The Lovebug: Escaped Lab Experiment or Nature’s Harmless Decomposer?
Recognizable by their red thorax, lovebugs (Plecia nearcitca and Plecia americana Hardy) are known for their propensity for getting “stuck together” and splattering en masse into car windshields. You may have also heard a rumor that they are an experiment-gone-wrong created by the University of Florida. UF may be home to the number-one ranked entomology and nematology program in the world according to the Center for World University Rankings, but we can’t take credit for the lovebug.
The lovebug’s origin isn’t the only misconception about these tiny insects. For starters, lovebugs aren’t actually bugs: they’re flies, more closely related to mosquitoes and gnats. There are, in fact, so many misconceptions about lovebugs that we thought we’d dispel some of the more outlandish claims. If you love learning about fascinating and surprisingly controversial creatures like the lovebug, enroll in one of UF’s online entomology and nematology programs.
Did the University of Florida Create the Lovebug?
Is there a secret laboratory deep within the confines of UF’s campus where the world’s top scientists are banding together to create flying monstrosities the likes of which the world has never known? We’re sorry to disappoint you, but the idea that lovebugs were created by UF to control mosquitos is sadly nothing more than an urban legend. That doesn’t mean mankind isn’t waging a war against mosquitoes. Check out Florida’s plan to release 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes into the Florida Keys.
As eloquently summed up by the Crowley Museum & Nature Center, “If science had advanced to a level of being able to completely create an organism that successfully feeds and reproduces, do you really think it would be a lovebug?” UF did not create the lovebug (but you can be sure that it would be blue and orange if we had).
Seriously, Where Do Lovebugs Really Come From?
The origins of the lovebug are a bit more pedestrian than a lab experiment gone wrong. Lovebugs migrated from Central America to Texas and made their way to Florida sometime after World War II. This harmless fly is found throughout Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the southeastern U.S. and as far north as North Carolina.
Why Do Lovebugs Have It In for My Honda Civic?
How do millions of years of evolution result in swarms of lovebugs splattered onto the windshields of Florida motorists? According to UF/IFAS entomologist Dr. Norm Leppla, lovebugs are attracted to engine exhaust and heat, which are plentiful on the Sunshine State’s highways. In May and September, lovebugs appear for about four weeks to mate. Males are the first to appear, swarming and competing for a chance to mate. Once a match is made, the new couple come to rest on vegetation and can remain attached for three to four days. Competing lovebugs can swarm 20 feet above the ground; however, as evidenced by our carcass-strewn vehicles, that’s not always the case.
Lovebugs aren’t trying to ruin your paint job, and they’re not highly acidic, as others would have you believe. The problem comes when people leave dead lovebugs on their vehicles in the hot summer months when lovebugs are active. Sunlight, heat and microorganisms erode paint, so be sure to give your car a good wash after it collides with a swarm of lovebugs.
“Lovebugs Are Just a Nuisance!”
Believe it or not, lovebugs play an important role in the environment. At the onset of summer and fall, these insects lay their eggs in decaying vegetation. Among thatch (commonly comprised of grass clippings), maturing lovebugs feed on dead vegetation, redistributing nutrients back into the soil and environment.
A misconception about lovebugs is that they have no natural predators. In fact, lovebug larvae has been found in the gizzards of robins and quail, showing that they are vulnerable to foraging birds. Armadillos and invertebrate predators, including earwigs, beetle larvae and centipedes, have also been known to consume lovebug larvae.
Lovebugs pose no risk to humans or pets. They do not transmit any vector-borne diseases, and they feed on plant nectar, not mosquitoes. They don’t sting, and according to Dr. Leppla, “they couldn’t bite you if they wanted to.” Although lovebugs are harmless decomposers that serve as a food source for other animals, many people continue to see them as little more than a pest.
What Can Be Done to Manage Lovebugs?
Lovebugs may seem like a nuisance now, but back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they were a public safety crisis. Motorists had to stop every 10 miles and scrape the creatures from their windshields, and enterprising children would offer lovebug cleaning services for a small fee. Researchers and lawmakers spent years trying to combat the lovebug only for the problem to resolve itself over time.
There’s still no clear answer as to why lovebug populations dwindled. Annual rainfall and environmental controls, such as natural predators, are known to cause fluctuations in their populations. Parasitic fungi also affect lovebugs and may hold the key to controlling their populations. One fungus, Beauveria bassiana, has been shown to cause significant mortality rates in immature and adult lovebugs. There’s still a lot we don’t know about controlling lovebugs, but it’s a worthy challenge for UF’s entomology students.
We Didn’t Invent Gators Either
The University of Florida may not have created the lovebug, but we are offering students a chance to learn about pest management in our online master’s degree and graduate certificate programs. Our online courses empower students with the knowledge needed to classify insects, manage pests and communicate arthropod-related hazards and benefits in urban and landscape environments. If you’re looking for an active role in managing insects (beyond taking them out with your car), enroll in one of UF’s online entomology and nematology programs.