Big Daddy

They’re big and startling but essentially harmless. — Kit Sidh/Creative Commons

They’re big and startling but essentially harmless. — Kit Sidh/Creative Commons

Summer is rapidly drawing to a close and the harvestmen are among us again. I’m not talking about field workers but rather the skinny-legged critters also known as daddy longlegs.

You’ve no doubt seen these critters clambering over the vegetation or splayed out on your walls, occupying a good bit of space with leg spans of six inches or more. I have read that they “rarely” get inside. Really? So why do I find them rappelling up my shower curtain and scrambling across the ceiling, startling the bejeezus out of me?

Although they look like a living, breathing reincarnations of the invaders from Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” there’s nothing to fear from these guys. One internet rumor has it that they are the most poisonous creatures on earth, but their jaws are just too short to pierce human flesh and inflict a gruesome death. Falsehood! Slander!

While daddy longlegs fall into the large classification of arachnids (a group including spiders and ticks), they are NOT spiders but rather members of a distinct group called Opiliones. They lack two of the salient features of spiders -- venom and the ability to spin silken webs. Plus, instead of being segmented, their bodies appear to be a single, fused unit, a unitary glob at the center of a constellation of thread-like legs.

There’s one more distinction. Where spiders have eight eyes, daddy longlegs have only two (although you may have to get really, really close to figure this out). In fact, harvestmen don’t see all that well, but here’s where their longest and most sensitive legs help out.

The second pair, counted from the front, is constantly tapping the ground and feeling the way ahead as a blind man might use a cane. This sensory input helps the daddy longlegs sense its environment and suss out whether it might include the two most important things in a daddy longleg world: food and a mate.

The harvestmen (and women) like to meet and greet, and co-join enthusiastically at every opportunity. The female lays eggs a few at a time in damp wood cracks or the ground while her mate stands over her like a blown-out umbrella, keeping watch. In the north, only the eggs survive winter and the adults perish; in the south, daddy longlegs can live for two years.

Sometimes these gregarious opiliones gather in large groups, which look unsurprisingly like a nest of hairs. There’s no harm in this, either. It’s just a bit of fun or perhaps a technique to stay warm. Daddy longlegs aren’t out to get you, your children or your crops.

Daddy longlegs, looking for a meal and a mate. — cruadinx/Creative Commons

Daddy longlegs, looking for a meal and a mate. — cruadinx/Creative Commons

In fact, they are beneficial as clean-up crew, consuming ants, aphids, small beetles and caterpillars, flies, mites and other unappealing little garden pests. If all else fails, they will eat one another. Like a cat, they are meticulous in their toilet, washing up after every meal by drawing their seven-segmented legs through their jaws, one by one.

Those skinny legs can be a live-saver. Harvestmen can shed a leg without issues, leaving a wriggling appendage in the jaws of a predator while the daddy scampers away. In time, they can grow a new leg but many amputees get by with fewer than the regulation eight.

The daddy longlegs does have one other weapon in its arsenal – it makes a stink. This secretion is intended to spoil the appetite of would-be predators like birds or mice. I have never detected this smell myself (and I’ve let daddy longlegs crawl up and over my hands) but Callie the Sheltie invariably sneezed when she gleefully explored them with a poke of her nose. There must be something to it.

Daddy longlegs sometimes get a bad rap because they are confused with other critters that, in the usual confusion, share the same common name. The Brits call the long-legged crane fly a “daddy longlegs,” and there’s another arachnid in the Pholcid group known as the “daddy longlegs spider.”

The latter is a true spider, often inhabiting cellars, and this one is said to be venomous. Attacks on humans are virtually unknown, though, and science hasn’t even tested its venom to see how it rates on the toxic substance meter.

Around the world, our daddy longlegs are known by other names. The Native American version translates to “Feet of Hairs.” The French also associate them with the harvest, calling them the equivalent of “haymaker” or “reaper.” And the Germans just get straight to the facts with the prosaic “afterspinnen,” meaning pseudo-spider.

A daddy longlegs might come in handy if you have lost your cows. Tradition says that if you hold one by seven legs (without them falling off, of course), the eighth leg will point in the direction where the runaway cows may be found. Tradition also says that if you kill a daddy longlegs on purpose, it will rain.

Give us all a break and spare them. We’ve had enough rain, thank you. And the average daddy longlegs isn’t bothering anyone. It’s just trying to get by like most of us. Hey – if it finds dinner and a date, it’s living the life.