Lovebug: Plecia nearctica

Most people in the southern United States are very familiar with the seasonal appearance of the slow-moving pesky lovebug that is often seen in spring and fall attached to a mate and hovering near freeways and other byways with heavy traffic.  However the origin of the strange-looking insect is the subject of much speculation and rumor. 

Lovebug Rumor

The most persistent rumor is that lovebugs are the result of a 1950s University of Florida experiment that went horribly wrong.  Supposedly at least two of the strange-looking insects escaped from the laboratory and began to rapidly reproduce.  The result is the bi-annual swarm that seems attracted to motorists’ windshields and grills throughout the South.

Lovebug Mythbuster

The story is nothing but conjecture according to University of Florida entomologist Tom Fasulo.

“It’s just not true, “Fasulo said. “I started hearing the lovebug story in 1979, my first year as an entomologist at the University of Florida, but other entomologists told me they heard the same story before. Where it got started we just don’t know.”

Lovebug Origins

Rumor and speculation aside, the lovebug is not even a Florida native.  The lovebug is actually part of the fly family. Its scientific name is Plecia nearctica. The insects are originally from tropical areas of Central America.  In fact, lovebugs were unknown in the United States until the early 1900s. It was during that period the insect first showed up along the Texas coast as an invasive species. It is not known exactly how the lovebugs entered the state but most researchers believe it was at one of the Texas Gulf of Mexico ports.

The lovebugs flourished along the humid Texas coast and slowly began to migrate along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.  By the 1950s the pests were entrenched in Louisiana and Mississippi and in the following decade the lovebugs had made their way through Alabama and most of Florida.  Today they have made their way along the Atlantic Coast through Georgia and South Carolina. The Gulf Coast's warm waters and semi-tropical climate provides the perfect environment for many exotics, including the dangerous Burmese Python. Unlike the lovebug, many of these creatures are creating ecological havoc as their range increases.

Lovebug Life

Lovebug Life

The lovebugs are seen mainly in May and September when each of two yearly generations are hatched. They live only about 4 weeks though a few linger on for many months.  The lovebugs’ strange appearance is due to the mating rituals of the species.  They are normally seen flying together, attached.  During this time they are reproducing.  The smaller male only disengages from the female during daytime while resting on vegetation.  They are continually attached while flying and throughout the night.  It may take up to 12 hours to successfully mate and the female dies within 86 hours of laying eggs.

If there seems to be an inordinate amount of swarming lovebugs near the highways, it is because automobile exhaust fumes, engine heat and car vibrations all attract the insects. The huge volume of lovebug splatter on vehicles can cause visibility problems, overheating or paint damage.  Insect debris should be cleaned off vehicles within 24 hours to avoid possible paint damage.  The article  provides many tips for removing the gooey guts from your prized paint finish.

The renegade science experiment makes for a great story, but the truth is much more mundane.  The critters are not Petri dish mutants, simply wayward travelers, finding their way in a new land. One thing is certain, they are here to stay.