No Fleas, but a Cranefly

One of our most abundant spring wildflowers, Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), is everywhere just now: in vacant city lots, alongside roads, and spread across the rural landscape. ‘Fleabane,’ a word rooted in Old English,  may refer to the plant’s odor (said to repel fleas), the ability of dried flowers to send fleas on their way, or the size of the plant’s seeds, which are no larger than fleas.

However accurate the common name, in a field filled with the flowers I found no fleas, but an assortment of bees, skippers, and flies were rejoicing in the nectar and pollen they offered. The surprise was this cranefly, which seemed simply to be resting on the flowers in the early morning stillness. I usually see craneflies on the sides of buildings or fluttering above sidewalks; this one had the good sense to choose a more appealing spot to spend the morning.


Comments always are welcome.

72 thoughts on “No Fleas, but a Cranefly

    1. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? At least they aren’t overgrown mosquitos! I see your stopped by at the post about the crane fly orchid — thank you! I just wish I’d had this photo for that post.

  1. Those are beautiful photos, Linda, especially the crane fly on the blooms. I have known people that have unfortunately sprayed for them simply because they look like large mosquitoes, and hang around on buildings..

    1. That’s akin to killing any spider or snake that shows up. Irrational fears are understandable, but a little knowledge can be a powerful antidote to fear. Years ago, I was prone to the “see spider, smack spider” response, but then I was introduced to the jumping spiders with those huge eyes and cute expressions, and I started to get over it.

  2. Two words in your title call for an Ogden Nash’s limerick:

    A flea and a fly in a flue
    Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
    Said the fly, “let us flee!”
    “Let us fly!” said the flea.
    So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

    1. I thought of that while I was alliterating my way through the first sentence of the second paragraph, but thought someone else might bring Mr. Nash to the party. That’s one of the first bits of doggerel I memorized; I acted it out for a school program in about second grade. It always makes me smile — as does so much of Nash’s work.

    1. The way they spread, I understand how some people might consider them weedy, but spreading in an open field, they’re glorious. I’m always surprised when they appear in spring, because they can be quite tall, and I always have to stop and have a closer look to identify them. By summer, they’ll be gone until next year — but we’ll have plenty of replacements ready to take their place.

  3. crane flies have always been my personal harbinger of spring. when they appear I know that spring is around the corner. spring beat them this year though. and fleabane is blooming in my yard too.

    1. I’ve grown rather fond of the crane flies. If you click on the photo of this one to enlarge it, you can see how long that one rear leg is. I thought at first that it might have been hanging down because it was injured, but not so. After a while, the insect gathered itself and flew off without any problem at all.

      Lucky you, to have fleabane in your yard. Around here everything is manicured to death, but any of the local roads with unmowed ditches are filled with it — and the vacant lots, too.

    1. It’s not easy to judge an insect’s level of happiness, but I’d wager this one was very happy, indeed. They usually don’t eat after hatching, but I’ve read that they’ll occasionally indulge in a little pollen or nectar. Perhaps this one had a double treat that morning: a safe place to bask in the sun, and a taste of sweetness.

  4. Nice shot! Last year was the first time I’ve grown fleabane (erigeron annuus) deliberately. It flowers forever. So now I love it. I wouldn’t expect to see crane flies here until May. Great that you have so many pollinators round already.

    1. It’s great seeing the pollinators, but it’s even better that they’re increasingly able to find sources of nectar and pollen. With the flowers late because of the freeze, it was iffy for a while, but there’s an increasing variety of blooms for them now. Your Erigeron annuus is present in Texas, but it’s not nearly so widespread; the maps show it in only eight counties. E. philadelphicus is present in more than forty of our counties, and all but two of our states. It really is a beauty.

  5. I usually see craneflies as Autumn approaches, not Spring. Hmm, wonder if that’s just a minor difference between our two locations, or if there’s more afoot here. We might never know, but this is a pretty flower for a landing!

