The real daddy of them all
With six spindly, elongated legs that, when cut off, twitch scarily for ages, the common cranefly is an ungainly and remarkably fragile insect, observes David Profumo
The daddy is an ungainly, lolloping aeronaut and remarkably fragile
Managing to be both slender and clumsy, the cranefly is one of our more readily identifiable insects, its gangly presence familiar in early autumn as it blunders around lampshades and trails its stilt-like legs across the meadows. There are several hundred species in Britain, but the most common belong to the Tipulidae family, popularly known as daddy long-legs.
These include the common European cranefly (Tipula paludosa) and the greyish marsh variety (T. oleracea), although the real daddy of them all is T. maxima, with the largest wingspan—more than 2in—of any of our species. in China, the impressive
T. brobdignagia grows to twice this size. The daddy sports a small head, threadlike antennae and an elongated body that shows a V-shaped suture to the thorax. The male abdomen is snub-ended, whereas the female’s is pointed like an awl and contains a horny ovipostor. They are never known as mummies—‘daddy’ is an ancient term of endearment. The wings, held open at rest, are translucent and occasionally mottled, with a pair of stubby halteres behind them, acting as stabilisers; however, the daddy is an ungainly, lolloping aeronaut and remarkably fragile.
The six grallatorial legs (they’re named for the wading bird, not a lifting machine) are useless for running. One nickname is old tailor, perhaps for those frenetic sewing movements—although he’s unsteady on his pins.
The legs are easily dislocated, which assists in eluding predators. Detached limbs will twitch independently for ages—a source of horrid fascination to small children: there used to be a counting rhyme that accompanied such serial dismemberment: ‘Old Harry Long-legs/cannot say his prayers/catch him by the left leg/and throw him down the stairs.’
Harry—or granfer griggles, jenny-spinner, granny nobble-knee—doesn’t buzz or drone and cannot bite or sting. The term daddy long-legs has confusingly been applied to unrelated creatures such as the harvestmen and a certain cellar spider, which is indeed poisonous.
it was originally described by Thomas Muffet (1658) as a ‘water-fly’, although most species are terrestrial. ‘it flies (much like the ostrich) hopping with the feet,’ he wrote, imaginatively. Contrary to folk wisdom, it doesn’t consume other insects— in america, it’s known as the ‘mosquito hawk’, but the harmless old spindleshanks couldn’t hurt a fly.
Harry and Jenny favour damp pastures and, as the summer’s heat wanes, they gravitate towards the shelter of our houses, roosting from their forelegs on walls and flittering against lighted panes. in an abundant year, the British population runs into billions. The adult female emerges from her chrysalis already laden with eggs and copulation—which may be aerial and can last for hours—involves a vertiginous joining of abdomens, following which the fertilised fly (painstakingly for an insect) deposits her shiny dark eggs in separate little batches into the soil.
after a fortnight, there hatch the infamous larvae known as leatherjackets. These root-eating grubs feed throughout winter, are impervious to frost and can number nearly a million per acre—a serious pest to growers of cereal crops and potatoes, as well as being a grassroots menace to lawnkeepers. in 1935, there was such an infestation at Lords that spin bowlers were exploiting the bald patches on the pitch.
adult craneflies form a seasonal part of the diet of grouse, bats and plovers and are a welcome windfall for trout—back in 1676, Charles Cotton was recording in The Compleat Angler an artificial imitation for ‘Harry-long-leggs’ involving ‘Bear’s dun, and blew wool mixt’. Modern patterns incorporate everything from cork to dental dam. in the great limestone loughs of ireland, early September marks the traditional time for ‘dapping’ the natural fly on a silken floss blowline, which can provoke spectacular surface rises.
given its comical, doddery overtones, daddy long-legs seems an unlikely choice of stage name for the musician Michael Bowe, of band WOLFPAC (their albums include Hitler’s Handicapped Helpers). it was also the title of an adolescent epistolary novel by american author Jean Webster (1912), so named for the mysterious benefactor of an orphan girl, Judy. The book was subsequently adapted into several films, one starring Shirley Temple, with a later version featuring Fred astaire. it also inspired a cult television series in the Far East, where perhaps the concept of a ‘sugar daddy long-legs’ holds more enduring appeal.
in the final scene of Hamlet, the sweet Prince says—of the flamboyant courtier Osric, who wears ‘a winged doublet’ in the stage directions: ‘Dost know this water-fly?’ The play abounds in piscatorial imagery—hamlet has just observed that the king has ‘thrown out his angle for my proper life’ and Osric is effectively the aquatic, insecty bait that lures him to the fatal duel, a prancing, gauzy cranefly. Surely Shakespeare must have been an angler?