Not too much to love: Lovebugs are back again
Published: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.
They are the bugs people love to hate.
Two times a year, lovebugs swarm across highways in front of vehicles, splattering windshields, clogging radiators and damaging paint jobs.
Everyone living along the Gulf Coast knows too well that the two lovebug mating seasons — April to May and August to September — are nightmares.
That's when lovebugs are on the move and collide with vehicles, leaving behind a sticky white goo that hardens quickly in the hot Florida sun. That messy explosion marks the end of the short life of one of nature's most misunderstood and demonized insects.
The lovebug, which is actually a fly, is a legend in local lore. In fact, the biggest ruse has been that lovebugs were genetically engineered by mad University of Florida scientists to kill mosquitoes.
"People can come up with the darnedest things," said UF entomologist Norman Leppla, one of the nation's renowned lovebug experts.
Leppla said the biannual lovebug swarms are reminders of nature's cycle of life, like the migration of birds and butterflies.
"I find the occurrences nice ... welcoming the change of seasons," said Leppla, who holds a doctorate in entomology.
While Leppla respects the pesky insects, he also knows the habitat survived just fine before lovebugs arrived in Florida in 1947.
On the road again
It was 1940 when Galveston, Texas, native and entomologist D.E. Hardy began researching lovebugs, an aggravating insect mainly found at the time in Texas and Louisiana.
Early research found that lovebugs had reached Mobile, Ala. From there, scientists used traps to chart the movement eastward to Florida.
By 1949, lovebugs were discovered in Fort Walton Beach and had traveled about 10 miles per year eastward during the 1940s.
By the 1950s, the insects began moving faster, about 20 miles per year. Lovebugs were first found in Tallahassee in 1957 and in Ocala in 1966, researchers reported.
After passing through Marion County, the lovebug expansion accelerated again, this time to 30 miles per year until it reached South Florida in the mid-1970s.
Lovebugs originated in Central America and expanded northward into Mexico and into Texas by the early 1900s, Leppla said.
Some experts believe that, a century ago, lovebugs were stowaways on Central American ships that had docked in New Orleans. They believed the lovebug stowaways aided in escalating the population expansion.
Leppla dismisses the theory. He said since lovebugs only live for a few days, they are just too fragile to make such a journey.
Instead, the rapid lovebug expansion parallels the evolution of automobiles traveling coastal highways, Leppla noted on Wednesday.
And when President Eisenhower's federal Interstate Highway System was approved in 1956, Leppla believes lovebugs then began expanding at an even faster rate.
Most cars didn't have air conditioners and lovebugs were sucked inside while traveling. Those that survived flew out of cars at stops down the highway.
A lovebug's life
During mating season, right after both male and female lovebugs emerge from the pupal stage, they begin each day finding flowering vegetation to eat nectar. Nectar, not other insects, is a lovebug's food supply, according to Hardy's research.
Between 4-8 p.m. during mating season, males swarm to attract females, which have 350 eggs inside. She flies through the swarm until she is taken by a male.
After mating concludes, the female lays her eggs in damp areas, like under leaves or other organic material, including cow manure. The male dies within 72 hours and the female about 20 hours later.
When the eggs hatch several months later, the larvae eat organic debris — leaves, grass roots and such.
It is that stage of life when lovebugs are the most beneficial to nature, according to David Holmes, Marion County extension agent.
The larvae "are good at breaking down organic matter," Holmes said.
He noted that without such insects or other creatures — including termites and earthworms — then land would be overrun by trees and other plant life. Nature needs the insects and other species to help rejuvenate the earth, Holmes said.
The larvae feeds off the land for about 20 days before evolving and taking flight as lovebugs.
Most people surmise it is just luck when a car meets a lovebug, which only has a few natural predators — like spiders — in the wild.
But scientists believe lovebugs are attracted to the formaldehyde found in gasoline and diesel fumes. That chemical attracts female lovebugs seeking an organic place to lay their eggs.
They are also attracted to highway intersections, traffic lights, filling stations and truck stops, specifically hot engines and vehicle vibrations.
"I hypothesize that hydrocarbons in vehicle exhaust may mimic chemicals emitted from lovebug habitat," Leppla said. "Additionally, attraction to highways can be increased due to the roadside plants that produce nectar."
The females are full of about 350 fertilized eggs when they hit a windshield, hence the white sticky mess that causes so much anguish.
"What you get are the eggs and the fatty tissue (around the eggs)," Holmes said.
Holmes said there is little a person can do to prepare for the lovebug onslaught. Holmes said residents should wax their car before lovebug season. He said some people use baby oil on the grille, though he has never tried that to keep the bugs off.
Leppla said residents should wash lovebug remains off windshields and paint jobs as soon as possible. The white mess can damage paint. He said a water-soaked clothes dryer sheet works well at removing the mess.
Though many people believe that lovebug guts are acid-based and that's why it damages paint, Leppla said it appears that theory is not true.
"It is assumed that damage to car paint results from heating (the remains) by the sun and perhaps action of microorganisms," Leppla said.
Contact Joe Callahan at 867-4113 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoeOcalaNews.
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