No love lost for pesky pestilence

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 24, 2005

They seem to be everywhere this time of year, especially splattered on the front of windshields. The bi-annual swarms of Plecia nearctica, or "love bugs" as they're commonly called, are clogging up car radiators and frustrating drivers who are having a difficult time seeing where they're going through the bug goo on their windshields.

"This is the only reason I pulled over," said Mobile resident Jim Taylor, as he cleaned hundreds of dead love bug carcasses off his windshield at a local gas station. "I'm totally out of windshield wiper fluid. It got so bad that I couldn't see out the windshield."

Despite their common name, love bugs are actually flies, similar to common house flies or mosquitoes. Their name comes from the fact that once they reach adulthood they have only one mission - to find the opposite sex and make baby love bugs. The female is the bigger of the species and usually gets her way dragging the smaller male with her during the mating process.

"Like a lot of insects they live to mate," said Alex Huryn, associate professor of biology with the University of Alabama. "They tend to emerge late in the summer and for some reason they're attracted to roadways; the thought being that they are attracted to exhaust fumes."

David Burgans at Simmons Auto Repair in Greenville agrees. Simmons' washes and details about 20 cars a week, and this year's crop of love bugs is the worst Burgans can recall.

"They're hard to get off, I can tell you that," he said. "You can't use a brush on them because it won't do nothing but smear them. We usually soak them in whitewall cleaner to get them off."

One thing everyone agrees on is that if you get them on your car, you'd better get them off fast or they'll ruin your paint.

"It will defect the paint if you're not careful," Burgans said. "You've got to get them off as soon as possible."

Dr. Timothy Mousseau, who works in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, believes the abundance of love bugs this year is directly related to an unusually wet summer in some parts of the country.

"In addition, Hurricane Katrina dropped a large amount of rain across a vast area in the south which I believe triggered a more synchronous than usual adult emergence, thus giving the impression of larger than normal numbers," he said on his web site.

"Hopefully this means they will die back quicker than usual as well."

In years past love bugs, which are only active during daylight hours, were only a problem along the coastal regions, but they are beginning to show up further and further north each year.

"Many people don’t realize that these flies are actually invaders from Central America and have been working their way northward along the coast," Mousseau said. "They have been spotted as far north as Wilmington, N.C."

While you might not think so, love bugs do actually have some redeeming qualities. They live in soil and decaying organic matter, especially if it's moist, and they feed on rotting vegetation, so they contribute to the natural recycling process.

"I've never experienced this before," said Taylor as he finished squeegeeing the dead bugs off his windshield. "You can see swarms of them all over the Interstate."