Updated on November 18, 2022
Summer can be a great time for vacations or enjoying the great outdoors, but it also comes with some serious problems. Ants, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, and many other critters are far more active during this time of year. But there’s one that seems to generate a lot more fear in some people: crane flies.
But just what are crane flies and why are they such a huge problem? Let’s take a good look to find out and what you can do to get rid of them.
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Getting to Know Crane Flies
These spindly insects have a wide variety of nicknames, such as mosquito eaters, skeeter-eaters, and mosquito hawks. While often mistaken for mosquitos, they’re actually from the fly family Tipulidae, which has over 15,000 species across 525 genera.
One of the most common descriptions of crane flies is “a daddy long legs with wings”, and that’s not horribly far off. However, unlike actual daddy longlegs (AKA harvestmen), crane flies are insects.
They have an elongated abdomen and long, spindly legs that make crane flies resemble oversized mosquitoes. An adult crane fly can measure up to 1-1/2 inches long.
Crane fly larvae are known as leatherjackets and tend to be cylindrical in shape. Leatherjackets can vary greatly in description, with some being smooth, some hairy, some with the head exposed and some with head retracted. In fact, there’s even a wide variety of places they can be found, including both in water and on dry land.
Adult crane flies live for 10 to 15 days but are able to copulate immediately upon emerging from the pupa. The female’s eggs are already fully developed, and are oviposited as soon as they’re fertilized – sometimes even in mid-air!
However, it’s more common for them to be deposited in water or on dry ground, and a single female can lay up to 300 eggs. This usually happens around mid-September.
The eggs hatch in October and the leatherjackets will remain underground until near the end of the following summer when they enter the pupal stage.
Do Crane Flies Eat Mosquitoes?
Unfortunately, this is a very old and very widespread myth. In fact, mosquito eaters pretty much don’t eat anything at all during their brief adult life! However, there is a small grain of truth to this old wives’ tale.
Leatherjackets have a rather voracious appetite. During their time underground or otherwise sheltered, they readily feast upon algae, fungi, roots, seedlings, and even decomposing wood. However, some species are also predatory and will feed upon smaller insects, invertebrates, and – you guessed it – mosquito larvae.
Now, we’re not saying it’s not possible the sometimes predatory nature of leatherjackets led to the reputation for mosquito devouring that adult crane flies have been given. However, considering it was once considered scientific fact that ferrets and skunks gave birth through their ears (we’re being totally serious here), it’s far more likely the nicknames are completely undeserved.
Why Are So Many People Scared of Crane Flies?
Tipulophobia is the psychological term for a person who has an irrational fear of crane flies, and it’s surprisingly one of the more common critter phobias.
It’s widely believed that the fear is based on our instincts to avoid large and potentially dangerous bugs, but this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, the fear is more likely related to the long, thin legs or a fear of being stung by something that looks like a mosquito than anything else.
However, there is one legitimate reason for homeowners to be afraid of crane flies, which we’ll discuss a little later on.
Can Crane Flies Bite or Sting You?
Despite resembling giant mosquitoes, adult crane flies are completely harmless and lack the ability to bite or sting.
Their long abdomens and sometimes long mouthparts may look dangerous, but they’re unable to damage human skin. In fact, adult crane flies generally don’t even eat, as their only purpose is reproduction.
Why Do Crane Flies Fly At Your Face?
Having a large mosquito-looking bug heading straight for your face can be scary, but they’re not doing it to be aggressive. Despite what some sources may tell you, they’re not after your blood or trying to lay eggs on you. Instead, they’re reacting to a visual stimulus that affects many insects.
If you’ve ever taken a good look at an artist’s rendition of a ball, you’ll see the light and shadow. But if you look closer, you can actually see a sliver of light at the very edge of the shadowed portion of the ball.
It’s this phenomenon of light curving around an object that causes the attraction. Moths will fly to a flame trying to reach the darkness behind it, while crane flies and many other bugs will be attracted to bare skin because of the way it reflects light.
Remember, insects see in a totally different visual spectrum than we do, and light reflectivity plays a major role in how many insects navigate the world round them.
