Sandy’s Garden ... Daddy Longlegs

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I don’t like daddy-longlegs – or should that be daddy longlegs or even daddy-long-legs?

Well, I don’t care how their name is spelled – I don’t like them!

I really don’t know why I don’t like them. They’ve never done me any harm, to the best of my knowledge. Contrary to a fairly widespread belief, not only is their bite not poisonous, they don’t bite at all. The story that they are venomous probably has its origins in a confusion between some evil-minded spiders and the harmless insect which we call the daddy-longlegs, which has just six legs and is a member of the tipulidae insect family. Eight-legged spiders are not insects at all but are arthropods; and yes, while some eight-legged spiders are, confusingly, called daddy-longlegs, the six-legged daddy-longlegs which we are likely to find trying to find a way into our lit homes of a summer evening or clinging to the outside of windows at this time of year are actually a type of cranefly.

There are valid reasons why some gardeners and, more so, professional groundsmen don’t like daddy-longlegs. The adult cranefly pupates from a larva, a grey grub commonly called a leatherjacket from the appearance and durability of its ‘skin’ that lives underground, feeding on the stems and roots of plants. All summer long these leatherjackets munch away in their underground hideaways, doing the plants on whose roots they are feeding no good at all. Not only that, some birds … particularly starlings … enjoy a tasty feed on leatherjackets and are prone to stab their beaks into a lovingly-cultivated green sward, damaging the precious turf in their bid to catch a leatherjacket or ten. Cricket wicket carers, bowling green tenderers and award-winning lawn lovers do tend to wish these grubs ill. Farmers, too, can be seriously affected by a plague of leatherjackets in fields of cultivated grass crops.

But the adult craneflies … the daddy-longlegs many of us dislike … actually have very short lives and spend most of their brief time on this earth ensuring the survival of their species. The males among these brown, long-bodied insects with their spindly, easily-damaged legs seek out females with which to breed; and the females’ principal concern during their short adult lives is to find suitable places in grassed areas where they can lay the eggs which will hatch into next year’s crop of leatherjackets. During these frantic few days, craneflies are usually too preoccupied to take time to eat; and they certainly do not seek to sample any human flesh or blood! But they do seem to be strangely fond of sharing our homes with us and are more often found on windows inside the house during the summer than on the outside of these same windows, their seemingly-preferred habitat in the autumn.

Scientists at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have recently alerted us to the fact that the wet autumn and winter we came through earlier this year has been just what the doctor ordered for these members of the tipulidae insect family. Fewer of the larvae dried out; and, according to the researchers at SRUC, 50% of the fields they sampled contained grub populations in excess of 0.6 million/ha., which is the staggering equivalent of 250 of them on the area of a dining table for four, according to The Scotsman’s Nick Drainey. And, just to make sure we do really look forward eagerly more leatherjackets next year, their numbers are higher in Bute, Dumfriesshire/Kirkcudbrightshire, Stirling/Perthshire and Wigtownshire than elsewhere. So will you be prepared to follow the advice of wildlife charities and gently catch any daddy-longlegs you find sheltering in your house, release them outside unharmed and wish them well for the now very short rest of their lives? I somehow don’t think I will!