The Orchid Named for an Insect

Crane fly (Platytipula sp.)  ~ photo by artyangel/Pixabay

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.

Buds of the Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor)

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.


Comments always are welcome.

49 thoughts on “The Orchid Named for an Insect

    1. That’s interesting. We call a different creature ‘daddy long-legs.’ I found this short paragraph that helps to explain things:

      “The term “daddy longlegs” most properly refers to an arachnid in the order Opiliones, which are also called harvestmen… This outdoor arachnid typically lives under logs or rocks. Unlike spiders, it has only one pill-like body segment. It also has only two eyes, does not spin webs, and is not venomous… It has eight very long legs that can be 30 times as long as its body.

      In the Southern United States as well as some parts of Canada and the United Kingdom, the crane fly is also sometimes called a daddy longlegs… This distinctive bug, with six long legs and two large wings, is not a spider, nor an arachnid, but is an insect.”

        1. The first thing that came to mind was the Muscat grape — and Muscadine jelly. It looks like there might be an etymological connection there, too.

  1. I grew up listening to my mom call them “skeeter-eaters.” She encouraged them into the house, believing that old wives’ tale. And, yes, our cat left half-dead, partially chewed ones on all the window sills in the spring.
    The orchid, on the other hand, is news to me.
    With all the drought and zero temps, I’m just hoping for SOMETHING to bloom this spring (besides “skeeter-eaters”).

    1. I’ve heard ‘skeeter-eater,’ too, and I have a friend who still believes the tale and rejoices when she finds one in the house. As for cats, their affection for craneflies seems pretty well documented. Dixie Rose loved it when one appeared, although her chasing after them caused more chaos than the insect ever dreamed of.

      Terrestrial orchids generally surprised me when I started finding them in east Texas. I’d always thought of orchids as tropical and hanging from trees. As for blooms in your area — be of good cheer. Look at this photo I found just a couple of days ago.

    1. The best thing about crane flies as a cat toy was that they allowed Dixie Rose to amuse herself. The worst thing about crane flies as cat toys was that they allowed Dixie to amuse herself.

    1. A quick glance showed that you do have crane flies, but mostly a couple species that differ from ours: no surprise there. Apparently warmer and wetter weather allows their numbers to increase, so cold and snowy isn’t high on their list. Maybe that’s why we had such an explosion after our freeze. All those larvae still in the ground were screaming, “Let me out of here!”

    1. I just opened the front door to check the weather conditions, and found a dozen of them scattered around the walls. Whether they were cold, or sleeping after a hard night of flying, I can’t say, but they were fun to see. Now, if only I could walk out and find a dozen crane-fly orchids!

  2. “Leafless flowering stems.” I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard that line before. But there it is in your picture! You do teach me in every post!

    1. GP, I’m always coming across something new in my wanderings, and ‘leafless flowering stem’ is a phrase I can’t remember using before. It’s so interesting to me that the leaf for this one disappears before it blooms. From what I’ve read, the leaf stores energy for the plant in winter, when there’s more sunlight available because the trees have lost their leaves. Then, the leaf withers away, and all that stored energy is available for the flowers. Such a neat package!

  3. As boys in southern Michigan, we always called them giant mosquitos and were afraid they’d deliver a proportionately bigger bite than their smaller “cousins.” We have crane flies here in NZ too; they are often called daddy long-legs here as well.

    1. It’s great fun to come across differences between British and American names for creatures — not to mention descriptive words for other natural phenomenon. I learned recently that one American’s ‘muddy’ may be a Britisher’s ‘clarty.’

      I don’t know how it is in the upper midwest, but down here the mosquito that delivers the biggest punch is the Eastern Saltmarsh Mosquito. They’re particularly annoying because they’re willing to fly — and bite — 24/7. It occurs to me I’ve never heard anyone from New Zealand whine about the whine of mosquitos. I see there are sixteen species there, but some articles say that none are vectors for disease. Is that right?

