Sunday, September 9, 2012

Love Bugs

We're having our annual late season Love Bug wave.  I was out last Friday photographing butterflies in the Pine Flatwoods Preserve and came back to find my car looking like this.

Our car covered with Love Bugs. The other side of the car had just as many.
Every year when the weather in Florida warms up, the Love Bugs reappear. Unlike with other animals, people do not rejoice the return of the love bug. There is no Love Bug festival that I know of. Instead, Love Bugs are generally considered to be an annoyance to be endured and survived. They are particularly attracted to vehicle exhaust and gasoline fumes and therefore are often found around highways and gas stations. Their populations wax and wane from year to year and throughout the season. There are usually two waves, one in the spring and another in the late summer. Some years there are very few Love Bugs. Other years, you'll see huge clouds of them on the roadways and the fronts of cars and trucks are covered with their splatted bodies. Some people go as far as to buy covers ("car bras") for the front of their cars to protect the paint from the corrosive bodies of the Love Bugs. I've never noticed bubbled paint after leaving them on, but I admit that it's hard to scrub them off. Then again, I don't wash the car much, so I'm not one to talk.

So if everyone hates them, why are they called Love Bugs? If you look at the picture below you will understand.

Love Bugs doing their thing
Love Bugs get their name because they are almost always seen mating, joined together, even in flight and while they feed. Once they find a mate, they stay hooked up for 12 hours or more. This creates some awkward conversations when people, especially other people's children, ask what they are doing.

Popular local mythology says that Love Bugs are the result of a diabolical failed experiment at the University of Florida. This is, of course, not true. (Apparently the same rumor exists in other states, such as Texas, about their respective university entomology departments.) Love Bugs are native to Texas and Louisiana and Central America and have only recently (since the 40's) arrived in Florida, which adds credence to the UF conspiracy theory since they're relative newcomers. Also, they are not bugs at all, but are actually variety of March Fly. Birds and other insects don't seem to eat Love Bugs. The same chemicals that cause them to corrode your car's finish also makes them taste bad. But they are good pollinators. At the same time that car owners are cursing as they scrape their cars clean, Love Bugs are busily swarming in fields of flowers. In addition to being attracted to petrochemicals, they are also attracted to flowers. The adults feed on nectar. And when they move from flower to flower, pollen sticks to their hairy bodies. The larvae feed on decaying leaf matter and can be beneficial as decomposers.

Love Bugs on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Love Bugs on Passion Flowers (Passiflora incarnata
I guess that I'm ambivalent on the subject of Love Bugs. The name is funny. They're kind of pretty when you look close--bright red thorax, big black eyes and long black wings. It's interesting that they are always seen mating. I'm glad that they're pollinators. But it certainly is irritating to have to wave them away from my face and mouth, or away from the gas pump when they're swarming. And it remains to be seen if their carcasses are slowly eating my car. How do I love thee? Hmmm.

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