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Lovebug season marks start of nice weather

Every morning this time of year, a former co-worker used to announce to the office when she arrived after a long commute: "These lovebugs can kiss my butt."

So, though I'm not a lovebug hater — probably because I don't care that much about my car or its paint job — I know they're around.

And, if you are one of those people who dread the semiannual appearance of these insects, joined end-to-end for most of their short lives and drifting like ash from an old smokestack, I have bad news.

Lovebug larva feed on grass clippings. Plentiful rain, of course, means not only more grass, but wetter grass, which is perfect for lovebug larvae — "or maggots, because, remember, these are flies," said Phil Koehler, a University of Florida entomologist.

That means that even though you might have thought the sky had turned black with bugs the last few years, "we really didn't get many because of the dry conditions," Koehler said.

"This year should be a lot worse."

While Koehler was at it, he dispelled a persistent myth about lovebugs. They were not accidentally released by scientists at his university and definitely were not produced in a genetic experiment gone haywire.

They are a Central American species, probably transported to Texas in the soil that ships once used for ballast, he said. And like fire ants, which were imported the same way, they worked their way around the gulf to Florida.

Lovebugs first appeared here in large numbers — larger numbers, in fact, than in recent years — in the 1960s and have been a seasonal presence ever since, showing up at the end of April or early May and then again in September.

I never noticed that they permanently destroy paint. But if they do, it's for the same reason the adult insects have few natural predators — the high acidity of their bodies, especially the females' egg sacs.

"Some birds, if stressed, will eat them," Koehler said. "But there really aren't that many predators of lovebugs. They have a lot of chemical defenses that make them untasty."

So, hardly anything eats them, and they can find something to eat almost anywhere in the state. The more that subdivisions — and lawns — have replaced forests, the better it has been for lovebugs.

Another reason they are likely to be a permanent part of Florida: In the 1970s, the state paid to research lovebug control, and it doesn't anymore.

So, even lovebug haters will have to get used to them taking over the skies every six months, marking the start and then the end of our long, hot summers.

The timing of their appearance has nothing to do with changing temperatures, by the way. They breed every six months just because that's the time it takes for them to advance from egg to larva to pupa to adult.

Even so, you can't erase that connection from our minds. In September, lovebugs mean football season is really under way and kids are starting soccer practice. It signals that the act of drinking a beer on the porch will no longer leave us drenched in sweat. It means that everything we like to do outside — gardening, hiking, paddling a kayak — will be less miserable and more fun.

So let me be the first to wish you a happy lovebug season.

Follow Dan DeWitt at Twiter.com@ddewitttimes.

Lovebug season marks start of nice weather 09/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 9:58pm]
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