Splat

The short, happy life of the love bug.

click to enlarge LOVE IS IN THE AIR: Love bug season is expected to start with the next big rainfall. - Courtesy Of Wikipedia
Courtesy Of Wikipedia
LOVE IS IN THE AIR: Love bug season is expected to start with the next big rainfall.

She climbs up the branch and launches herself into the air. Lusty males hover. One darts in and grasps her, and they fall to the ground in intimate embrace, the male on top, making sweet love by the early sunlight. After 10 minutes, he turns around and takes a post-coital snooze, still attached to her back as she flies off in search of food. They dip and rise, holding each other tight, when ...

SPLAT!

The two smack against your windshield at 70 miles per hour.

It's that time again, the four to five weeks before Memorial Day when love bugs return to the highways in a bug version of spring break. Hordes of the black and red insects, close cousins to the March fly, descend on Florida highways twice a year, splattering the windshields of residents and tourists alike.

"What are those things?" the tourists ask gas station attendants after stopping for the third time in an hour to scrape insect intestines off their vehicles.

"Love bugs, ma‚am. They're love bugs."

An innocuous name for an annoying pest.

Though the creatures do not bite or sting or carry avian bird flu, their remains can eat away at the paint on your car — in Florida, an unpardonable sin.

And they have been known, in large enough swarms, to clog radiator fins and refrigeration equipment on trucks. Carpenters hate the unabashed couplers because they are attracted to the smell of paint and gather in the corners of newly constructed homes.

Yes, it's hard to love a love bug.

Despite (or because of) the nuisance factor, love bugs play a big part in Florida lore. There are dozens of websites and poems about the lascivious insects, and even a widespread urban legend about their genesis.

According to the scuttlebutt, love bugs were the result of a University of Florida experiment gone wrong. As the story goes, Gator scientists crossed breeds of flies until they created one that would attack and kill mosquitoes, thereby controlling the population of the bloodsuckers through "natural" means. The punchline? The Franken-flies decided to make love, not war, spreading throughout the state to wreak havoc on the highways and prompt people to scream "Get a room, already!"

Truth is, love bugs have a lot in common with New Yorkers and ice hockey: They're not native to the state.

According to a widely cited 1976 Florida Entomologist article by Lawrent Buschman, love bugs migrated, either by flight or by hitching rides on ships from Central and South America to port towns in Texas and Louisiana.

D.E. Hardy of Galveston, Texas, first discovered Plecia nearctica in 1940, and since then scientists have documented their migration westward, as far south as Homestead in 1974 and as far north as the Carolinas in the 1980s.

Bored city governments and cranky motorists have wondered about the possibility of extermination, or at least some sort of control over the swarms.

But it does not look like the love bug will be deported any time soon, says Andy Wilson, a horticulturist with Pinellas County's University of Florida Extension Center, which regularly answers calls from residents with questions about lawn, garden and pest topics, including love bugs.

"If you take a broad view, they are beneficial because they break down organic matter," he says, taking his cues from a love bug fact sheet provided by University of Florida scientists. "They're kind of a recycler of nutrients."

For eight months out of the year, the love bug larvae enjoy munching on dead leaves, livestock waste and half-eaten Big Macs beside the highway. Then, after the first rain in May, they sprout into the swarming mess that ends up on your windshield.

Wilson knows that the bugs' environmental streak doesn't assuage motorists.

"It's kind of hard to see the benefits of love bugs when your radiator is clogged with them."

Hard for everyone, except maybe those in the car wash business.

Why do love bugs seem to target our cars? For one, they are literally aroused by our vehicles.

Cristal may be the human love potion of choice, but for love bugs it's exhaust fumes and hot asphalt. Specifically, formaldehyde and heptaldehyde draw the insects out of the woods and into the road.

Diminished habitat may also play a part in the love bug plague. As more swamps and forests are cleared for roads and pastures, love bugs lay their eggs closer to residential areas. They have no known predators, except for birds and the occasional armadillo.

The love bug season generally lasts four to five weeks and corresponds with spring showers, says Dr. Timothy A. Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina who maintains a site tracking the migration patterns of the love bug.

Tampa Bay's lack of rain probably means a shorter love bug season, but a more intense swarm.

"I am going to predict clouds of love bugs in the Tampa area within three days of the next significant rainfall," he says. "Based on your weather forecast, this won't be for a few weeks unless a few good thunderstorms pop up."

There a few things motorists can do to minimize the hazards created by oversexed love bugs:

• Motorists on long trips should travel at night to avoid the mid-day mating swarms (the insects tend to sleep on low-lying plants until late morning).

• Wax your car during love bug season. Waxing your car, or even spreading a thin layer of baby oil on its surface, will allow you to remove splattered love bugs easier.

• Wash off bug remains within a day to prevent any damage to your vehicle's finish.

• Install a screen on your vehicle's grill to prevent radiator clog-ups.

• Do not to paint your home during love bug season. Fresh paint entices the insects, which will gather in large clumps.

• If love bugs enter your home, remove them with a vacuum to avoid a sticky mess.

But don't put the soap and water away after this spring.

Love bugs come out twice a year to do the nasty on our roads. The next swarms, usually larger than first, begin in September.

So keep that Barry White album handy.

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