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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
What's the point of daddy longlegs?
WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

Daddy longlegs
They only live for a few weeks

There's been an explosion in the population of flying daddy longlegs, but what are the gangly insects for?

There is no escaping them, lolloping around and battering into every window, wall, light and person that gets in their way.

The UK is in the grip of an explosion of daddy longlegs - or crane flies as they are otherwise known - because of the combination of a hot summer followed by heavy rain showers and a dry, warm September.

They are a late autumnal species that peak at this time of year. The larvae - known as leatherjackets - feed through autumn, winter and spring on decaying plant material and plant roots just below the soil surface. These then turn to pupae and new adult flies hatch in September.

The lifespan of an adult is only about two weeks and their purpose is to mate and to die within a few days. There is debate over whether they even eat during their short lives or survive on food reserves stored in their bodies.

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More and more will keep hatching if the weather stays mild into next month. But apart from being a nuisance and frightening people - they were voted the world's second scariest creature after spiders in a recent poll - what's the point of daddy longlegs?

They are an important source of food for creatures that eat insects, including birds and spiders, says ecology professor Guy Poppy, from the University of Southampton.

"Insect eaters will be feasting on all the daddy longlegs at this time of year, a spider web will be full of them."

The larvae also eat decaying plant material and help to recycle nutrients back into the soil.

Ecosystem

But one man's meat is another man's poison. As they feast on plant roots, this proves to be a nightmare for many gardeners - particularly when they gorge on grass roots, leaving bare patches.

"Some people think they are useful and others think they are a pain in the neck. They're definitely not very popular at golf courses," says Professor Poppy.

"It's hard to predict what would happen if all daddy longlegs were eradicated but I don't know of any bird and spider that eats them exclusively. However, as an ecologist I think all life forms have an important role to play in the ecosystem."

Love or hate them, the explosion in numbers could result in an increase in bigger, well-fed spiders... which won't do much for the popularity of daddy longlegs.





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