It looks like an overgrown mosquito and causes fear among many people who find these menacing-looking giants in their homes. But, alas, crane flies are as gentle as they come. They can neither sting nor bite. They can make it difficult to sleep as they flitter around your walls and ceiling at bedtime, but don’t worry, they won’t attack you in your sleep. In fact, they aren’t even capable of attacking as many species do not even have mouth parts. So, no, they don’t eat mosquitoes either as many people believe. And they certainly aren’t mosquitoes, despite their uncanny resemblance.
The insect world is rife with fodder for Birds of New England’s Stranger Things series. It doesn’t get much stranger than the praying mantis, a beloved insect that is not seen often enough.
It had been a few years since I had seen one, in fact, but a recent walk at Highstead in Redding, Connecticut, yielded three of the beauties. The first one got my attention as it flew across the meadow path and landed on a goldenrod stalk that was bursting with September color. I can’t remember the last time I saw a praying mantis in flight. It’s hard to miss as they are quite substantial insects, regardless of their skinny frame when not flying.
The second and third mantises I saw were on top of each other, literally. These ones were on a goldenrod stalk as well. One of my favorite things about September is the proliferation of goldenrod in New England’s meadows.
The praying mantis is so named because it looks as if it is praying when it’s waiting for food. Check out the bent front legs held together in the photo above.
Praying mantises are excellent hunters with an oversized, triangular head and large compound eyes. They are green, brown or a combination of those colors, making them hard to find for both prey and predators. Another great adaption utilized by mantises are the spikes front legs for capturing and holding prey.
Mantises eat crickets, moths, other insects, and, allegedly, hummingbirds. I’ve never seen this, but I’ve read it enough to include here. They also sometimes eat each other. Yes, sometimes the female eats the male after mating. I don’t know if that was the case with these two. I didn’t stick around to find out.
I’ve been seeing a lot of photos and videos this summer of these fascinating creatures on Facebook and other social media. Many of the posts include the question: What is this???
No, it’s not a hummingbird, even though it resembles one, creates a humming sound with its wings and hovers around flowers like a hummingbird. It is a hummingbird moth, so named because … well, you can figure that out, I’m sure. Although it’s hard to tell without a side-by-side comparison, hummingbird moths are smaller than hummingbirds. A hummingbird moth is about two inches long and a hummingbird is a bit longer than three inches, but also much more bulky.
Look for hummingbird moths at the same flowers you’d expect to see butterflies and hummingbirds. Butterfly bush is a backyard favorite for hummingbird moths.
A hummingbird moth sips nectar with its long proboscis, a tongue-like sucking organ, which can be double the length of the moth. The photo below shows the proboscis rolled up.
Many people wouldn’t consider dragonflies strange because they are so common and part of our daily summer lives. I am including them in the Birds of New England ‘stranger things’ series because of their awesomely menacing appearance and otherworldly flying ability.
Dragonflies have only two eyes, but they make up most of the insect’s head and have up to 30,000 ommatidium, or facets (see close-up photos). I’ll post more information about dragonflies in next week’s For the Birds column.
Here’s a shot from the close-up meadow series I did for the Darien Land Trust five years ago. I came across many strange things during my time in the meadows that summer. It’s amazing what you find when you tune out everything except your immediate surroundings.
Treehoppers, not to be confused with planthoppers, are often called “thorn bugs” because of their appearance.