OK, kids, it’s story time! Back in 1947, a Florida realtor had a problem. The war was over and cash was flowing. People were buying property — but he was having a hard time selling land in the Sunshine State. His biggest problem: The mosquitoes. Folks would overlook the heat, the humidity and the alligators, but they just couldn’t get past those bloodsuckers.
He spilled his troubles to a friend at the bar one night. That friend, who happened to be an entomologist with the University of Florida, started thinking. What if there were a way to stop the mosquitoes from successfully breeding? He pitched the idea to his colleagues, and they came up with an audacious plan.
Over the next couple years, they successfully developed a monster: A cross between a fly and mosquito. Every individual was female, and they produced a very strong pheromone — so strong that male mosquitoes would mate with them and ignore females of their own species. No offspring were produced from these unions, and the mosquitoes died without laying eggs. It seemed a perfect solution, so the hybrids were released by the millions all over Florida.
After the release, it was discovered that a tiny percentage of the hybrids — fewer than one in 10,000 — was male. Oops. In the next few years, those few males got a whole bunch of the females knocked up, and Florida had a new species of pest: The lovebug.
Don’t believe a word of that. Versions of that story have been passed around for many years, but it’s all hooey. Now for the truth:
Lovebugs, also known as March flies, are a natural species. They are native to Central America, where they occur in low population densities. There are dozens of species, but only one (Plecia nearctica) lives in Florida, having come to the U.S. as larvae in potted plants or sod.
When they came to our country, lovebugs found the place was very much to their liking. In fact, many of us work very hard to create perfect lovebug habitat. When you wonder why there are so many of these things around, take a look at your own yard.
We only see lovebugs when they are mating. The adult form is quite temporary. They have no mouths and neither eat nor drink, so their lifespan is measured in days. But before she dies, the female will mate (right in front of anybody, with no shame at all) and then lay her eggs in the soil.
When the eggs hatch, the larvae need food. Their preference is small pieces of decaying vegetation, which we provided by creating large expanses of grass. Turf, in the form of lawns and pastureland, creates thatch — the dead bits of grass that fall between the growing blades.
When Florida was wild, there wasn’t much thatch to be found because low-growing grasslands were rare. Instead, we had palmettos as far as the eye could see, and oak scrubs, and dense hammocks where grasses can’t grow. The grassy areas that did exist were usually lowlands, flooded in the summer rainy season — which lovebug larvae cannot survive.
Now, grasslands are everywhere, and most of them are frequently mowed, which creates a denser thatch. Additionally, we’ve got them set up so standing water is uncommon even in the wettest months. By altering the landscape for our own uses, we inadvertently created ideal lovebug habitat.
The spring lovebug hatch is pretty much over at this point, but a new generation has been spawned. Eggs are already hatching. The larvae are feeding and growing. Come September, they’ll be showing up on the wing, carrying on their parents’ and grandparents’ legacy of annoying us.
But while we didn’t create lovebugs, we did make Florida perfect for them. And that’s why we deserve them. History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man — go, go Godzilla!
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.