rane flies came flying into my life (again) last week with the arrival of a photo from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wildlife biologist Kelly Hazen, who has them hanging around her porch light every night. Being a wildlife biologist and tour guide for the High Desert Museum, she thought I'd like to hear that they're here in our backyards.
The heading of this piece says it all: a crane fly is a crane FLY and ONLY that. Don't listen to those "mosquito hawk" tall tales. They ain't mosquito hawks; they're just plain old crane flies. Period. Exclamation point!
Still, crane fly larvae are a pretty amazing group of feeders. While most are aquatic to semi-aquatic and grass-eaters, there's one group of the thousands identified that prey on small, aquatic insects—which could include mosquito larvae. The adults feed (especially the males) as many male insects do, on nectar, and as such are pollinators.
However, ALL crane flies are, according to most entomologists, in the family Tipuloidea. However, even then, some of the hair-splitters want to argue about that. Crane flies are found worldwide, with so many species, sub species, varieties and races that no one has agreed yet on who-is-who, but at least everyone agrees on what-is-what.
Crane flies make up the largest group of flies worldwide. There are over 15,000 recognized species and subspecies, most of them in the tropics, and most of them described (named) by one person, fly specialist Charles Paul Alexander of the United States. According to his Wikipedia entry, he named over 11,000 species and genera of flies—translating to one species description a day for his whole career. Wow!
In England and Ireland crane flies are known as "daddy long-legs." Well, that's a misnomer in the U.S. Here, "daddy long-legs" has been reserved for an eight-legged creature in the Arachnid (spider) group.
Insects have three body parts and six legs, and most of them have wings. Spiders are made up of two body parts and eight legs and NONE of them have wings. So, let's drop the daddy long-legs in the U.S. for crane flies, please.
Then there's the "mosquito hawk" business. That won't work either. As mentioned earlier, adult crane flies are flower eaters. Their food has to be mushy and tiny. In my understanding of crane fly adults, what they do best is fly around lights at night, mate and lay eggs, as adults, they don't have time to enjoy the luxury of eating.
But... me-oh-my, do they get our attention! That ovipositor on the female looks look it could sting an elephant to death, when all it does is lay eggs in mud and water. I've been enjoying crane flies from the time I was milking cows with my grandfather.
I can't help it. Crane flies just get me. They're beautiful and one of the most striking examples of "true flies," which are in the scientific order, Diptera, Latin for "two winged insect." In crane flies you can see plainly the three body parts and six legs of insects, plus the two wings AND the halteres that replace the missing pair of wings are also obvious. Their halteres, pronounced, halt-airz, stand out like two match sticks beneath the beautiful lacy wings. They are the balancing mechanism that gives crane flies—well, ALL true flies—such remarkable maneuverability in flight. However, if the haltere is damaged, the insect cannot fly in a straight line, or right-side-up for that matter.I
n this part of the U.S., crane flies start appearing around porch lights at night from late March right to when the frost fiend starts killing insects in the fall. They come in yellow, tan, brown and grey and all have the same crane-like appearance. Bats of summer love to eat 'em, as do nighthawks and flammulated owls.
The male's long, nine-segmented antennae can sense the pheromones of the female from a great distance, and the insects themselves can grow to prodigious sizes in the tropics with a wing-span of up to 6-inches, but ours run to about a 1-inch wing-span.
Crane fly females lay their eggs in and under grasses, mosses and liverworts in a wet environment where the larvae eat both the roots and above-ground foliage. Somewhere along the line, the larvae got the name "leatherjackets," because of the hard texture of the exoskeleton. While most are vegetarians, like the occasional butterfly larvae (caterpillar) there are rare instances of some being predacious.
No matter what niche the larvae occupy, they are all on the list of food for amphibians and birds, especially robins. In most instances, crane fly larvae are not pestiferous, but as commerce of the world mixes between nations so easily, so does the range of pestiferous insects infesting agriculture. What began with the infestation of Japanese beetles years before the outbreak of WWII, now has grown to several species of world-wide insect pests, including non-native crane flies now infesting the U.S.
Wonder who'll be buggin' us next...?