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October 5, 2010 > Pat Kite's Garden: Daddy-long-legs

Pat Kite's Garden: Daddy-long-legs

By Pat Kite

My friend "hates" the Daddy-long-legs. She doesn't know why. "They're not spiders. I like spiders, but Daddy-long-legs give me the creeps!" Why aren't they spiders? They are a remote relative, but true spiders have a sort-of waist. Daddy-long-legs don't. Spiders have six to eight eyes. Daddy-long-legs only have two. Spiders have silk to spin webs. No webs for the Daddy-long-legs. And spiders have fangs for killing prey. Daddy-long-legs have no fangs and no jaws, so they can't bite.

Sometimes people call them "Straddlebug," others "Harvestmen." When we had open fields, these were often the first insects seen in the Fall at harvest time. But Daddy-long-legs do make some people rather skittish. Maybe it's those eight very long thread-like legs on a small brownish oval body. Maybe it's the two teensy beady eyes that, in some species, sit up on teeny stalks. One eye looks left, the other peers right. Maybe they're just odd-looking, mine often show up in a bathtub or on a windowsill, sitting right side up or right side down.

Daddy-long-legs chow on small insects and soft organic matter. As they grow, they shed the old skin, leaving behind little beige ghosts with legs. On my well-planted kitchen windowsill, I seem to have a collection of these exoskeletons. Daddy-long-legs molt seven times in their lifetime, which is only about a year. There are male and female daddy-long-legs, although I can never tell which is which. Males are supposed to have longer legs.

They do mate in Autumn. The female has an egg-depositing tube that comes out of her body when needed. The eggs are deposited in wood cracks, under rocks, in the ground. Babies meander out in midsummer. Like their parents, the young use their second pair of legs as feelers, checking for danger. If you are superstitious, you might not want to harm a Daddy-long-legs. If you do, not only will your harvest be poor, your cows will not produce milk. Perhaps you cannot find your cows. In which case you say, "Grandaddy, grandaddy, which way did my old cows go?"

According to folktale, the Daddy-long-legs will lift up one or more legs to point you in the correct searching direction. In parts of New England, children wish on a Daddy-long-legs for good luck. If your child, or grandchild, likes to watch "bugs," a Daddy-long-legs can be kept for a day or two in a large jar. Permit the Daddy-long-legs to walk onto your hand. Be very gentle.

Legs that come off do not grow back. Insert a damp paper towel in the jar to provide moisture. Cover the jar with cloth, keeping the cloth on with a rubber band. If child wants to see the captive phalangid eat, tuck in a few aphids. It might cooperate, or might not. Don't forget to set it free. There are about 200 species of Daddy-long-legs in North America. How many have you noticed?

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