Mosquitoes have quite rightfully earned a robust reputation as pests, with their bites causing itching, swelling and pain to different degrees in different people. Crane flies, on the other hand, toil in relative obscurity and cause virtually no harm to anything or anyone. Because crane flies are commonly called by the doubly misleading name "mosquito hawks," however, many people naturally assume that crane flies are either a type of mosquito or a mosquito-eater bug, when in fact neither is true. This erroneous perception is furthered by the fact that adult crane flies look like giant mosquitoes.
Male Mosquito Basics
The commonly circulated idea that male mosquitoes do not bite is accurate. If anything, it is the idea that female mosquitoes "feed" on blood that is incorrect. While females take blood from bite victims to provide their eggs with a source of iron and protein, both male and female mosquitoes actually derive their own nourishment from water and nectar.
Male mosquitoes are not substantially larger than females, but the males can be distinguished on close inspection from females on the basis of their feathery antennae, used to detect female-mosquito wingbeats.
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Crane Fly Basics
There is no such thing as a crane fly bite; humans can relax around them. Moreover, they don't eat at all, because, like mayflies, their only real function is mating and reproducing. They inhabit semi-aquatic and aquatic environments. North America is home to hundreds species of crane flies. Their larvae are usually the color of dead leaves, such as brown, tan or greenish.
The females' abdomens are larger than those of the males, mainly because these short-lived creatures are virtually always on some stage of egg-laying, leading to distension of the midsection.
Crane Fly vs. Mosquito
The differences between male mosquitoes and crane flies are actually not subtle. It is the widespread but mistaken idea that male mosquitoes look like grossly oversized versions of female mosquitoes that fuels the wrongful notion that crane flies – which do look like big mosquitoes and have earned a misleading moniker as a result – are hard to tell from male mosquitoes. In addition, mosquito wings have tiny scales, whereas those of crane flies do not. Also, as one might expect of a non-eating animal, crane flies have no mouths.
Ecological and Life-Cycle Differences
If you're still confused about the distinction between male mosquitoes and crane flies, and live in an area that is home to both, know that crane-fly populations tend to be maximal in the late winter and early spring, well before mosquito populations peak. Also, while adult crane flies may be seen "hanging out" on walls and such, mosquitoes tend to not linger, as their need for food keeps them continually on the go. Finally, while mosquitoes can serve as vectors for serious infectious mammalian diseases such as West Nile virus, crane flies are perfectly harmless, even to plants.