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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Harmless Drunk Flyers | 04-27-2017
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| Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Apr 27, 2017

Sometimes the change in nature around you is subtle, and you have to pay close attention to notice anything at all … a tree is in bloom for just a week and you will have to wait until next year if you miss it. You might get only a quick glimpse of the Western tanager right now in your backyard; it is a migrant bird that certainly was not there a few weeks ago.

On the other hand, some changes hit you smack in the face. This is the case with the insect called crane flies – which some people call mosquito hawks.

In fact they are not mosquito hawks, and they are not going to eat any mosquitos, either. They do not even have mouth parts. They won’t sting you, bite you or attack you in any way, shape or form. They are totally harmless.

Crane flies look like giant, fragile, super-huge mosquitos with balance problems. Right now you see them everywhere during the day and in the evening, especially around your porch lights. I even had one go inside my dryer, presumably attracted by the light. I left the door open, and it left again with a goofy flight, bouncing left and right.

You might try to catch one gently from inside your house to release it outside, but you can be sure that one or two legs will be caught, even with the most careful touch. Some people cannot stand them because they do not seem to be much in control of their flight, and they often end up right front of our faces or caught in our hair.

I was wondering why they are called crane flies. I learned they got that name because they seem to resemble the birds, the crane, in that they have a slow flight and let their long legs dangle behind them during flight. Both share an awkward look in flight, so this is how it got started.

Crane flies are flies from the family Tipulidae. They are insects, but they are not related to mosquitoes at all.

We seem to have a large population this year, and there might be some indication that many larvae were able to change into flies because of the wet spring. I should tell you the good news right now: Their lifespan is short, two weeks maximum, so they are not here to stay for the whole summer.

The adults sometimes absorb nectar through their body, but their only purpose is to mate, and for the female to lay eggs. Females look a little different from males: They have a larger abdomen, and it ends in a pointed ovipositor. But remember again, they cannot sting. It is all for show. It only looks like a stinger.

The female has larger wings than the male and also flies in a straighter line; as we know, the male does not control that very well.

After mating, the male dies and the female shoots the eggs onto the ground. The eggs will hatch and will become “leather jackets,” a larva often found in lawns. They are called “leather jackets” because they look “leathery,” are brown and grey in color, and grow to a nice size of 1 inch to 1-1/2 inches long.

Although the parents do not eat a thing, the larva eats all the time – wood, vegetation shoots and roots. At night, they come out to munch on grass and flowers. In the winter, the feeding frenzy slows down and they start to weave a cocoon for protection. Inside the cocoon, they transform themselves into crane flies, waiting to come out when spring is here.

Why should we protect these insects and not chase after them with a fly swatter? If you want to do that, you will win every time, because they are the worst flying insects I have ever seen. However, they are also great food for birds. Think about all of those baby birds that just came out of the nest and which still need to learn a thing or two about being great hunters. These are a perfect meal for those adolescents.

They are also food for reptiles and amphibians – frog season is in full action right now, and you must have noticed all of the new lizards about.

People have noticed that crane flies are great fishing bait and have studied their configuration to use them as models for making artificial lures.

You can learn the most about crane flies from the U.S. entomologist Charles Paul Alexander (1889-1981) who devoted his life to this study. The order is divided into 15,000 species and 525 genera of crane flies, making them the largest group of flies, well worth getting some of our attention.

But there are still many facts that are totally unknown. For many species, we have never seen the larvae … but they must be somewhere. Also, most crane flies have big eyes, but we do not know how well they see. Some males in certain species have antennae with very elongated segments compared to the females, but we do not know why or what are they used for.

The courtship and communication between females and males brings more questions than answers, and different species have different behavior. Some males get into an all-male swarm to attract the females, while others fly around with their forelegs outstretched, using a contact pheromone to invite a partner.

It is kind of fun to think about all of those little secrets that baffle humans in spite of many studies.

Yes, I know they can be a pain when you open your door at night and a handful is waiting to enter your house. I know it does not seem fair to try to “whoosh out” an insect that drops legs so easily. It can be annoying to have a crane fly going through your home like a drunk, hitting the walls and getting stuck in corners without finding an escape.

Bear with it. They will soon be gone. Just a few more days.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.

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11 Comments

  1. It’s in my backyard….here I thought they were Mosquitos!

  2. Melody Vito Melody Vito says:

    Usually see them called crane flies.

  3. Bob Shepler Bob Shepler says:

    Yep. Go out every morning an look around. Do it all year

  4. They are gentle and they eat mosquitos

  5. I have notice that there’s less and less am off Sand and Sierra.

  6. Blake Frye Blake Frye says:

    50 of these in my friends garage the other night

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