What Causes a LOT of Crane Flies?
A single adult female can lay 300 eggs in her short lifetime, and these small (usually black) eggs tend to go unnoticed. As the larvae live primarily underground, they’re mostly safe from predators, meaning you can have a sudden population explosion in early fall that seem to come out of nowhere.
Rainy weather, especially during the fall, can increase the number of eggs that successfully hatch.
You may also find crane flies amassing around your home in the evening during their brief lifespan. This is usually due to porch lights or the lights filtering out of windows. Crane Flies will be attracted to these lights just like moths and many other flying pests.
But there’s a very easy way to tell if you’re going to have a lot of crane flies long before the adults even emerge from their pupal stage, and this is where the true terror lies for many homeowners and businesses.
The True Horror of Crane Flies
There is a very good reason many home and business owners begin to fret when they see an adult crane fly, but it isn’t the adults they’re actually worried about, it’s the leatherjacket larvae.
These wormlike critters can cause extensive damage to lawns and gardens. In fact, they’ve been known to cause mass destruction even in sports fields!
Leatherjackets mainly target smaller root systems, such as that of grasses. However, they’ll also go after the roots of other plants such as many garden flowers. Herbaceous stems and new seedlings are common prey as well.
If you remember the popular children’s book The Hungry Caterpillar, you’ll have an idea of how hungry a leatherjacket can be. Only they don’t just feast for a week, they keep on going from autumn until late summer!
Lawns affected by a leatherjacket infestation can suffer yellow or brown patches where the roots have been destroyed. Newly seeded patches may fail to grow, with the seedlings being devoured as fast as they sprout. Flowering plants may suffer symptoms similar to root rot.
But that’s not the end of the terror. Grub eaters such as skunks, gophers, groundhogs, and many species of birds will descend upon your already ailing lawn or garden, tearing holes all over the place in search of these tasty morsels.
In the end, your poor lawn will look like a warzone, which can take a year or two to even begin to repair (if it ever does). The damage to gardens may also be extensive but a little less apparent until it’s too late.
Crane Fly vs Mosquito
While they may look similar at a glance, crane flies and mosquitoes have a few major differences.
Crane flies tend to be much larger than mosquitoes with a far broader wingspan. They measure up to 1-1/2 inches long, and can have wingspans of 2-1/2 to a whopping 4-1/2 inches for a few select species. Meanwhile, mosquitoes have smaller bodies and their wingspan isn’t much larger than their body length.
Mosquitoes have decently long legs, but nothing like a crane fly. In fact, the legs might be the first thing you notice on a crane fly.
Oddly enough, there’s another difference with the legs that further makes it easy to tell the two insects apart – crane flies have detachable legs that can break off simply by bumping into walls, whereas mosquitoes aren’t likely to lose limbs unless you physically yank them off. So if you see a mosquito with five legs, it’s probably a small crane fly.
Simply put, mosquitoes feed on blood whereas adult crane flies generally don’t eat anything. As much as we hate mosquitoes for this, it would be worse if it were the other way around.
Both a mosquito and crane fly might fly towards you, but the flight patterns will be different. A mosquito will look for a patch of bare skill to land on so they can feed.
Crane flies will have a more erratic flight pattern as they’re actually not trying to land on you but instead to fly around you chasing that sliver of reflected light we mentioned earlier.
As a result, crane flies are known to bump into walls, circle lights, and act generally as clumsy as a stinkbug. Mosquitoes are far more focused and will fly with a clear purpose in mind.
How to Get Rid of Crane Flies
Crane flies can sometimes get into your home but will usually be found outside. Dealing with the adults is fairly easy, but the leatherjackets are another matter.
Some good news, though: Crane flies are not known to ever lay eggs indoors, even in potted plants, so you will only have to deal with the larvae outdoors.
In the House
As mentioned, you only have to deal with adults indoors, and they’re honestly a snap to get rid of.
Hanging fly paper will often attract them as the light reflects seductively whenever the strip moves.
