The truth behind love bugs

Next to biting flies, love bugs can be the disdain of our existence. Anyone that drives highways in the early fall cringe as mating pairs spatter across the windshield, hood, and grill of the car, adding anxiety about the scrubbing to come – to save the paint job! In years when they are most numerous, they can also clog the air spaces in radiators, causing engine overheating.

And yet, like any creature, they have their place in nature. What is interesting and different about these bugs are what can only be described as conspiracy theories as to their origins. In Florida, they were apparently bred in an experiment gone wrong by the University of Florida no less, to help control mosquitoes. A similar story can be heard in Louisiana. If that were true, the experiment failed miserably!

The truth is that they migrated naturally along the gulf coast from Mexico over the past 80 or so years (first recorded in Texas in the 1940s). Could have been those Men in Black that planted them there – just saying.

As to what they do in nature and how they come to be a menace of our highways, the truth is even more curious. As larvae, they feed on the dead decaying thatch in grass-covered lawns and byways. In that way, they help recycle nutrients back into the soil. As adults, they are important pollinators, especially of fall-blooming wildflowers.

They do not seem to be a favorite food item for most insect predators. Birds apparently avoid them and like other distasteful insects like monarch butterflies, that may be one of their defenses. Their colors, including the prominent orange thorax, might be the signal that they taste terrible.

As for why they are so numerous along highways, it seems they are attracted by the fumes and heat from our vehicles. Go figure! But research has demonstrated this to be true. Why that is the case is not clear, but this is one reason they occur in numbers where we drive. They are also attracted to light-colored surfaces like vehicles and the sides of buildings.

When you think about it, their numbers are really our own fault. Our grass-covered highway shoulders and ditches are good habitats for their larvae. That makes it convenient for adults when they emerge, mate, and seek out our vehicle’s fumes. This is likely how they migrated along the coast.

Love bugs are also known as honeymoon fly or double-headed bugs due to their common occurrence as mated pairs. As for their scientific name, the genus name “Plecia” is apparently derived from Greek, meaning “to sail,” reflecting their flight. Their species name, “nearctica,” references their distribution across the northern hemisphere.

So, there you have it – the truth about Love bugs.

Hope to see you in our great outdoors!

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Written by Mark W. LaSalle, Ph.D.

Mark is a naturalist and wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. He has also developed and conducted a number of environmental education programs and workshops for youth, teachers, realtors, and the general public on a variety of subjects including wetlands, natural history, and environmental landscaping. Mark is a graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (B.S. and M.S. degrees) and Mississippi State University (Ph.D.). Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, the Gulf Guardian Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.

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