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Biodiversity Blog

 

Austin Spring Insects: Crane Flies

Picture1 
 A female Tipula crane fly in an Austin garden

Spring continues to roll through Austin, paying no heed to our human worries of viruses and lockdowns. Rains fall, trees leaf out, bluebonnets speckle the roadsides, and crane flies flutter clumsily across our lawns.

Crane flies?

Few insects are as strongly evocative of the Texan spring as crane flies, the leggy insects that appear in number as soon as warm weather arrives. Contrary to lore, these large insects are not mosquitoes, nor are they predators of mosquitoes. They are their own group, the family Tipulidae, recognizable by their endless legs, threadlike antennae, snouted faces, and a distinct U-shaped impression on their backs.

Picture2 
 The lovely green eyes of an adult crane fly.

These ubiquitous insects spend most of their lives underground as wingless, legless, camouflaged grubs feeding on decaying plant matter and roots. The larvae actually increase microbial activity in the soil as they process the organic matter. Most people only see crane flies when they emerge as winged adults in February and March. Most species, with their excessive legs and drooping bodies, do not feed as adults. Instead, they are mere ephemeral beings. They search for mates. They lay eggs. They die.

Crane flies are gentle insects that cannot bite and avoid us when they can. Far from being pests, they form an important, protein-rich food source for birds that rear their clutches in spring. Some are also nectar feeders, assisting a little with pollination.

Our common urban species are large flies the genus Tipula, most accidental imports from Europe that thrive in our cultivated lawns and gardens. Texas hosts dozens of native species as well. As we find ourselves with extra time at home and around our neighborhoods this spring, spare some time to watch these gentle insect giants.

Picture3 

A developing crane fly pupa in the leaf litter of an Austin garden bed.

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