvae – know as leatherjackets – are voracious, feeding on the roots and stem bases of grasses in gardens, parks and pasture. They thrive in damp soil, so a mild winter followed by a cool, wet summer has created ideal conditions for them to reach maturity. Despite witnessing starlings, magpies and crows pecking the lawn in search of the grubs, there has only been a modest hatch in my garden. Across the road in Langstone Meadows, clouds of craneflies rise from the grass with every step I take, floating above the purple haze of Yorkshire-fog and thistles.