The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Hateful Love Bugs are Flying
Ro Wauer, September 12, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Are any bugs more despised than love bugs? Even mosquitoes, cockroaches, and biting gnats are ranked lower than love bugs. It is at least true at this time of year, when billions of the little flies are flying during the daylight hours. Mosquitoes and cockroaches generally are more secretive and they are more active at night when they are not so obvious. But love bugs fly in our face as if they are trying to ruin our day. And they can come pretty close to doing just that. The front of my vehicles was literally covered with their carcasses after a recent trip to town and back. And when parked in town, they gathered around my vehicle, waiting for me, preparing to smash their little bodies into my windshield as soon as I took off. As soon as got home, I was forced to wash my vehicle, something I hate to do. The darn bugs can actually stain the paint, and they can even clog a radiator after longer drives, causing the vehicle to overheat.

However, because of my tendency to love nature in all its glory, I tried to understand the value of love bugs to the environment. Except for providing food for birds and other creatures that feed on such critters, and the fact that car wash businesses must also appreciate their existence, it was difficult. In fact, I and most of our natural world could very well get along without their existence.

Love bugs are not true bugs (order Hemiptera) at all, but are flies of the order Diptera, in the family Bobionidea. These flies are known to scientists as Pelicia neartica. They are also known as "March flies," because in most parts of the country they fly in spring and sometimes also in late summer. This year, undoubtedly because of the amount of rain we have experienced, they are flying for a second time and in much, much greater numbers than usual. These mating flights last for only four to five days, as each individual lives only two or three days. A close look at an individual will reveal a shiny black to brown creature with clear or whitish wings with yellow-brown veins and short antennae. The body measures only about a quarter of inch in length. The reason they are best known as love bugs is because the male and female are usually found hooked together, even in flight, in the act of copulation. After dark, they rest on vegetation.

Although such huge swarms of other kinds of insects often lead to damage of crops or other human products, swarms of love bugs have little negative effect other than clogging our windshields and being a terrible nuisance. They do not sting or bite. They do feed on nectar of flowers, and they can congregate in such large numbers at flowers that bees and butterflies shy away. Females lay as many as 100 to 300 eggs in loose soil. The eggs can overwinter in the soil, but hatch in spring. The larvae, that live only a week or so, feed on decaying matter and on the roots of plants. They eventually pupate and emerge as winged adults early in springtime, although not necessarily in March.

In the "Texas Bug Book," by C. Malcolm Beck and John Howard Garrett, the authors mention one benefit of love bugs. They point out that "mating love bugs actually do you a favor by smashing into the windshield... They make you stop, clean the windshield, and get a cup of coffee." Personally, I could readily give up the coffee and the opportunity to clean my windshield.

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