      1. According to Environmental Health Indicators NZ, published by Massey University, “Five mosquito-borne diseases were detected in New Zealand in 2017, [but] almost all people diagnosed with mosquito-borne diseases in New Zealand, in 2016 and 2017, were thought to have acquired these diseases while travelling overseas. The exception to this was one locally acquired case of Zika in 2016, although this was most likely sexually transmitted.” Here’s the website, in case you’d like to read more:

  4. Craneflies ‘they make perfectly safe play toys for cats.’ Ha, love it!
    Thanks for the orchid introduction, it’s a pretty little thing. Hope you can find the leaves this spring, they sound attractive.

    1. I’m eager to find the leaves, too. If the purple spots truly are as vivid as they appear in some photos, it shouldn’t be hard to spot them in areas where I’ve previously found them. On the other hand, if they’ve decided to rest for a year, I’ll have to depend on serendipity and a sharp eye to find others.

      One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is that make it up to your area. GoBotany has them listed in the area of Cape Cod; I never would have expected that. They don’t appear in any of the surrounding states and, as you might expect, they’re listed as ‘rare.’

      1. That is interesting… I wonder if they are in the lower or upper Cape… I’m betting lower, which has more wooded areas. I used to go to the Cape every year, until it got too crowded, even year round as Boomers retired there.

    1. This orchid isn’t the prettiest (i.e., most colorful) thing in the world, but the gray/green and purple color scheme is evident even in the flowers. I’m hoping not only to find more of the flowers this year, but also more of their flowers in better light. For now, just having seen them is enough.

  5. You made me smile – first at the ‘lollygagging’ – a great description of the way they hang around and then at the ‘perfectly safe play toys for cats’. (Our cats probably think that’s the whole reason for their existence.) We call them daddy long-legs here too.

    1. It’s always fun to find flora and fauna we share: not to mention discovering the attraction crane flies seem to hold for cats on a world-wide basis. England, Scotland, and New Zealand have checked in now with ‘daddy long-legs’ as an alternate name. I suspect the Canadians might, too.

      I recommend lollygagging for humans as well as craneflies, although my mother was given to telling me to “Stop lollygagging!” when I wasn’t getting with the program as a child.

  6. All very interesting, Linda. I think that crane flies are also referred to as Daddy Longlegs even though that term more correctly indicates a long-legged spider. Years ago I knew a woman who used to call them Harry Longlegs, so she had them personalized! As you say, their mission in life is to have sex and die!

    1. When an early comment mentioned ‘Daddy Longlegs’ as an alternate name, I went looking, and found this enlightening description:

      ““The term “daddy longlegs” most properly refers to an arachnid in the order Opiliones, which are also called harvestmen… This outdoor arachnid typically lives under logs or rocks. Unlike spiders, it has only one pill-like body segment. It also has only two eyes, does not spin webs, and is not venomous… It has eight very long legs that can be 30 times as long as its body.”

      “In the Southern United States as well as some parts of Canada and the United Kingdom, the crane fly is also sometimes called a daddy longlegs… This distinctive bug, with six long legs and two large wings, is not a spider, nor an arachnid, but is an insect.”

      Inquiring minds want to know: did you ever ask your friend how she distinguished between Harry Longlegs and Harriet?

      By the way, Those of the Gray Wind arrived. I’ve only glanced through it at this point, but the Zuni prayers are entrancing. I’m looking forward to reading the entire book tonight.

  7. I’m familiar with Crane Flies, and I also suffered from the mosquito eating delusion for years. I’m glad you qualified the orchid’s resemblance to the insect with “supposed.” I kinda-sorta see the resemblance, but it takes as much imagination for me as seeing the supposed shape of some astronomical constellations.

    They would make wonderful cat toys, although I’m not sure I’d like to witness the damage to either the house or the Crane Fly.

    And can any of those who call Crane Flies “daddy longlegs” tell us what they call the spider we call “daddy longlegs?” Harvestmen, maybe?

    1. I suppose that long nectar tube looked like a cranefly body to someone, and the opened sepals and petals like the insect’s wings. Still, pareidolia clearly was at play, just as it was when the constellations were named. Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering, “If I’d met this as a nameless plant, what would I call it.” In this case, I still haven’t come up with an option, but cranefly probably wouldn’t have occurred to me.

