The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Watch for Daddy Longlegs in Summer
by Ro Wauer

As summer comes on we can expect to see our familiar, long-legged daddy longlegs once again. Also known as harvestmen, a name derived from their appearance at about harvest time. In Europe, large numbers of harvestmen are considered signs of a good harvest, and it is unlucky to kill one. Although these long-legged creatures have been out and about since early spring, in summer the young daddy longlegs venture out into the open, appearing in our fields and gardens and in our barns and other structures, and we become aware of their presence. At my home near Mission Valley, I have already found a few individuals moving about; that number in likely to increase dramatically in a few weeks.

Most often, daddy longlegs are lumped with spiders, but they actually belong to a unique family of arthropods known as Phalangiidae. They differ from spiders in that they have no constriction, or waist, between their front part and abdomen. Also, their legs are much longer than that of spiders. That gives them a rather awkward appearance, but they are able to move surprisingly fast when necessary. And they also have a strange habit of moving up and down, like doing deep knee bends, when disturbed. Finding congregations of several dozen daddy longlegs gyrating in unison can be unnerving.

Their eight legs seem extremely fragile, and they sometimes get entangled in cracks, weeds, or whatever, but when that occurs, they simply discard the entangled leg and move on; they are able to grow a new one in no time. Their legs, however, are stronger than they appear.

Another major difference between daddy longlegs and spiders is the former’s lack of silk glands. They, therefore, are unable to spin webs. And they lack poison glands of any kind; they defend themselves by emitting a foul odor that humans very rarely notice. Daddy longlegs feed on spiders, mites, and small insects, which they run down and capture. They also suck juices from soft fruit, vegetables, and decaying materials.

About 200 kinds of daddy longlegs occur in North America, some with a 3-inch leg span, but they all look basically alike. The females lay eggs in the ground, under rocks or in crevices in wood prior to the first frost. Unlike the eggs of insect, they do not hatch until spring. The majority of the adults do not survive the winter. Here in South Texas, some individuals make it through the winter by hibernating under rubbish and in damp, warm locations. The survivors appear in spring, but they do not become commonplace until the new crop is out in summer.

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