Susan Straight of Chilmark and Charles Paul Alexander have something in common. They both share an interest in, and have made identifications of, crane flies.

In Susan’s case, she has one crane fly identification to her name. Charles Paul Alexander (you can call him Dr.) found and named over 13,000 species of these insects during his lifetime. To give you a sense of his accomplishment, consider that he found one new species every day for his entire career!

Dr. Alexander, who died in 1981, was an entomologist who specialized in crane flies, and spent much of his insect-investigating career here in Massachusetts at the Massachusetts Agricultural College at Amherst. His extensive personal crane fly collection now resides at the Smithsonian Institute.

Though Susan may lack his fame, her fascination and enthusiasm for this group of insects puts her in his good company.  

Crane flies are true flies in the family Tipulidae. They have been called mosquito hawks, daddy longlegs, mosquito eaters, leather jackets, gallinippers, and galliwhoppers, but some of these aliases are misidentifications and add confusions about the species.

Leather jackets denote the larval stage of the species. Gallinippers, galliwhoppers, and daddy longlegs are names that refer to other species. The former two are mosquitoes, while the latter is an arachnid called the cellar spider. And they have led to a fallacy about crane flies.

The main misconception is that crane flies are venomous and can harm humans. Urban legend cites crane flies as the most venomous insect in the world, but goes on to say that it cannot administer its venom. The first allegation is very wrong; crane flies do not have venom. The second may have some truth in it since crane flies lack the mouth and body parts necessary to bite or sting so are anatomically incapable of doing that sort of harm. You are truly safe from these insects!

And the name that implies that they eat mosquitos is, at best, only partly true. As adults, crane flies do not kill or consume other insects – as mentioned, they can’t bite or sting.  In their larval stage, it is possible that they might munch on the occasional mosquito, but they generally prefer to partake of plants and plant matter, including rotting matter, called detritus.

Crane flies look scarier than they are. The adult fly can be on the large size, loosely resembling a giant mosquito, with a wingspan of up to two and a half inches. Their gangly legs, long, slender body, and segmented antennae add to their clumsy appearance.

The crane fly’s size, though, is no match for its predators. Known as an important food supply, crane flies feed just about everyone. Birds, salamanders, frogs, spiders, and other insects enjoy a crane fly meal, and this insect is especially important for baby birds, most of whom require insect protein to get through the early stages of their development. Fish also regularly consume crane flies, and anglers will use the larger species or create lookalike flies to entice their quarry.

So when you see this gentle giant, remember that there’s no need to go on the attack – it has enough problems from predators.  Instead, take a look and appreciate it. This will at least put you with Susan and the doctor in the coalition of crane fly fans. 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.