Back in April of 2021, we wrote: "They're out there, and you don't have to crane your neck to see them."
The topic: crane flies. They're often mistakenly called "mosquito eaters" or "mosquito hawks." They're neither. They're members of the family Tipulidae of the order Diptera (flies).
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology, emphasizes that crane flies don't eat mosquitoes. "In fact, adult crane flies generally don't eat at all," she points out. "Their entire brief adult lives are spent searching for mates and laying eggs." Crane flies are attracted to lights at night and you may find them around your porch light.
"Adult crane flies emerge from the soil beneath turfgrass, pastures and other grassy areas in late summer and fall," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, part of the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. (We've sighted them only in the spring.) "The adults have very long legs and resemble large mosquitoes. Females mate and lay eggs in grass within 24 hours of emerging. Eggs hatch into small, brown, wormlike larvae that have very tough skin and are commonly referred to as leatherjackets.The leatherjackets feed on the roots and crowns of clover and grass plants during the fall. They spend the winter as larvae in the soil; when the weather warms in spring, they resume feeding. During the day larvae mostly stay underground, but on damp, warm nights they come to the surface to feed on the aboveground parts of many plants. When mature, the larvae are about about 1 to 1½ inch long. Around mid-May they enter a nonfeeding pupal stage and remain just below the soil surface. In late summer, pupae wriggle to the surface and the adults emerge. There is one generation a year."
It's not easy to photograph these slender, gangly, goofy-looking insects that resemble cartoon characters. If you spot them, they take flight. If you shadow them, they vanish. If you creep up upon them, they creep faster. If you say "Oh, well, Mr. Crane Fly, I didn't want to take your picture today anyway!"--that's when they pose.
I captured this image of a crane fly taking a break in a Spanish lavender bed on May 23, 2023. The morning light was just right.
The predators? They include lady beetles (aka ladybugs), spiders, milkweed bugs, assassin bugs, wasps and birds. Parasitoids? The major ones here in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville are the tachinid flies. They lay their eggs in or on your caterpillars or on the leaves where your caterpillars will be feeding. The tachinid eggs hatch and develop into larvae that will eat your host from the inside out. (We like tachinid flies when they lay eggs in such pests as tomato hornworms or cabbage loopers.)
So we have these magical, miraculous monarch moments in our indoor nursery (the kitchen counter) and I'm sort of the midwife who lends a helping hand. The 15 eggs I collected have hatched and are now second or third-instars. Monarchs go through five instars before they pupate.
When the egg hatches, the caterpillar is a first instar. It's a pale gray, light green or transparent, and is easily distinguishable by its black head. The first thing it does is eat its eggshell. Then it starts devouring milkweed.
With the third instar, the caterpillar coloring is darker and more distinct. "The third (and later) instars respond to disturbance by dropping off the leaf and curling into a tight ball," according to Monarch Joint Adventure. "Monarch biologist Fred Urquhart called this behavior playing possum."
Some of our tiny 'cats are still in those lidded salsa container cups, with a "floor" of a damp tissue to keep the fresh leaf from drying out. This is how naturalist Greg Kareofelas, associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, does it. (See Bug Squad blog). He inserts one 'cat per container. And it's important to change the leaves and empty the frass (droppings) at least once, preferably twice a day. The 'cats can skeletonize the leaves quickly. (Like ravenous teen-agers, they'll eat more than you think they will!)
When the 'cats become third-instars, like graduating from the first grade to the third grade, we change their environment. Out of the lidded containers they go, and onto leaves tucked into water-filled floral tubes. We place the tubes inside a netted, zippered butterfly habitat container, like the ones that the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis (temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic) sells. If the caterpillars are not confined, they will wander away to pupate--perhaps on your cell phone cord as one of ours, an Indiana Jones or Indiana Joan, did.
Usually we raise monarchs from caterpillars, not eggs, because the 'cats are easier to detect. (This Bug Squad blog offers some of our "monarch starting kit" tips. Key to the starting kit is a heavy, flat-bottomed, narrow-necked tequila bottle.)
Meanwhile, the 15 'cats are doing what 'cats do--they are eating. They're safe and sound and out of reach of the predators and parasitoids and other threats that could kill them.
Once the adults are released into the neighborhood, though, they are fair game for birds, praying mantids and the like. Maybe some monarchs from our magical, miraculous monarch nursery will make it to the overwintering sites along coastal California and the cycle will begin again.
Silkworm moth expert İsmail Şeker, a Turkish medical doctor and author of a book showcasing his hobby, displayed the eggs, larvae, pupae, adults, as well as silk fabric, and fielded questions from the audience.
Seker showed his newly produced 13-minute video detailing the history of the silkworm moth and its life cycle. The crowd marveled at his macro photography and exquisite videography. Assisting him at the presentation were his grandson, Emre, 7, and granddaughter, Ruya, 4. Their father, Erkin Seker, is an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
The silkmoth, Bombyx mori, domesticated in China more than 5,000 years ago, belongs to the family Bombycidae, The life cycle: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Their food: mulberry leaves.
The caterpillars are celebrated for spinning silk; each cocoon is comprised of a single strand of raw silk from 1000 to 3000 feet long. It takes about 2000 to 3000 cocoons to make a pound of silk. Worldwide, silkworms produce some 70 million pounds of raw silk, requiring nearly 10 billion cocoons.
The adults cannot fly, and neither eat nor drink. They mate, lay eggs, and the cycle continues.
Seker donated cocoons for the Bohart Museum's family craft activity and watched visitors gleefully turn the cocoons into decorated finger puppets.
Among the visitors: 40 students from the Samuel Jackson Middle School and the James Rutter Middle School, Elk Grove Unified School District, in a program offering special educational opportunities and mentoring. The youths wore t-shirts lettered with "The Power of Us" on the front, and "Resilient, Authentic, Passionate" on the back. Academic mentor Keishawn Turner said the group toured the campus, had lunch, and ended the day by attending a UC Davis football game.
(More photos of the open house pending in the next Bug Squad)
The Bohart Museum is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane. It houses a global collection of nearly eight million specimens. It is also the home of the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of the insect biodiversity. The Bohart Museum maintains a live "petting zoo," featuring Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks or stick insects, tarantulas, and praying mantids. The museum's gift shop, open year around, includes T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.
Director of the museum is Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis. The staff includes Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist; Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator; and Jeff Smith, who curates the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) section.
More information on the Bohart Museum is available on the website at http://bohart.ucdavis.edu or by contacting (530) 752-0493 or email@example.com.