Bug zappers are also excellent options and can be hung out of reach of children and pets. These work best when you’re not in the room and other lights are turned off. Of course, you can simply swat them like any other fly.
In the Yard
Leatherjackets are the real threat outdoors, but we’ll give you a few ways to take care of the adults as well so they have les change of reproducing. There are many ways to deal with these pests, but we’ll focus on a few of the most effective.
While you certainly don’t want them digging up your yard for grubs, having some birdhouses on the property will attract insectivore birds that will hunt down adult crane flies as soon as they emerge. Just be sure to also provide a bird feeder (this is a good one) so your fine feathered allies will stick around. Starlings LOVE crane flies.
Another staunch ally is the beneficial nematode. These microscopic critters can be either helpful or harmful, so be sure you’re getting the right kind!
Steinernema feeliae is one of the more popular species and they absolutely love feasting on leatherjackets. Beneficial nematodes also aid in decomposition and will attack several underground pests. You can purchase nematodes online or in garden centers.
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Neem Cakes and Soil Soaks
These two products are great for your lawn and garden. You’ll want to get 100% cold-pressed raw neem oil for the soak. It’s a natural extract from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica) and neem cakes are the solids left over from the extraction process.
You can use neem cakes as a fertilizer supplement and they contain trace amounts of Azadirachtin, the main active chemical in neem oil.
Neem is non-toxic to humans and pets, can be used on food crops 24 hours before harvesting, and won’t harm earthworms or other beneficial critters when used right. Just be careful using them near water features that have fish or other aquatic life, as neem can be toxic to some aquatic species.
Neem soil soaks are a powerful and effective tool against all sorts of pests. Few plants have a sensitivity to the oil (always test some diluted neem on a tiny part of a plant a day before using neem treatments just to be safe), and it won’t harm anything that isn’t piercing or chewing on your plant.
Mixing a neem soil soak can get a little complicated when using for an entire lawn, so be sure to follow the instructions on your neem oil’s packaging. However, for covering smaller spaces, you can use one teaspoon per quart of emulsified water or two tablespoons per gallon.
Emulsified water is simply a teaspoon of Dawn dish soap mixed into your water (it’s the same per quart or gallon) to break the surface tension so oils can be mixed in.
Pour this around the base of your plants at watering time and it will soak into the ground, killing grubs, harmful nematodes, and leatherjackets. The plant will then soak the oil up, turning it into a systemic insecticide that lasts for up to 22 days. You can reapply every other week to deal with major infestations or every three weeks as a preventative.
Pest Control and Insecticides (The Last Resorts)
Sometimes the methods above just aren’t enough due to a massive infestation and you need to pull out the big guns. Insecticides designed for lawn use can kill leatherjackets, but may also kill beneficial insects, so use them only when necessary.
Azatin O is one of the few insecticides that target leatherjackets but it’s intended for professional use and therefore not in the budget of most homeowners.
Meanwhile, you might need to call in a pest control company for major lawn issues. They’ll assess the problem and come up with a solution, then treat all infested areas. This is a great way to deal with big areas, but it’s also the most expensive option.
Keeping Crane Flies Away
Keeping crane flies from appearing involves mainly the use of natural predators and neem soil soaks (both described above). However, you can also keep them away by using some simple tricks that work against many flying insects:
- Use citronella candles outdoors for a form of light that bugs will avoid.
- Don’t turn on outside lights when you aren’t using them, as this can attract bugs.
- Never open windows that have broken screens or lack screens. Also, don’t leave doors wide open unless there is a screen door to block entry.
- Turn lights off when you’re not in a room to prevent attracting bugs to your windows at night.
- Avoid sources of standing water, as these can be breeding grounds for mosquitoes, crane flies, and other insects.
- Don’t overwater your lawn and garden and regularly maintain them. Crane flies are less likely to lay eggs in places where there’s a high risk of them being destroyed, and they’ll also try to find moist or humid locations, as moist conditions are necessary for the eggs to properly hatch.
Finally, be proactive. If you’ve encountered adult crane flies in your yard or home, automatically conclude you are going to have leatherjackets over the next year and prepare your battle plan immediately.