Lovebugs: Bright side, of a big mess


Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 10:42 p.m.

I was rolling down U.S. 27 near Branford when the assault began. Tick, tick, tick, like a pocket watch marking time, only faster, as my windshield began dealing out death to lovebugs, and splat by splat my view got uglier.

A week before, I'd had my first personal lovebug encounter of the season when I went to scratch my nose in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket and accidentally delivered a death blow to two bugs at once, leaving me with a smelly Charley Chaplin-like moustache of bug carcasses. It was a fittingly gross reminder that our twice-a-year visitors were back.

Being back is one thing. The cloud of black dots hovering over the highway last weekend was another. After several seasons of low lovebug numbers, fall 2006 is shaping up to be a bumper crop. And with each splat, I was getting a bit more steamed.

But then it hit me, lovebugs aren't a problem, they're an annoyance, and there's a big difference. And the more I thought about it - and believe me, the stretch of back roads between Branford and High Springs offer plenty of time for contemplation - I began to see a positive side to the mess.

Fact: Lovebugs don't bite, they don't sting and a windshield splatter has never triggered a case of anaphylactic shock.

Fact: Lovebugs will never gross you out scurrying across the kitchen like a roach, and they aren't going to reduce your house to saw dust like termites.

Fact: They show up in May, to let you know summer is here. They're back in September to let you know that the cool relief of fall is just a page turn of the calendar away.

I was thinking the numbers this fall are incredible. Then I talked to Tom Fasulo, and I learned just what a short memory I have.

Fasulo is an extension entomologist with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and he's the man to call with lovebug questions. Yes, he can tell you the numbers are up, but nothing near the levels of the 1960s, '70s and early '80s. Fasulo knows this personally, because during that period he was doing a lot of driving while doing research on citrus.

"I used to have to carry a jug of water and a squeegee with me. I used to have to stop every hour to clean the windshield," he says. "They're nothing like we used to see."

Fasulo can tell that lovebugs, aka Plecia nearctica, are actually flies, members of the insect order diptera. They were first spotted in the United States in Galveston, Texas in 1940, and they'd migrated to Florida by 1949.

And as new arrivals, lovebugs had few enemies. Fasulo explains that the three Ps of natural control - predators, pathogens (disease), and parasitoids (parasites that actually kill the host) - take time to get established.

"Eventually their enemies caught up with them and decreased the population to a natural balance," he says.

In addition, there were changes under way along the roadside. Instead of mowing every two weeks, now the state allows wildflowers to grow along the highway and adjusts its mowing schedule to allow for ground-nesting birds.

Those changes, Fasulo says, mean there's less thatch out there. That thatch is a major source of food for the lovebug larvae, which is why we see so many of them along the roads. The thatch also helps conserve moisture that allows the larvae to survive dry spells.

A few dry summers or springs can knock back the lovebug populations, and when that happens those natural controls go into an even steeper decline. That means when we do get a season when conditions are more lovebug friendly, the natural controls have to play catch-up, and we get a fall like 2006 and the tick, tick, tick of window splats.

Those larvae living in the thatch actually help break it down, which Fasulo says is a plus.

"For two months a year, they're a nuisance," he says. "The rest of the 10 months they're out there doing something good for us."

So, I'll try to keep that in mind the next time I'm cleaning up the semi-annual calling cards from my windshield.

Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com.

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