A few nights ago, I was talking with my partner and asked him what this week’s animal should be. I jokingly said, “Oh, why don’t I talk about lovebugs!”
He said, “You totally should!”
To which I replied, “Wait, lovebugs are a real thing??? I thought it was just a cute name for people who love each other…”
It turns out that yes, lovebugs are real. I had no idea! But in my defense, we don’t get them up in Michigan, where I grew up. On the other hand, my Floridian partner has dealt with the spring swarms of lovebugs his entire life!
Lovebugs (Plecia nearctica) are small (6 – 9 mm long) black insects with red thoraxes. They are found in the southern United States in every state along the Gulf of Mexico. There are also populations in Georgia, South Carolina, and throughout Central America, including Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
Not a bug
It turns out that lovebugs are not actually bugs. ‘Bug’ is a specific order of insects, which includes cicadas, aphids, leafhoppers, and bed bugs. Although we may call insects like butterflies or ladybugs ‘bugs,’ entomologists don’t classify them as such.
Lovebugs are, in fact, a type of fly. They are part of a group of flies known as march flies. While there are over 200 different species of march flies, only two live in the United States; out of those two, lovebugs are more of a nuisance to people. Other famous march flies include mosquitos and gnats.
Not a genetic experiment
Where do lovebugs come from? If you talk to conspiracy theorists, they’ll tell you they are a failed genetic experiment that escaped a University of Florida lab.
This is NOT true!
While it is true that lovebugs first started appearing in Florida around 1949 (many years after the University of Florida’s establishment date in 1853), it’s a myth that they escaped from a lab. Instead, they got to Florida the old-fashioned way: migrating.
Lovebugs were first identified in Texas and Louisiana in 1911. Since then, they have migrated throughout states along the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this migration has been of their own volition: lovebugs are strong fliers and have been found several miles off the Gulf Coast and at altitudes of 1500 feet.
Humans have also played a role in spreading lovebugs. These insects lived in grass and hitched a ride in grass sod traded between southern states.
Lovebugs get their name because of how you usually find them: attached together and flying at a 180-degree angle. This attachment is critical for an adult lovebug’s successful reproduction.
Lovebugs spend three to nine months moving through the egg, larval, and pupal stages. They emerge from their pupa as a fully-formed adult, ready to mate. And time is ticking: lovebugs only live after emerging from their pupa for a few days.
Males are about an hour quicker at emerging than females. Once they emerge, they will form a swarm above the emergence site and wait for the females to arrive. The largest males take up residence at the bottom and can pair with the females before the other males. Medium males get the middle of the swarm, and the small males have to wait at the top.
The females fly up through the swarm of males after their emergence. As they rise, males can grab them before returning to the ground to pair. Other males can try to separate the pairs to take over the females. This is successful as long as the couple has not completely engaged their genitalia. If more than four and a half minutes have passed, the lovebug pair is virtually impossible to separate.
Lovebugs remained connected like this for about three days. Part of the reason they stay paired is because sperm transfer takes a while, up to 12.5 hours. Since they’re stuck together, the lovebug pair will fly around attached and search for food. Unfortunately, this prolonged copulation is costly, and males will die soon after disconnection, if not while attached. The female also dies after separating from her mate, only living long enough to lay her eggs.
Swarming on your car
Lovebugs only live a short time after emerging from their pupa. What’s the best way to ensure you can find a mate if you only live seven days max? Time it so you appear with everyone else.
Lovebugs are known for emerging in large swarms all at once. The largest groups emerge from their pupas in May and September. During these months, you’re almost sure to see lovebug swarms if you live in the southern United States.
This is particularly true if you have a car. Lovebugs are attracted to cars and the invisible fumes they release. A car’s fumes contain organic compounds that smell very similar to decaying organic material. Since female lovebugs lay their eggs in decaying material like grass, these fumes are very confusing. Lovebugs often fly around highways, searching fruitlessly for a place to lay their eggs. This is also why lovebugs swarm around traffic lights and gas stations.
Unfortunately, this means that a lot of lovebugs are killed by cars. While you personally might not be super sad at the prospect of a lovebug’s death, you should be concerned for your car. A lovebug’s organs turn acidic as they dry, jumping from a pH of 6.5 (the acidity of avocados) to a pH of 4.25 (the acidity of tomatoes). This acidity can ruin your paint job if you don’t quickly clean their bodies from your car. In addition, a buildup of lovebug bodies can clog your radiator and cause it to overheat.
But not harmful
But don’t worry: ruining your paint is the worst they can do. And even this is less common nowadays, as technological improvements have made cars harder to ruin. Paint, for example, is hardier, and hood air deflectors or nylon screens can be attached to the car to prevent radiator clogging and lovebug splattering.
Adult lovebugs only eat nectar and pollen. They also can’t bite or sting. And, depending on how you look at it, lovebugs are beneficial. Their larvae eat decaying vegetation, so they play an essential role in clearing up the thatch in your lawn after you mow.
So while swarms of lovebugs are kinda gross and annoying, look at the bright side: lovebug lives are short, so you won’t be scraping them off your car for long.
University of Florida – Entomology Department
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