For me, my 2023 Nature Experience was the crane fly larva.

I was entertaining a handful of children (5th – 6th grade), teaching the parameters (e.g., temperature, stream flow and depth, and turbidity) associated with water quality and monitoring (i.e., what we measure in our Water Action Volunteer [WAV] program). The children didn’t seem too impressed with the temperature measurements. Something about dipping a thermometer just did not capture their interest. The stream flow and depth measurements were not sufficient to calculate the discharge measurement. The turbidity tubes were a hit, although I feel like most were just enjoying filling the tube and dumping it out again. The grand spectacle occurred during the changing of groups when I found the cranefly larva.

I was emptying buckets and cleaning out the nets in preparation for the next 15 students. The larva was in a net. I s’pose whoever was handling the tool did not recognize the creature. I didn’t either. It just kind of looked like a stubby bit of a stick. But the bands, and those little thingies at the one end of the “stick,” caught my attention. Can’t say I have ever seen such a creature. I was tempted to eat it; not that it looked tasty, just out of principle….”looks like a meal, for a bird,” I thought.

I am amazed at the numerous insect larvae that have no resemblance to their adult form. Caterpillars to butterflies is a great example. The crane fly larva is no different. It pretty much looks like a caterpillar, just minus the legs and fuzzy appendages so often included. I can never remember if it is complete metamorphosis or incomplete metamorphosis that describes this drastic transition. The latter refers to the case when larvae/young insects looking like miniature adults; instars I believe they are called. Oh, sure, I could look it up, but I would rather leave the reader in suspense. The adult crane fly looks like a supersized mosquito and is described as a clumsy flyer. Apparently, the adults have been referred to as mosquito hawks, or “skeeter eaters.” “The appetite of the crane fly is fierce, something to reckon with, especially for the blood sucking mosquitoes”…..this not true. One of the myths of the natural world.

With over 500 species of crane fly, it is hard to describe the life of a crane fly. There appear to be two varieties of crane fly, a terrestrial and an aquatic one. The larvae of the former feed on roots and such on land; the latter eats decaying plant matter, in water (duh). Some crane fly larvae do prey upon other creatures, like other insect larvae. Some (of the 500) adult species will feed on nectar, but primarily the only purpose to the adult life is mating. Whatever.

According to many sources (God bless the internet), the terrestrial root feeders can be considered a lawn pest and, conveniently, the two species that cause the most lawn “problems” are non-native to North America and one was even listed as….ready for this….invasive. Along with other larvae/grubs, an infestation may lead to brown patches in the yard. Yet, for those who find a lawn as a pest in itself, well, as they say, a pest of my pest is a friend, I guess. The crane fly larvae are considered semi-sensitive to pollutants. Its presence does not necessarily indicate poor water quality, since they can survive in high water quality as well. I showed the crane fly larva specimen to both group of students. As expected, without flashy colors, tricks or sounds, there wasn’t a lot of excitement among them; a few, though, were intrigued. Ironically, none asked about the edibility.

WAV volunteers conduct observations and field measurements relating to water quality. Volunteers sample once a month from May to October.  At a minimum, two volunteers are needed, but going out with a group of friends, extended family, or complete strangers who get together to conduct the steps is more fun! A great activity for baby showers, bachelor parties, graduations, or other festive events.  On behalf of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Valley Stewardship Network coordinates and supports local WAV volunteers with training, equipment, and other resources. One can learn more on the WAV website (https://wateractionvolunteers.org/get-involved/become-a-volunteer/https://wateractionvolunteers.org/get-involved/become-a-volunteer/) or contact ben@valleystewardshipnetwork.org.