“Invasion of almost 200 billion daddy-long-legs on the way, warn experts!” says the Telegraph. “A record 200 billion daddy-long-legs are set to hatch this autumn and experts are warning the warm weather will see the insects spread further across the country than ever before. The bugs – also known as crane flies – have benefited from a combination of a hot summer and the right amount of rain, which has helped them grow in their subterranean tunnels.”
The Mirror concurs: “Britain is set to be invaded by a plague of 200 BILLION daddy long legs thanks to the warm, wet summer!”
And the Express chimes in with: “DADDY LONG LEGS INVASION: Record 175 BILLION on rampage across Britain! Climate change and a perfect storm of weather conditions has led to record numbers of the terrifying insects – also known as crane flies – taking flight.”
Terrifying insects? Really?
What’s astonishing about these shamelessly alarmist and misleading headlines is not so much the implication that crane flies pose a threat to humans (they don’t; they’re harmless), but the conclusion that the apocalyptic plague about to descend upon us is one of the consequences of climate change.
In fact, we can attribute any proliferation of crane flies to the withdrawal of products containing chlorpyrifos as of 1 April 2016.
Chlopyrifos underpins a class of organophospate pesticides, e.g. Dursban and Lorsban, developed during the Second World War. Dursban is found in everything from flea collars to lawn insecticides, while Lorsban is used to protect crops. The chemical attacks the nervous system of insects such as leatherjackets (the larvae of crane flies) that feed on the roots and stems of plants and cause crop damage from early spring until mid–summer when they pupate. It is moderately toxic to humans, and exposure to large doses of it has been linked to various neurological effects and autoimmune disorders, but its withdrawal leaves farmers at significant risk of being unable to meet the challenge of sustaining production in the face of pest infestations. Some experts feel that legislators have over-reacted to the risk; others feel that the ban has been imposed in an unrealistic timescale that may result in major crop failures and food price inflation. Farmers in the United States have expressed concern that decisions have been based more on politics than on sound, science-based policies.
One thing is clear – completely banning these chemical pesticides is problematic because effective and affordable alternatives are not yet widely available. Nematodes (microscopic worms used to attack leatherjackets), for example, are hugely expensive and are hypersensitive to environmental conditions. So, in the meantime, yes, we are susceptible to seasonal invasions by insects such as crane flies. We should avoid tabloid headlines like the plague, but the reality could actually be much worse. You see, no effective pesticides means no grass. And no grass means no cows, no sheep, no milk, no lamb, no beef and no wool. Yep, this could be a lot more serious than a few extra daddy-long-legs finding their way into the living room.