One recent February day, the temperature refused to rise above 28°F, and ice still lurked in the shadows. Two days later, the temperature had risen to 50°, and the ice was gone. Two days after that, I found the first of what would become dozens of over-sized and long-legged insects lollygagging around the outside walls and window screens of my home.
For years after moving to Texas, I called them mosquito hawks, and believed their purpose in life was to eat mosquitos. Eventually, I learned the truth; they’re crane flies, and if they eat anything at all after hatching, it’s unlikely to be anything more than a bit of nectar. After emerging from their larval stage at winter’s end, their only purpose is to mate, lay eggs, and die — all within the space of a very few days.
Some people consider crane flies a nuisance, particularly when they find their way indoors, but they don’t bite, they don’t carry disease, and they make perfectly safe play toys for cats.
Oddly enough, crane flies also have offered their common name to an orchid I discovered deep in the east Texas woods.
The Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), is a perennial terrestrial orchid, and the only species of the genus Tipularia found in North America. In part because of the length of its nectar spurs, it was named for its supposed resemblance to the insect.
Scattered throughout the southeastern United States, the orchids prefer the humus-rich soils of deciduous forests or areas with acid soils, such as oak-pine forests. This group was thriving in deep shade beneath a beech tree in the Big Thicket of east Texas.
When I found the plants last August, their leaves already had disappeared, as they do prior to the orchid’s bloom. The leaf emerges in fall, then withers before flower clusters appears in mid-to-late summer. I’ve never found the oval-shaped leaves, but with luck I might find them this month; with purple undersides and purple spots on top, they should be easy to identify.
The leafless flowering stems, which bloom from the bottom up, can be as much as 20 inches tall; these were somewhat shorter, measuring an average of 12 inches. The flowers’ less than vibrant color, combined with deep shade from the trees and mottled sunlight, made photos somewhat difficult, but summer’s coming, and I may have another opportunity.
Unfortunately, while we can count on an abundance of craneflies each spring, cranefly orchids don’t bloom every year. Perhaps, if this group is taking the year off, another will be waiting.