    1. I think it’s just a variation, Debbie — perhaps caused by weather conditions. I couldn’t find anything specific to Illinois, but there are articles that talk about them emerging in other places in late summer or fall, so it seems like it’s normal. Around here, they’re a sure sign of spring, so everyone’s happy to see them: especially since those big, clumsy fliers don’t cause trouble for anyone!

    1. Ogden Nash is a treasure, and I learned about the flea and the fly in the flue early in life. Of course, being an Iowa child, I also learned his poem about the cow:

      The cow is of the bovine ilk;
      One end is moo, the other, milk.

    1. I see crane flies all the time, but this is the first time I remember seeing one lingering on a flower. It surprised me a bit, but I recovered enough for a photo!

    1. So do I, although daisies, sunflowers, fleabane, and such actually are a little complicated. One of the first things I learned about them is that they’re “composites.” What I’d always called ‘petals’ actually are ray flowers, and all that pretty yellow business in the flower’s center is another kind of flower: the ‘disk’ flowers. Any time you see a daisy-like flower, it’s part of that huge family of plants. A fancy name for the family’s ‘Compositae,’ but people talk about the daisy, sunflower, or aster family, too.

  6. I wonder if chimney sweeps got the idea for their cleaning brushes? That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw the flower, but of course it’s much prettier and cleaner!!

    1. I’ve got a tube bird feeder cleaning brush that looks much like these, too. As these flowers age, they get a little ragged, with ray flowers going every which way — just like a well-used brush whose bristles are splayed out.

    1. If I were a cranefly with three days to live, I’d head for the flowers rather than the HardiPlank or cement, too.

      As for that trip to the hairdresser — well, as you know, I’ve been browsing some of those vintage photos. Here’s the photo of the antique gizmo. You couldn’t get me to hook up to that one. The card at the top has a quotation from Edith Sitwell. It says, “Why not be oneself? That is the whole secret to a successful appearance. If one is a greyhound, why try to look like a Pekinese?”

    1. One thing I love about this flower is that it’s everywhere. It’s not particularly fussy about growing conditions; in fact, I’ve seen it growing with sunflowers atop piles of dirt at construction sites. Spunky, that one! I couldn’t believe how long this cranefly’s legs were. I wondered how he could keep track of them all.

    1. I’m pleased to see it blooming so enthusiastically. The freeze has meant that many of the flowers that would be available to pollinators now are only beginning to bloom, so every extra flower counts.

    1. I found this page dedicated to your Erigeron (or at least one species) and the similarities are obvious. I smiled at the habitat “requirements” of yours. It would be just as easy to say “everywhere.” That’s pretty much true for this one, although it doesn’t like truly wet or swampy conditions.

      1. Strange I don’t see white erigeron in gardens here as they’re pretty enough. Next season I’ll keep a more careful lookout for them!

  7. Is there also a little caterpillar munching away a little lower in the first photo?
    Yes, the use of sprays to kill anything that flies is a bad habit.
    Great shots of a lovely flower.

    1. I looked at the original file, and I think what you’re seeing is the bottom fringe from one of the buds. It does look caterpillarish: all fluffy and such. I agree with you about spraying, although I’m willing to make allowances for mosquitoes. There are new ways that aren’t as destructive as the old DDT was, and organizations or governmental agencies that do the spraying are much better about providing information and allowing people to seek exemptions for their property.There’s a lot more education these days, and a lot more people keeping eyes on what’s going on.

    1. Let’s put it this way: some people used to believe that dried fleabane repels fleas. I suppose someone, somewhere, might have written a thesis about it, but all I found were unsubstantiated reports. On the other hand, I know people who put Osage orange around to repel insects, and I just read about using shaved Dial soap to keep rabbits out of gardens. As Grandma used to say, it might be truth, or it might be apple butter!

        1. Daddy used the same quote, but he used a different word in place of ‘apple butter.’ It was the same word he sometimes combined with ‘shinola.’

