Yesterday while puttering around outside, I heard Daughter yell from the garage, “Mama, you have to come and see this! It’s a walking stick bug!”. My first thought was that it couldn’t be since I was quite sure we don’t have walking stick insects in our area, and as I was in the middle of adding some compost to my herb garden, I was tempted to ignore her. Yes, it’s true, even devout unschooling parents have those kinds of days!
But then I put myself in her place, felt the excitement in her voice, and imagined what a typical adult party-pooper sounds like to a child. Realizing that was about to be Me, I mustered up some enthusiasm and said “Cool! I’ll be right down!”.
In the garage, up against a wall, was the largest insect I have ever seen in my life. I’d only been staring for a few minutes when it launched into flight, spinning around rather chaotically and landing higher up on a window. It freaked out my poor six-year-old wannabe Naturalist, and I had to spend a few minutes calming her down. The thing was the size of a small hummingbird!
Now fully caught up in the excitement of discovery myself I ran upstairs to get a jar. Once caught, we took it upstairs and grabbed our well-worn copy of Insects of the Pacific Northwest. Eventually we learned that we’d found a Giant Crane Fly: Order Diptera, Family Tipulidae. Scientific name Holorusia rubiginosa.
It died overnight, giving us good opportunity to examine and photograph it. That’s it above, next to a penny for relative size. From tail to snout our specimen measured a whopping 4.5 cm! (Wikipedia describes this species as “reaching up to 3.8 cm”)
H. rubiginosa is one of the largest flies in the world. Pretty cool that it lives here on the West Coast and not in the tropics (they usually get all the cool bugs!). Turns out it’s a “she”. The males are considerably smaller, with thinner abdomens. This discovery helped answer a question that had been nagging at me, too. Growing up I called crane flies “daddy long legs”, but when Daughter became interested in insects we learned that this is a name for a Harvestman insect (an eight-legged insect that is not an arachnid). I then wondered: what was that creature I called a daddy long legs, and why did I get the name wrong? Well, turns out to be a regional thing, of course. In Canada and the UK crane flies are commonly called daddy long legs, whereas in the US it’s the harvestman that’s given the nickname.
Daughter was particularly interested in the crane fly’s vestigial wings, called halteres, because of their paleontological significance. Initially, all flies had two pairs of wings; as they evolved some lost their second set completely whereas others retained them as halteres, which are used to provide stabilization during flight. You can see them better in this photo:
That’s why this Order is called Diptera, because they have two wings.
Finally, Daughter was quite grieved to learn her fly had died overnight, despite providing air holes in the tin foil lid, and a piece of popcorn “in case it got hungry”. Turns out she did nothing wrong: adults only live long enough to mate, and many don’t feed at all during this time. Our fly seems to have died a natural death, though we’re not sure if she had a chance to lay her eggs before her time had come. I’m tempted to dissect the abdomen to find out, but Daughter is too emotionally attached at this point to consent to an autopsy. 😉