We discuss the good things as well as the bad things to give them some perspective on the importance of bugs in both their natural environments as well as when they interact with people and our homes. One of the topics I think is important is to discuss a few of the myths and legends about insects that are so widely accepted as truth. I’m not certain just where some of these start, but it is interesting that even by first grade so many children already believe some things about insects that are not true.
One of the most popular myths is that regarding Mosquito Hawks, also known popularly as “skeeter eaters”. They may also be referred to as daddy long legs, although in fact they are not even close cousins to the spiders accurately called daddy long legs. Depending on where you live in the country you may also hear other fascinating names applied to these insects, such as gallinippers, gollywhoppers, or jimmy spinners. Because of the confusion between these insects and the actual daddy long legs spiders, some people also believe that skeeter eaters are highly poisonous, which is completely inaccurate. In fact, another widespread myth is that the Daddy Long Legs spider has the most potent venom of any spider in the country, again untrue but widely repeated. The true Daddy Long Legs is not even a true spider, but instead is a related Arachnid called a Harvestman, and it has no venom whatsoever.
Some people also may believe skeeter eaters are enormous mosquitoes, when in fact these insects are simply Crane Flies, in the fly family Tipulidae, and they are absolutely harmless to people and pets. If there is anything at all about a crane fly that provides it with a “pest” status, it is that some species have larvae that feed on the roots and foliage of grasses, and may be a pest of turf. These larvae are fairly large worm-looking grubs that are called Leatherbacks or Leatherjackets, and may be found if you turn back the soil in areas of your lawn where damage is occurring. The major culprit here is a species called the European Crane Fly , Tipula paludosa, and as its common name suggests it is not a native insect in North America. However, as so many exotic pests have done and continue to do, it managed to find its way to this continent, being discovered along the east coast in 1952. In just 12 years more it was being found as a pest along the west coast as well.
But, the adult crane fly is not a problem at all, and in fact in some of the largest species the adult insect may not even feed as that adult fly, all of the feeding having been done in the early stage as the larva. The mouthparts of the adult crane fly may be non-functioning, so they cannot feed. Those that do feed as adult flies feed on nectar, and some will have a long proboscis that is used as a straw to suck up the liquid materials. The popular myth, though, is that they eat mosquitoes, and I admit to some level of feelings of guilt when I tell little children that it is not so. Many of them will give me a questioning look, and even a few teachers have looked at me a bit startled, but I believe it is better to give the truth with insects than to preserve a fantasy. Many other animals, including some insects, readily feed on mosquitoes, but skeeter eaters are not one of them.
In western states from California north into Canada there is one very large species of crane fly called, appropriately, the Giant Crane Fly – Holorusia rubiginosa – and perhaps it is this species which has generated the myth of these flies eating mosquitoes. The wings of this monster can span nearly 3 inches, and if the legs were spread out to the sides it would likely double that size. As imposing as it is though, the Giant Crane Fly also is completely harmless. The adult flies do not feed at all and live only a short time after depositing eggs. The larvae feed only on decaying vegetation, and are not pests on turf. This is a species that should be left alone and enjoyed, and in fact plays an important role in reducing dead plant material to usable soil nutrients.
The larvae of many species of crane flies feed on decaying organic matter, living in rotting logs or in piles of rotting vegetation in the yard. Those that are damaging to lawns spend the winter in the larval leatherjacket stage, coming back to life and activity once the warmth of spring comes. They then resume feeding until late May, finally pupate in the soil, and the adult flies emerge in late summer to mate, deposit more eggs, and then die shortly after. Many other species have adults that emerge in the early to mid-spring, and these are often attracted to outside lights. It can be very concerning to a homeowner to walk out to their front porch and find a dozen or more of these huge insects on the walls around their front door. Some easily enter when the doors are opened and closed, and now the sight of this enormous “mosquito” flying around inside can cause a near panic. In truth, the best control for a crane fly indoors is to either suck it up in a vacuum or grab it in your hand and toss it back outside. It is harmless. Those on the front porch can be ignored, and the use of a yellow bulb in exterior lights instead of white bulbs will reduce the attraction to these lights.