      I finally got the complexities of the daddy longlegs name straight in my mind. The term’s used for three different creatures: a crane fly, Tipula sp.; a house spider, Pholcus phalangioides; and a harvestman Metaphalangium spp. This article from the Burke Museum has a few more details, and some helpful drawings. It seems that the British-influenced do call ‘our’ daddy longlegs harvestment, but I’m not sure who gives the actual spider that name.

  8. I’ve heard of a few orchids named for various other things but never a crane fly until your post. I’ve seen many Tipula species but no Platytipulas so both your highlighted species are news to me. Good news. As a kid we always thought the crane flies were male mosquitoes and were told they did not bite which is true…at least they don’t bite humans.

    1. In the process of reading about the crane flies, I learned that the adults (both male and female) don’t bite anything at all. In fact, they mostly don’t eat. I suppose when your lifespan is 48-72 hours, eating is less important.

      If you ever make it over to Cape Cod and are roaming wooded areas, you’ll have to look for this one. Go Botany confirms the rumor; it can be found in that area of your state, although it’s rare. On the other hand, these were growing beneath beech trees, so…

      This is the plant I was struggling to photograph when we had that discussion about the use of a reflector. It didn’t help me out much with these, but that may have been because I was awkward when it came to using the reflector. I finally gave that up and just gave it a go with the camera.

      1. There are several insects that do not eat as adults such as Mayflies who only live a few hours so just have time to mate and then die.

        I haven’t been to the Cape since my father died in 2014. But I am sure I will at some point. It is generally crawling with people everywhere but my early morning tendency would be an asset.

        Maybe a tip…I often look for a broken branch or twig on the ground to use as a reflector prop. I also use a clamp to support one with one end attached to my tripod. If my subject is too far away to use the tripod as a support, my cable release is often long enough that I can hold it in one had and the reflector in the other while no longer behind the camera..

        1. I thought of the Mayflies, too. I see them here occasionally, but I’ve never seen the kind of large swarms that I’ve come across elsewhere. I smiled at your tips. They make perfect sense, provided one has a tripod, a clamp, and a cable release. I’ve just never had any desire to go that direction. If photography was my primary interest, or if I wanted to truly hone my skills and become a professional, it would be a different story. For now, I’m content to just wander with the camera — although I will give that twig trick a try!

          1. I’ll admit that just wandering with the camera sounds nice after freezing my fingers while spending so much time trying to get “perfect” shots of things this winter. I’ve not seen swarms of mayflies either although I have read about experiences others have had.

            1. And….in addition to cold fingers, I do miss a lot of spontaneous shots that you and Steve would get carrying and hand holding a camera. Pluses and minuses.

            2. It’s the old “different folks, different strokes” dynamic. It’s also a matter of an occasional lack of patience on my part. I’ll spend a half hour with a given flower or bird, but my eagerness to see what’s happening elsewhere tends to make me less willing to do the detail work that leads to the kind of phenomenal images you and Steve produce. I suspect part of it’s that I began appreciating nature so late in life. I want to see as much as I can, while I can.

    1. I hope so, too. I was going to head to east Texas yesterday, but I got a late start. Maybe next weekend — especially since it’s going to be spring break, and not a lot of college kids head to deep east Texas where the rare plants grow. I’ll stay away from Galveston, that’s for sure!

  9. Haven’t seen too many crane flies so far this year but did notice a few. Growing up in Fort Worth we were terrified of them. They would come in the house and I would panic. I had forgotten about them when we moved to Florida and when I came back I was reminded of how terrified I used to be! Thankfully I’m a little more reasonable about them these days but I don’t think I can look at them in awe quite yet!

    1. Isn’t it interesting how the simplest, least threatening things can give us the heebie-jeebies? I suppose it’s their size, and their undeserved reputation as biters that plays into it. For years, my nemesis was dragonflies. I finally decided it was their noise that got to me, and the way they darted around. Something noisy I couldn’t keep track of just made me nervous. I’m a little more reasonable about them myself, now — although I still wish they’d slow down a little, so I can get some photos of them.

    1. On the other hand, they don’t eat once they’ve hatched, and they only mate once, so maybe 72 hours is enough. That, and a little lollygagging, and the end is nigh!

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