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

Country Life Every Week - - Interiors British Wool -

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?

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