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Love is in the air

Posted: June 21, 2012 - 11:01pm
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A female March Fly, upper, and a male, lower, are shown. The male will die soon after this encounter. The female will lay up to 300 eggs in the ground and then die. The March Fly life cycle is only a few days. They measure about 3/8 of an inch in length.  Photo Courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Photo Courtesy of Bob Armstrong
A female March Fly, upper, and a male, lower, are shown. The male will die soon after this encounter. The female will lay up to 300 eggs in the ground and then die. The March Fly life cycle is only a few days. They measure about 3/8 of an inch in length.

Love is in the air ...

And on your car ... your clothes ... fence posts ... ponds ... anywhere it can land.

This winged serpent of Eros is, in fact, the March fly.

Or as it is affectionately known, at least in the deep south, the love bug (although that species is a slight variation).

The reason for this attractive moniker?

It is born to mate, copulate and socialize.

Oh yeah, and then it dies.

And in between it likes to land and walk about. It doesn’t like to fly much.

“They are not strong flyers,” life-long amateur entomologist John Hudson said. “They are kind of haphazardly crashing into stuff.”

And they don’t bite.

Your prized rose bushes? Safe.

Cabbage patch? Safe.

Rhodies, petunias, rhubarb? Safe, safe, safe.

As a matter of fact, the “love bug” is a very strong pollinator, much because of this tiny amorous insects’ feeble flying ability and passion for nectar, walking and landing all over anything that it can attach to while it waits to mate.

There have been reports lately of Juneau area humming bird feeders congested with these elixir-seeking Romeos.

That is why you may see so many of them attached to the sticky flower buds of some of your rhododendrons. They will gather there in large number and become hopelessly trapped and eventually expire.

The March fly (Bibio albipennis or Bibio xanthippes) is dimorphic, that is, the female and male differ in appearance. They measure about 3/8 of an inch in length.

“The male and female are strikingly different,” Hudson said. “I thought they were two different species.”

The male is mostly black with two huge compound eyes on top of the head. The female has a tiny flattened head and longer abdomen. The smaller male has special appendages on its abdomen that allow it to attach to the females, end to end.

After mating, she flies off and, using the stout spines on her legs and back, she digs a hole in the ground.

“I have never seen this type of bug so abundant before,” local biologist, writer and photographer Bob Armstrong said. “I see warblers with mouthfuls of these insects. They get under my glasses and everything. Every flower out there, they are on.”

So, why is the March fly so noticeable this June?

In our region, as well as the Pacific Northwest, they are usually found in April and May. Characteristically, they emerge in late spring or early summer, after transforming from larvae stage to adult in the ground

“It is very possible our late winter and wet spring allowed more of the March fly larva to survive the soil,” Hudson said.

That is correct. March fly females burrow into the ground to lay their eggs. These are terrestrial, not aquatic insects.

The reason we see waves of them riding down the Mendenhall River, along streams on the trails and in puddles is because they are most likely dead, or dying, or just cruising for chicks and hunks.

“I have been seeing rafts of them floating in the Herbert River,” Hudson said. “We are seeing them in the gut contents of young sockeye and coho salmon leaving Auke Lake and heading to the ocean. The warblers living around the streams are using them to feed their young. They may be an annoyance to some, but they are pretty important to the ecosystem.”

The March fly larvae (maggot), which are about 4-5 millimeters long, feeds on decaying organic matter and on the roots of certain plants. They will chew on leaf litter and hasten the breakdown of plant tissue into humus.

They may be seen inhabiting lawns or grassy areas, which often bear rich accumulations of organic debris.

If observed on, say potatoes, it could be that plant was previously damaged by wireworms or some other insect that caused decay.

Unlike cranefly larvae, the spiny March fly larvae can be identified by an obvious head capusula.

As adults, March flies live no longer than a week.

Capital City residents are probably seeing wave after wave of emerging cohorts. Adults emerge synchronously in huge numbers and form dense mating aggregations. The males swarm briefly in the air to attract females and copulate with them immediately as they emerge from the soil.

According to Hudson, these were the most common insects during the Tertiary Period (65 million years ago); a time most compared to today’s climate and — gasp — containing the cooling trend from tropics to ice age. These insects are also the most common in the fossil record. There are more than 650 different species known around the world. Note that there is a species of horse fly, called a March fly that attacks humans in Australia. Our Alaskan flies are not them.

“We have been getting so many calls,” Lois Dworshak said.

Dworshak is an Integrated Pest Management Technician with the Juneau District Cooperative Extension, a division of UAF, located at the Bill Ray Center.

“Knowing the biological life cycle of the insect is important because a lot of people don’t realize that the March flies will be gone very soon. And that they are scavengers feeding on decaying matter, not vegetation and apple trees and such. People can bring samples of pests in if they are having a pest problem and we will try to identify them or use our access to entomologists.”

Their number is 796-6221.

The March fly adults are not pests in the true sense.

However, at least one local biker has succumbed to their lack of flying skills and love of biking helmets. This cyclist removed a clogged helmet only to abruptly find himself in collision mode with another adventurer.

The March flies’ attraction to decaying matter may be a reason for their love of car exhaust. Thus they like intersections and places where cars accumulate.

March flies will not hesitate to hold mass sit-ins on any vehicle.

There have been reports of significant splatterings of these unlucky maters on windshields.

I myself have tried to bring my dinosaur-friendly vehicle to speeds of 60 miles-per-hour, but the intrepid little lotharios and their wanton partners still cling tightly (so needy!).

A tip: Temporarily smearing the front of your car with baby oil or spraying it with a no-stick cooking product will aid in the removal of splattered flies later.

Little leaguers’ uniforms are dotted with them; our canine adventurers are toting them about; strollers in the park move them from one insect bar to another.

Humans are, so to speak, a type of eHarmony website for them. And what a good site it must be as, once mated, the males usually fall spent (sound familiar?) and the females (hopefully satisfied) retire to lay eggs and die.

So relax Juneau; March flies are not a pest ...

Although, I suppose, after a long day of work and wanting to be just left alone, their need to shower you with attention could be rough.

Just say you have a headache.

And then deal with the no-see-ums, who are starting to make their unwanted advances known.

 

• Contact Sports Editor Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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