Crane Fly vs Mayfly: What are the Differences?

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Published: June 6, 2022
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Crane flies and mayflies have a couple of similarities they’re both aquatic flying insects with adult forms that do not eat. Their inability to eat isn’t a problem because both adult forms live short lives anyway. To the inexperienced eyes, they may even look very similar. However, these insects have more differences than similarities, and you’ll soon know all about that. Read along to learn the main differences between a crane fly and a mayfly.

Comparing a Crane Fly and a Mayfly

Crane flies live longer than mayflies.
Crane FlyMayfly
TaxonomyBelong to the order DipteraMayflies belong to the order Ephemeroptera
MorphologyLong and straight bodies (1.5 inches) 
Legs are twice as long as the body. 
They have a single pair of wings (wingspan between 0.5 to 2.5 inches).
Have long, slender bodies.
They have three pairs of wings and two-three long tails.
Distribution and HabitatThey exist in various aquatic habitats- ponds, lakes, creeks e.t.cThey prefer clear, shallow bodies of water. 
Diet and BehaviorThe larvae feed on algae, grassroots, flowers, fungi, and decomposing wood.
They are nocturnal insects and swarm around bright lights.
Mayfly naiads feed on algae and organic matter made of leaves, decaying animals, and plants.
Reproduction and LifespanThe life cycle is in four stages, and adults live for 10-15 days.The life cycle is in three stages, and adults live for a few hours or days.

The Key Differences Between a Crane Fly and a Mayfly

The key differences between a crane fly and a mayfly lie in their taxonomy, morphology, distribution, habitat, diet, behavior, reproduction, and lifespan. Crane flies belong to the order Diptera, while mayflies come from the order Ephemeroptera. Adult crane flies can live for 10-15 days, while adult mayflies can only live for a few hours or two days.

These differences are only a few out of several.  Let’s explore the differences between a crane fly and a mayfly in detail.

Crane Fly Vs. Mayfly: Taxonomy

Crane flies generally refer to any insect from one of the largest groups of flies Tipulidae. They belong to the order Diptera. Their common nicknames include mosquito hawks (a common misperception that they prey on mosquitoes) and daddy longlegs (they have very long legs). 

On the other hand, mayflies come from the order Ephemeroptera, a Greek term meaning ‘short-lived.’ These aquatic insects exist in up to 42 families with over 2,500 species worldwide. Other names for mayflies include sandfly, shadfly, fishfly, and drake. 

Crane Fly Vs. Mayfly: Morphology

Animals that don't poop – mayfly

Mayflies have a big eye-to-body ratio, a slender body, two to three pairs of wings, and two to three tails.

©Achkin/Shutterstock.com

Crane flies leave some clues to their appearance with their nicknames mosquito hawks and daddy longlegs. They’re more or less large mosquitoes with longer legs. In fact, they are often mistaken for mosquitoes. They have long and straight bodies (1.5 inches) with legs twice as long and a single pair of wings (wingspan between 0.5 to 2.5 inches). The female adults lay eggs on the ground via the ovipositor at the bottom of their abdomens. 

In contrast, mayflies have a big eye-to-body ratio, a slender body, two to three pairs of wings, and two to three tails. They exist in various colors green, black, tan, yellow, grey, and brown. Interestingly, these insects can coexist with other species within a single water source. The color variety helps them blend into the environment. 

The wings of a mayfly look quite similar to those of a butterfly. In front of their bodies, they have large triangular wings. Behind their bodies, they have smaller round wings. The smallest hind wings are usually difficult to see and even absent in some mayflies. Their tails look like threads and are often longer than their body. 

Crane Fly Vs. Mayfly: Distribution and Habitat

Crane fly larvae are found in various aquatic habitats ponds, rivers, streams, and marshes. Some of them prefer moist areas like leaf litter in ditches. They are found worldwide but have the highest diversity in tropical regions. You can find adults anywhere because of their ability to fly around.

Mayfly nymphs or naiads have a preference for clear shallow water lakes, wetlands, streams, and rivers. This has some ecological significance; large populations of mayflies hatching near a body of water indicate good water quality because the nymphs have gills sensitive to pollution. Their adult forms also fly around, and you can find them everywhere.

Crane Fly Vs. Mayfly: Diet and Behavior

What Do Crane Flies Eat - Crane Fly Larvae

Adult crane flies do not eat.

©iStock.com/Janny2

As earlier stated, adult crane flies don’t eat any food. On the other hand, their larvae feed on algae, grassroots, flowers, fungi, and decomposing wood. Some of them are even carnivorous and feed on small insects. Some crane fly adults may feed on nectar on very rare occasions. Crane flies are nocturnal insects with a penchant for bright lights, and you can see them hovering around the lights. 

On the other hand, mayfly naiads typically feed on algae and organic matter made of leaves, decaying animals, and plants. The adults have no mouth to feed, but this does not matter since they only live for some hours or a few days. 

Mayflies can easily cause problems in homes or businesses. Sometimes, the swarms get so large that Doppler weather radars pick them up. Another unpleasant characteristic is that they die in large numbers, which leaves an unpleasant smell behind. That can trigger allergies in some people. However, they have some economic value in their ability to attract fish to areas where they thrive. 

Neither crane flies nor mayflies bite or sting.

Crane Fly Vs. Mayfly: Reproduction and Lifespan

mayfly on leaf

Only living for some hours to a day or two, the mayfly has the shortest lifespan of any animal in the world.

©iStock.com/englishriver

Crane flies metamorphose from eggs to larva, pupa, and adults throughout their lifetime. The female adults lay hundreds of eggs in streams, lakes, creeks, and other moist places, and these hatch to larvae in 6-14 days. The pupae emerge after the larvae have lived and molted up to four times. Adults emerge last and live for only 10-15 days, during which they mate while the females lay eggs. The entire cycle lasts about a year.

In contrast, mayflies only live for 1-2 days. They lack the pupal stage, so eggs turn into nymphs and adults. Female mayflies disperse their eggs over lakes, streams, aquatic vegetation, and waste. These hatch into 0.03 inches long nymphs without gills that hide in the sediments at the bottom of the water. Within a few months to a year, the nymphs grow gills and molt several times to become adults. They have two adult phases: the sexually immature subimago and the sexually mature adult phase. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/englishriver


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