Zooming in on the picture I’d just taken of a mountain laurel blossom, I was tickled to find that it had been photobombed by a granddaddy longlegs. This spindly critter hiding out on the pink petals was one of the first creepy-crawlies I learned to identify as a young child.
“Hello, spider,” I whispered, as we do to pictures of animals, but then remembered those long afternoons with the neighborhood gang, lounging around in giant pine straw nests we built to live in because our parents didn’t let us come inside the house until dinner was ready. We’d while away the hours sharing all kinds of wisdom from our prickly, temporary homes.
“If you kiss your elbow you’ll turn into a boy,” my brother insisted, but it could not be proven because we couldn’t kiss our elbows.
“If you put salt on a bird’s tail you can catch it,” Dana said, but again, who can get close enough to a bird to put salt on its tail?
“Granddaddy longlegs are the most venomous spiders on Earth, but their fangs are too small to bite with,” Claude chimed in.
“Dummy. They’re not spiders,” answered my brother. Claude hurled a pinecone at him, thus saving face.
And then we all grew up and stopped pondering elbows kisses, salted tails, and granddaddy longlegs. That picture I saw today, however, brought it all back to me.
“Hello, whatever you are,” I amended.
If granddaddy longlegs aren’t spiders, what are they? Both insects belong to the class Arachnida, thus are arachnids, but spiders and granddaddy longlegs diverged millions of years ago. Spiders are members of the order Araneae, whereas granddaddy longlegs are one of the Opiliones (Opilio means sheep-master in Latin), also known as harvestmen.
You can tell by looking at a granddaddy longleg’s body that it’s not a spider. We learned in elementary school that spider bodies have two prominent body parts: a cephalothorax and an abdomen. They look like they are wearing very tight belts. Granddaddy longlegs, on the other hand, have little button bodies with all parts fused.
Think back to your own experiences with these long-legged bugs. Likely you’ve never seen one in a web. That’s because they don’t spin webs. They don’t have silk glands like their spider look-alikes. Furthermore, they only have one pair of eyes as opposed to eight.
In fact, granddaddy longlegs are more closely related to scorpions than spiders, a handy fact with which to impress children.
Someone told me, maybe Claude, that the best way to pick them up was by one of the long legs. I have been doing that all my life, but have now learned the error of my ways. The long pair of legs, second from the head, are specialized for capturing prey, smelling, and even breathing. While harvestmen can survive losing a leg, they cannot survive losing their long legs. They are known to self-amputate to fool predators, but they will never surrender a long leg. Remarkably, an amputated leg can twitch and tease for up to 30 minutes, giving the harvestman time to escape. Best not to handle them by the legs after all.
As for the venom, there is none, nor are there fangs. Unlike spiders, who use fangs to inject venom and turn their prey into goop, granddaddy longlegs can eat little chunks of food. They are one of only two species of arachnids that eat vegetation, consuming fungi, snails, worms, bird droppings, aphids, and dead bugs as well. Excellent house cleaners, even pest control companies suggest letting them live amongst us, with gentle relocation outside as the suggested method of removal.
Ever the word nerd, I’m curious as to why they’re called harvestmen. Some sources say it’s because their extra-long pair of legs reminded folks of shepherds’ crooks, while others say it’s because they are abundant in harvest times. According to Frank Cowan, author of Curious Facts in the History of Insects, they are so named because of a belief that if you killed one, you were doomed to an unproductive harvest. A wealth of lore suggests that they bring good luck. One legend tells that they will even help you find your lost cattle by pointing the way with their long legs.
I should clarify that there is an actual spider that some people call granddaddy longlegs. It has a clearly jointed body shaped like a slender peanut. These spiders are nicknamed cellar spiders or vibrating spiders. There is also a flying insect, the crane fly, with extremely long legs. Some people, no self-respecting person I’ve ever known, call that a granddaddy longlegs. We call them giant mosquitoes but know in fact they are not, and we refrain from swatting them.
One last thought: granddaddy longlegs or daddy longlegs? What do you call these beguiling little beasts? I’ll put a poll on Facebook.
Mary Dansak is a writer and a retired science education specialist living in Auburn, AL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook at Little Green Notebook.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.