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Autumn — a good time to learn about harvestmen

2021 09 20 harvestmenBy David Hawke --  A few things in nature look like they got in the wrong line for their identification documents.

Take whales for instance. They swim and dive, are born in the water, live in the water and die in the water. So, they're fish, right? Wrong, they're mammals, being more like a seal than a codfish.

          Bats fly like birds, but they're not. Hummingbirds act like moths, but they're not. These examples are pretty obvious mix-ups, but once you start looking closer, ever closer, as to what makes a species unique yet related to others of its kind, lines begin to blur.

          A group of butterfly-like insects are called skippers. They have brightly coloured wings comprised of delicate overlapping scales, eat flower nectar and flit about the meadows. But they are not butterflies, nor are they moths… they are skippers.

          And don't get me started on how is a stone different from a rock? But I digress. Today I wish to discuss a spider that is not a spider. It may have eight legs (and no, it's not an octopus, don’t try to get ahead of me) but these guys are in a class unto themselves. I speak of harvestmen, also known to many as daddy-longlegs.

          Their eight incredibly long and thin legs propel them across any terrain with an easy gait, sometimes in pursuit of insects to eat, and sometimes in haste to avoid others who may wish to eat it. Note that insects have six legs, so harvestmen are definitely not of that ilk.

         Sometimes you may find a seven-legged harvestman, it being the victim of a near-miss. They have the ability to lose a leg and keep on going. I guess they have a motto that 'tis better to have lost a leg and run away, than retained all eight and not have run away at all.

          When they do capture food, their mouthparts lack the fangs or venom which most spiders do possess. Although harvestmen don't build webs, they will raid the webs of real spiders and steal freshly caught morsels.

          In late summer they begin to gather in large groups, often along streambanks, in preparation for the mating season. As with any gathering, the sheer numbers begin to attract attention and these insects, er, I mean spiders, er, I mean harvestmen, were noted by the farmers of yore as they went to work in the ripened fields. The story is that they thought the wee creatures were gathering to help bring in the harvest… hence their name. Get it? Harvestmen?

          And it's not just the men-folk who noticed the gatherings of these delicate creatures. Wives had many a tale relating to these creatures, such as if a daddy-longlegs walks across your clothes, you will be getting a new wardrobe. If you make a wish on one, it will give you good luck. And, if a harvestman sits upon your shoulder, you will die.

          That last one has proven to be true in every case, although whether it may be soon or later, you just never know.

          Sue Hubbell is an observer of all things small and weird and a few years ago wrote a book called, "Broadsides From the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs". She had captured a few harvestmen (and women) and placed them in a terrarium for easier viewing. Her observations revealed that the daily goings-on in their world were as complex and as interesting as our own.

          There were searches for food and for mates, neither with guaranteed success, communication breakdowns and mixed messages, insecurity and dominance, frustrations and triumphs.

          Her intimate interest in these eight-legged subjects was revealed in her description of an old male: "After several weeks the male, who had been the more sprightly of the two daddy-longlegs, became lethargic. He was old. Climbing the sides of the cage became too much for him. He did not preen and was not interested in food or water.  In the wild he would have been picked off by a predator, a bobwhite quail perhaps, but I sat and watched him die."

          As with all things natural, the more we make the time to study our natural neighbours, the more often we will gain an understanding of their ways and their lives. What I've learned is that next time I encounter a daddy-longlegs, it's going in my closet as I need a new set of clothes. Either that or I'll make a wish upon it as I purchase in my next lottery investment certificate.                                  

Dave’s Notebook: September is like April, only in reverse. Plants are setting seeds and birds and other wildlife are preparing for the next season. 

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© 2021 David J. Hawke  

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