Thursday, June 07, 2007

Love Bugs

Every year in Florida billions of uninvited guests buzz along the roadways like something out of a horror movie, causing damage from the Panhandle to Plantation Key.

And the source of this scourge? The lovebug — the small, fly-like creature who is attracted to automobiles and makes its home on the sides of roads.

Despite its colorful name, the lovebug is not beloved in Florida. In fact, its name evokes anything but love. "I hate 'em," says Walt Schrenk, a truck driver from Jupiter (Fla). "They're hazardous to drivers."

What Schrenk is talking about nothing new to the millions of motorists who have witnessed the strange phenomenon that usually occurs in May and September when lovebugs start taking flight — and end up crashing into windshields.

The bugs — technically known as Plecia nearctica — are seen mostly in pairs, grappling mid-air and doing what can only be described as an act of "love" (hence the name). When finished, they head back to their original nesting area, usually on the side of a road.
The problem for motorists is that lovebugs tend to do their business en masse, which means that on any stretch of blacktop there can be tens of thousands of bugs involved in bug making, and if you're unlucky enough to be traveling in that direction you may end up crashing this 1/1000th-of-a-mile-high club.

Schrenk, who drives his truck throughout Florida, describes the effect as "black snow."

"It starts real slow, almost like raindrops — bugs flying at you nonstop. Then it becomes a blizzard where you can't see anything except hundreds of black flies. It's a real mess."

Should you turn on your windshield wipers during this time? No, says Schrenk. "It makes bug soup."

Lovebugs are only active in daylight hours; not surprisingly, this is also when automobiles are most active. But what is surprising is that certain scientists have documented that lovebugs, well, love automobiles.

According to a 1998 article in Florida Entomologist, lovebugs are attracted to "irradiated automobile exhaust fumes" (irradiated means exposure to ultraviolet light or sunlight). Scientists studied the components of exhaust fumes and found that two of its ingredients — formaldehyde and heptaldehyde — act as major stimulants to lovebugs. They also found that cars' engines and vibrations seem to set them atwitter.

Is this love or zonked-out desire?

Whatever it is, it's unrequited, since automobiles can't stand them.

Lovebugs exude a sticky, acid-like substance when they go splat! and can damage a car's paint unless quickly wiped off. Also, they can get sucked into radiators and cause engines to overheat.

Flight Times May Vary

Like swallows returning to Capistrano, the lovebugs' schedule is nearly as predictable, though not as agreeable: Florida should expect swarms each spring and fall.

Scientists say the bugs' timetable depends mainly on climate and swarms can occur a month in either direction, but generally speaking, May and September are your best bets for contact.

Whether you contact them by windshield wiper, by bumper (or both) depends on what time you drive, since lovebugs don't usually take flight until around 10 a.m., or when temperatures reach 80 degrees. The swarms last most of the day. When temperatures start cooling off around 4 p.m., the bugs beat it back to their nests.

"They prefer to save energy at night for their next day's activities," said Dr. Harold Denmark, retired chief entomologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Denmark said swarms will generally last 3-4 weeks at a time.

Speaking as a Car Owner...

Is there anything that can be done to stop this plague?

"No," says John Capinera, Chairman of the University of Florida's Entomology Department. "The lovebug is neither a threat ecologically or to humans."

But what about to cars?

"A huge nuisance," he admits.

What what about to humans in cars?


Could the government wipe them out with pesticides?

"Not feasible and not rational, because the costs and hazards associated with pesticides wouldn't be justified because there are just way too many (lovebugs)."

Dr. Denmark agrees, and says the sheer number of lovebugs, and their varied locations, make pesticides impractical. "Because there are so many (of them), and because they exist not only along highways, but in cow pastures, in open fields, marshy areas — everywhere — you would literally have to spray all the ground in Florida to wipe them out."

Denmark recalled several unsuccessful attempts to combat lovebugs with chemicals in the 1950s. "We would drop (the pesticide) malathion on the highway and it would clear it instantly. But thirty to forty minutes later, it would be crawling with lovebugs again."

This is because lovebugs continuously drift in from all directions, Denmark said. "There could be another group nesting just 200 yards away."

Life in the Fast Lane

Denmark said lovebugs would much prefer the quiet settings of cow pastures to the hazards of the highway — if they could only distinguish between the two.

"They think highways are the best place to lay their eggs because they mistakenly believe they are cow pastures."


He explains that cars' and trucks' engines produce heavy vibrations as they rumble down the road, which are very similar to the fluttering of lovebugs, whose wings can beat 200 times a second. Lovebugs follow this 'whirring' effect, believing they are heading in the direction of other bugs. Instead they find "Joe Sixpack driving to work," Denmark said.

