moved slowly, cautiously, tapping the organic debris about
her and seeming to make decisions about which way to go based
on how things felt. I watched her move along the dried edge
of a leaf from last fall. She raised her body above eight
long, thin legs, using a couple of them to tap along the surrounding
terrain, gathering information, making decisions about where
to go next.
I used a magnifying glass to examine the detailed camouflage
pattern of grays and browns on the back of her one-piece head
and body. I looked into her face and saw two dark eyes the
size of fine periods. She was fangless, but had a couple of
appendages near her mouth that reminded me of spoons or small
shovels set to dig into her next meal. She was webless. She
was a daddy longlegs.
Daddy longlegs have been maligned with vicious rumors for
years. It’s often claimed that these eight-legged creatures
are spiders with a highly toxic venom that, due to some defect
of their biting apparatus, they cannot effectively administer
to us humans. Such talk should make these innocuous garden
busybodies into a clear and present danger worthy of a change
in the homeland-security color alert level. But, like some
of the talk that has raised security-alert levels over the
last few years, the threats posed by daddy longlegs are rumor
presented as fact. So, let’s take a look at some real daddy
First, this long-legged bug is not a spider. Its ancestors
can be traced back hundreds of millions of years and they
are closely related to spiders. While daddy longlegs are a
bona fide member of the Arachnida class of creatures, this
eight-legged strider has some distinguishing features that
put them in a separate category of animals from their spider
cousins. Below the level of class, at the subdivision of the
creature category known as an order, spiders and daddy longlegs
are in two distinct camps.
Among the over 3,000 species of daddy longlegs known on the
planet, there are a number of characteristics where they differ
from spiders. While most spiders (Araneae) have eight
eyes and two segments to their bodies, daddy longlegs (Opiliones,
though sometimes their order is given as Phalangida)
have only two eyes and no distinguishable body segments. Members
of the Opiliones order also do not spin silk or create
webs, as is the case with most spiders. If you see one in
a web, it’s likely that it has fallen prey to a spider and
isn’t just visiting.
The second reason this “poisonous spider” rumor is false is
that these long-legged bugs lack venom glands, which are a
common feature of spiders. They can’t poison people because
they do not have any poison. Instead of fangs, they have long
palps near their mouths that sometimes look like short legs.
These palps function to help get food into the animals mouth
and contain cells that detect both smell and taste.
Instead of venom, daddy longlegs do pack another biological
weapon to meet their defense needs. They have glands that
produce a stink when they are threatened. You might get a
slight nose-twisting whiff of a bug fart from these critters,
but never a poisonous bite.
So, let the rumors about the toxic bite of daddy longlegs
cease. Spread the truth about these simple critters and stop
those malicious claims that they can seriously poison us.
In fact, they actually do some environmental good for us.
These long-legged wonders are one of the legion of small critters
responsible for recycling in the environment. Daddy longlegs
are omnivorous, preferring decaying plant matter, but willing
to chew down on the carcasses of other small bugs inhabiting
the damp decomposing surroundings they often seek out. They
have even been known to engage in cannibalism, having been
observed chowing down on the remains of dead long-legged brethren.
In cropland settings, they are known to feed on a range of
pests including aphids, leafhoppers, mites, slugs and beetle
larvae. The entomology folks over at Cornell University have
labeled them “generalist predators” for the range of their
gastronomic predilections. Through their efforts at pest consumption,
they help reduce crop damage. Their work in the fields may
have gotten them the other name they also go by: harvestmen.
In my backyard, daddy longlegs tend to hang out near the surface
of piles of plant leaves and compost heaps. They like to stay
hidden beneath the organic debris during the day, particularly
in moist areas. They prefer the local nightlife. They are
easily disturbed from their daytime compost hideouts and readily
take off running for more cover as if on a set of unsteady
While this bug’s long limbs look cumbersome, they are amazingly
agile when moving through a chaotic jumble of plant debris.
Like spiders, these critters are earless and hear through
the vibrations they pick up along tiny hairs on their legs.
The legs also serve as a defense mechanism in the face of
predators. If a leg is lost, it will twitch where it falls
with hopes of distracting an attacker, while the other seven
limbs slip away together. According to current daddy longlegs
research, as long as three legs are maintained in working
order the animal can manage.
While spiders generally place their eggs in a silk container,
daddy longlegs can’t spin thread so they lay their eggs without
any such covering. Females are generally larger than their
male consorts and lay the eggs they produce under rocks or
in other protected cracks and crevices in the earth. In this
part of North America, these creatures generally die off each
fall. The eggs left behind persevere through the winter and
hatch into a new generation the following spring.
As I dig about in my garden, the latest generation of daddy
longlegs is rustled from their cool moist hideouts by my prying
shovel. I wish them well.