We all know craneflies; gangly, long-legged insects. Mildly annoying but harmless. Sometimes they’ll blunder into your kitchen at night as you open the door to put the recycling out. This autumn though they’ve blundered past Trump and Brexit and into the headlines.
There are 327 species of cranefly in Britain but the one you’ve been chasing round your kitchen is probably Tipula paludosa. Each autumn this cranefly emerges in huge numbers, finds a partner, mates, lays eggs and dies. It’s a tight schedule but paludosa gets it done and dusted in a day. The eggs hatch into underground larvae (‘leatherjackets’) which nibble on grass roots. Leatherjackets thrive in damp soil and, as 2016 started damp, they could potentially have had a better-than-usual survival rate. In the spring the metamorphosis begins and each autumn the adult craneflies will emerge from lawns and fields to share the planet with us for a few days. So there’s your headline: “Something that happens every year about to happen again”.
For some reason this year’s cranefly emergence has also spawned dozens of crazed newspaper articles. Journalists claimed an impressive 200 billion craneflies will be emerging. Now, I have no idea how many craneflies emerge in an average year, but 200 billion of anything sounds like a problem. To make the whole story more menacing our biggest cranefly Tipula maxima (a species which I’ve only seen once and is found in wet woodlands in summer) was chosen as the threatening face for this invasion. Invasion? The language used painted craneflies as a foreign force arriving on our shores. Craneflies have been here since the ice retreated. Surely a residency of 10,000 years qualifies them for British Citizenship?
(Photo: Tipula maxima by Derek Middleton)
The story became more confusing because craneflies are commonly known as Daddy Longlegs. However this colloquial name is also applied to 8-legged harvestmen and to those spindly spiders that live in the corner of your ceiling. By being part of the Daddy Longlegs franchise the cranefly was now implicated in an infamous urban myth. Apparently Daddy Longlegs are the world’s most venomous creatures but without a sting or mouthparts they have no way of administering their poison. Whether you’re a cranefly, harvestman or spider it’s all complete cobblers.
Nevertheless headlines urged us to ‘brace yourselves’ as the ‘plague’ of insects was heading our way. Things started to get personal in The Express who yelled that "for every man, woman and child in the UK there will be 3,000 Daddy Longlegs on the rampage". We reached peak panic when The Star screamed “Apocalyptic invasion of 200 BILLION bugs FOUR INCHES LONG coming to UK homes.” By now the people of Britain were no doubt stocking up on tinned food, barricading their doors and preparing to defend themselves with a rolled up copy of the nearest tabloid.
So far this year I've seen seven craneflies.
2016 has been a year when many of us have relied on the press for information in helping us make some pretty major decisions. Call me a cynic but I’m now wondering that, if they can’t get a simple story about flies right, they may have been wrong about some other things too.