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Lovebugs invade Central Florida

CENTRAL FLORIDA It is lovebug season and across Central Florida, residents are swatting the pests and washing them off their cars.The lovebug, also known by its scientific name Plecia nearctica Hardy, is a seasonally abundant member of a generally unnoticed family of small flies related to gnats and mosquitoes. 

Scientists have been studying the pests for years but so much remains a mystery about them.

USF St. Petersburg biology professor Deby Cassill, PhD., who specializes in insect behavior said love bugs come from Central America.

Cassill said they live in grass and as the grass is cut the larvae of the love bugs is moved along.

Love bugs are relatives of the mosquito, but they don’t bite. And unlike misquitos, they’re only out during the day.

Although many people consider them a nuisance, Cassill said they benefit nature.

“There’s the benefit of keeping grass healthy by getting rid of the dead vegetation and recycling the dead vegetation back into the grass,” Cassill said.

And Cassill said male love bugs are anatomically interesting.

“If you grab a pair and you’re very, very careful and you pull them apart very gently, you will find that the mating organ of the male is three times its body length,” Cassill said. “A real stud in the insect world.”

Love bugs come out twice a year, during April and May and again in August and September. Some places in Florida will also see them a third time, in December.

Common Misconceptions

Here’s a look at some of the most common misconceptions about love bugs:

Lovebugs escaped after University of Florida researchers brought them into Florida.

Lovebugs are not native to most of the southern United States. According to one study, since 1940 the lovebug has extended its range from Louisiana and Mississippi across the Gulf States, reaching Florida in 1949. In the late 1960s, it became established entirely across north Florida. During the 1970s explosive populations occurred progressively southward nearly to the end of peninsular Florida and northward into South Carolina

University of Florida researchers genetically engineered lovebugs to kill mosquitoes.

Lovebugs are small, slow herbivorous insects that feed on the pollen and nectar found in flowers. Thus, they lack the mandibles (jaws), grasping legs, speed and other characteristics of predaceous insects, such as dragonflies. Lovebugs are active during the day, whereas most mosquitoes are crepuscular (active at twilight) or nocturnal, and they are only adults for a few weeks each year. For these and many other reasons, the lovebug would be a poor candidate to genetically engineer as a mosquito predator, even if it were possible.

Lovebugs are attracted to automobiles.

After mating, lovebugs disperse as coupled pairs, presumably flying in search of nectar on which to feed and suitable oviposition sites. They are attracted to sandy sites with adequate moisture, dead leaves, grass clippings, cow manure and other decomposing organic debris. Female lovebugs are attracted to UV irradiated aldehydes, a major component of automobile exhaust fumes. They may confuse these chemicals with the odors emitted from decaying organic matter at typical oviposition sites. Heat has also been shown to attract lovebugs

Dispersing lovebugs move great distances.

Lovebug pairs are not strong fliers, so tend to remain within a few hundred yards of emergence sites when there is little or no wind. They are able to move across the wind when it is 5-7 mph and search for sources of nectar and suitable oviposition sites. Stronger winds blow them as high as 1500 ft in the air and concentrate them against down wind objects. Coupled females initiate and control flight but males assist if they are able to obtain food

Lovebugs mate the entire time they are coupled.

The general pattern of mating in lovebugs begins with males forming swarms above emergence areas each day in the morning and afternoon. Individual males also may fly just above these areas. Females emerge from the soil later than males, crawl on to vegetation, and fly into the swarms. A male may grasp a female before or after she flies into a swarm. In either case, the pair lands on vegetation where the male transfers sperm to the female. Sperm transfer requires an average of 12.5 hours but the pair can remain coupled for several days during which they feed and disperse

The body fluids of lovebugs are acidic and immediately dissolve automobile paint.

When numerous lovebugs are smashed on the front of a vehicle, the contents of their bodies, especially eggs, coat the painted surface. No permanent damage is caused, however, if the surface is cleaned before the coating is baked by the sun for a day or two. It has been determined that macerated lovebugs are about neutral with a pH of 6.5 but become acidic at 4.25 within 24 hours. Yet, automobile paint was not damaged after being coated with macerated lovebugs and held in a humid indoor environment for 21 days.

Lovebugs have no significant natural enemies.

No parasites have emerged from lovebug larvae or adults held in the laboratory and few cases of predation have been observed in nature over the years. Apparently lovebugs adults are avoided by red imported fire ants and other predators but periodically eaten by spiders, dragonflies and birds.

Insecticides are effective in controlling lovebugs.

Insecticides available to the public for controlling houseflies, mosquitoes and other flies will also kill lovebug adults. However, there are risks associated with using these products around humans and pets, and the lovebugs will return almost immediately. Other insects are often misidentified as being lovebugs, some of which are innocuous or beneficial and therefore should not be killed. It is important to preserve lady beetles, lacewings, honeybees and other insects that help to protect or pollinate plants.

Courtesy of University of Florida IFAS Extension