As lovebugs approach the highway, they are further attracted to the cars' exhaust fumes, Denmark said, since the fumes contain heavy amounts of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde-like chemicals also are found in methane gas, which most organic material, like cow manure, emit. So, lovebugs become convinced they have stumbled upon fertile ground and quickly set up shop along the road. They lay their eggs in the mowed grass typically found along highways, which offers the sort of damp, rotting conditions favored by their larvae.

"They think they have settled into paradise, but instead have found a mirage," Denmark said.

This is why our roads become pulsating, incubator-like obstacle courses every year — and why lovebugs are slaughtered by the millions.

"Automobiles are their number one predators, ironically enough," said Denmark. "Lovebugs are first lured to the roads by automobiles and then become their greatest victims."

Unfortunately for car owners, lovebugs have no other enemies. Birds, normally the biggest bugaboo of insects, avoid them at all costs because they have a very disagreeable flavor, says Denmark (who claims to have never tasted any). "Birds can't stand them."

Lovebug larvae are occasionally eaten by certain bacteria, though Denmark doesn't think it adversely affects their population. He also says the lovebug larvae actually benefit nature by breaking down waste matter and turning it into oxygen. "At least they contribute something," he said. "Insignificant as it may be."

The question that must be asked, then, is: Are adult lovebugs, whose only purpose seems to be to reproduce and who often get smashed into smithereens as a result (and who can't even be stomached by other wildlife) basically worthless in nature?

"Yes," says Dr. Denmark. "They are totally useless in nature — unless you acknowledge them as nuisances. In this regard they are supreme."


Besides their mortality rate among motorists, lovebugs don't live very long. "Three to four days is all," said Denmark.

He said a typical male lives about 90 hours and a female about 80 hours, although the female may live a bit longer by attaching herself to a new mate if her original partner can't "perform," said Denmark.

"Her biological need to reproduce will add hours to her lifespan," he said.

Denmark says insects are the only species where sex (or imminent sex) can extend one's life. (GQ and Cosmopolitan articles, notwithstanding.)

Born in a Vat?

For years, there have been rumors about the origins of lovebugs. Perhaps the most popular rumor is that they were hatched during an experiment "gone wrong" at the University of Florida.

According to this rumor, UF biologists "created" lovebugs to combat Florida's biggest menace, the mosquito. These bugs — or superbugs — were designed to fly around and eat as many mosquitoes as possible. The experiment backfired, says this rumor, when lovebugs turned out to be vegetarians.

Voila! Instant plague.

"The rumor fortunately has no basis in fact," said Dr. Norman Leppla, UF entomologist and author of several scientific papers on lovebugs.

The main reason for the rumor, he suspects, is because the bugs haven't been around very long.

"They have only been in Florida since the 1940s [when they were first discovered in Escambia County, part of the Panhandle]. They are newcomers, relatively speaking, and this only fuels speculation (in some people's minds) that they were created artificially."

Another reason for the rumor may be because the University of Florida has done more research on lovebugs than anyone else.

"Some people think because we know lovebugs so well — and truthfully we don't; we've only scratched the surface — that we must have 'invented' them," Leppla said.

"Needless to say, we try to swat down those rumors as soon as they fly up."

So where do lovebugs come from?

Leppla and other researchers believe lovebugs came to Florida from either Texas or Louisiana. How they got to Texas or Louisiana isn't clear. Some think they migrated from Central America. Others think they are native to the Gulf Coast. One thing is certain: Lovebugs can be found in every state along the Gulf-of-Mexico and as far north as North Carolina.

"The good news is lovebugs won't spread beyond the South because they need sub-tropical weather to survive," says Leppla.

The bad news is they have joined the list of Florida's other undesirables, including the cockroach, fire ant, termite and mosquito.

Splattered? Please Pull Forward

Several years ago, Florida's Department of Transportation installed "bug washes" along its turnpikes to help motorists deal with the unpleasant after-effects of lovebug lust.

"You pull up to one of them and it sprays water on the front of your car," said Turnpike Director Richard Nelson. "And it does a decent job of removing the bodies."

Asked if lovebugs were the primary reason for the washes, Nelson said "absolutely."

Meanwhile, the D.O.T. has increased its mowing schedule so that grass no longer grows like hay along highways. "Obviously, shorter grass means shorter clippings for lovebugs to live in," said Leroy Irwin of the department's environmental division.

UF's Dr. Leppla applauds these improvements but says more should be done. "Unfortunately, because Florida has no long-term solution for lovebugs, anything we do to control them — or study them, for that matter — should be encouraged."

"Lovebugs are still out there," he noted. "And just as annoying as ever."

©Patrick Ryan 2001

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