          1. Too funny. I think I use just about the same version of the quote and it comes in quite handy sometimes- but I can not say it in public. I once saw a version of this on a bumper sticker on my way to work.

  8. We have this species in our yard which is probably why Bentley, like our other beagles, has no fleas. I wonder if anyone ever lost their train of thought doing the she/he loves me thing with one of these. That’s a lot of petals. Cranefly wing patterns are among my favorites.

    1. It never occurred to me that anyone would try that loves me/loves me not thing with this flower. It’s not the number of petals, but their tiny size that would deter me. Pulling them out one at a time would be more trouble than it’s worth. I was surprised to see how widespread this species is. The link to Philadelphia suggests it grows in the eastern part of the country, but it can be found north (Minnesota and even Canada) and west (California), too. In fact, there are only two states in the continental US where it doesn’t appear: Utah and Arizona.

  9. Nice photos of a nice flower, very crisp and trim-looking. And that’s a great name, Philadelphia Fleabane. I’ve got relatives in that city, and worked there for one summer during college – I like the town and its residents, and they tend toward a certain astringency & ginger in their comments, they’d be the right folks to mix up a good batch of flea repellent!

    1. I thought I remembered that you had some connection with Philadelphia. Of course, when I first came across Philadelphia Fleabane, the only thing I could think of was “Philadelphia Freedom.” Can’t you just imagine a whole field of these flowers swaying in the breeze and belting out that one? As for the residents you mentioned, I’m a fan of acerbic humor, so I think I’d like Philadelphians just fine. We do have a saying down here for folks others describe as ‘dim bulbs’ — “If brains were leather, he couldn’t saddle a flea.”

    1. What a wonderful compliment! Of course, the difference between me and a five-year-old running in to her mother with a clutch of flowers, saying “Look what I found!” is essentially zero.

    1. Despite being less colorful than some of our wildflowers, these certainly are among the perkiest. Since craneflies don’t seek flowers specifically for nectar or pollen, I wondered if the height of the plant was the attraction. It was a good landing spot in the sense that a quick escape would be possible, too. Whatever the reason, it certainly was a good combination for a photo.

    1. I’ve never thought about it before, but many of our earliest blooms are white: crow poison, fleabane, dewberry. I know that some of yours are, too, like the snowdrop. It’s fun speculating on possible reasons, although most reasons I’ve come up with are more story than science, and not at all verifiable!

      1. Snowdrops are the earliest – later there’s bloodroot, foamflower, and dutchmens’s breeches, all white flowers. I don’t know why so many are white, either.

  10. I wonder if regular mosquitoes see crane flies and go buzzing off in terror, as if King Kong came swooping by. The crane fly, on the other hand, probably loves the Fleabane flower, as it looks big enough to have fleas.

    1. Love the King Kong comparison. It’s too bad the crane fly season doesn’t extend through the summer. Being able to eliminate mosquitoes would be a plus. The craneflies are big, that’s for sure. I found one had perished on a window sill recently, and I took some measurements. After I stretched out its legs fore and aft, it was 4″ long. It’s a good thing they don’t bite, or have stingers.

  11. Hate to say it, but fleabane flowers always look fake to me. Maybe it’s the really skinny petals. I like the arch of the stems holding the buds. Very Art Nouveau-y.

    1. I think the tiny size and the multitude of white rays probably does contribute to your sense of floral fakery. I have the same response to strawflowers. In fact, it took decades for me to realize that there’s a living, growing strawflower, and not just the fake ones that decorated my favorite doll’s hat.

      Those buds look like they’re the ones that should be called “lazy daisies.”

    1. If it was sipping, it didn’t take much of a taste. I was surprised to read that craneflies mostly don’t feed after they hatch. With only two or three days to find a mate and breed, there’s not much time left for restaurants and bars, although I suppose you don’t need much nourishment with that kind of life span. I’m not surprised you see plenty of these; the only two states in the continental US where they aren’t listed are Arizona and Utah.

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