ESSAY- Fall ball: don't rake the leaves or tinker with daddy

Greg Rogers, right, gets engulfed October 30 in leaves on the UVA Grounds, with the Rotunda in the background.

Leaves are falling from the trees. This year, instead of burning them or raking them into bags to be carted away, try gathering them together under your trees in a neat circle. Once thoroughly dampened, they will mat down and provide a natural mulch layer that moderates soil temperatures and helps preserve soil moisture for the benefit of your tree roots.

 Numerous organisms depend upon such leaf litter to hibernate through the coming winter. For example, Gray Treefrogs that protect your trees and shrubs from too many insects during the warm months (thus serving as your natural insecticide) must move to the ground as it starts to get cold.

 The treefrogs helped the leaves to survive all through the growing season. Now it's the leaves' turn to help the treefrogs to survive until next spring. They offer protection from freezing temperatures and predators to the cold-blooded amphibians.

 Some kinds of animals, such as the Hackberry Emperor butterfly, overwinter as caterpillars that wrapped themselves in the leaves of Hackberry trees before autumn winds knocked them off. If you wish to experience the beauty of these butterflies next year, you must let those leaves stay put under your trees. When spring comes, the caterpillars can then climb back up into the trees to continue feeding, and you will be rewarded for your patience during the summer when the adults fly.

 At this time of year, you may happen to spot a large grouping of daddy longlegs taking shelter in a protected area, their many legs overlapping. These spider relatives are trying to survive the cooler temperatures of the season.

 If you live where it's not usually freezing from late fall to early spring, some of these 8-legged creatures may survive the winter. But in areas that get quite cold, most or all of them will die, leaving behind eggs in the ground or among leaf litter to provide a new generation of individuals next spring.

 Although very similar in appearance to a spider, a daddy longlegs has one main difference that is easy to see: its small oval body does not include the narrow waist that is typical of spiders. Another aspect of its anatomy that you might notice, but only if you get up close and personal, is that it has two eyes instead of the eight a spider usually possesses.

 Daddy longlegs are also known as harvestmen. In fact, the indexes of many books only list them under one name or the other. If you don't think to check under both names, you might not realize the book actually does contain information about this kind of animal.

 There are varying accounts of how daddy longlegs got the name harvestmen. The most plausible is that these animals are more noticeable to humans in fall when, years ago, folks would be in the fields harvesting crops. An old English belief told of the critters assisting farmers with their reaping and it was said to be bad luck to kill one.

 Worldwide, there are about 3,400 species, with at least 200 in North America. You can get an idea about the number of species around your home by checking out the various colors and patterns on your local daddy longlegs.

 Because daddy longlegs are related to spiders, it's reasonable to expect them to be hunters, just as spiders are. But I used to wonder how that could be since they seemed too small to be able to easily overpower many other creatures.

 Then one day I stepped out onto my carport and spotted a daddy longlegs with a European Hornet— an insect much larger than the arachnid. I immediately realized that this daddy longlegs could not possibly have killed the big hornet that it was eating. I had discovered for myself that daddy longlegs, at least those around my home, were scavengers! Since that day, I have observed and photographed these animals taking advantage of the opportunity to feed upon many kinds of dead insects.

 Although people often have the urge to touch wildlife, it's always best to take a hands-off approach. In this way, you don't needlessly frighten the critter (not a pleasant thing for it to experience), nor do you risk getting hurt or harming the animal as it tries to defend itself (it doesn't know you mean it no harm).

 In the case of daddy longlegs, you could cause one to lose a leg if you try to pick it up. This defensive tactic, similar to that of skinks whose tails break off to escape, allows the arachnid to scurry away from danger. But as adult daddy longlegs can not regenerate legs; the loss of one or more legs will impact their lives.

 By the way, if you have not yet set up a system for catching and holding the rain that runs off your roof, you should consider installing rain barrels or other water-catching devices (I have two 350-gallon agricultural tanks). You will then be all set next spring to use less ground or reservoir water and instead take advantage of local rainwater— a resource that has been severely limited in recent years.

If you take your cues from nature, you'll have less work to do and more time to enjoy your surroundings.


Marlene A. Condon is the author of The Nature-friendly Garden and teaches nature and gardening classes through Piedmont Virginia Community College Workforce Services Program.