Lovebugs, notorious for their midair mating, are typically rampant twice a year: Once in late April and May and again in late August and September.
But this year, the swarming insects were nowhere to be seen, and Norman Leppla, a professor with the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology, is getting calls from across the state asking why.
Leppla fell in love with these particular bugs in 1972, when he moved from Arizona to the Sunshine State on a research grant. His first paper on lovebugs, published two years later, studied their behaviors in Paynes’ Prairie, just outside of Gainesville.
At that point, the lovebug outbreak still was at its peak and Leppla was fascinated by them.
The agglomeration of all his lovebug knowledge is chronicled in Leppla’s 2018 article Living with lovebugs. (He’s now considering writing a sequel: Living without lovebugs.)
While questions about the insects are swirling, Leppla said because lovebugs don’t contribute much to Florida’s ecology, research on their apparent demise would be unlikely to get funding.
The Tampa Bay Times recently spoke with Leppla about what may have happened to Florida’s nonessential nuisances.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
When did you realize the lovebugs had disappeared?
I didn’t really notice it until about maybe last year or the year before. They’ve just sort of tapered off and this year — or at least this season — I haven’t seen any. It just seemed like, “OK, it’s a natural variation.” But then they didn’t rebound and I was very surprised. I have a holly tree outside of my office window, and they’re always abundant there because it’s a source of nectar. But there’s nothing.
Do we know what happened to them?
Well, people are noticing and would like to have answers, but it’s really not an area where we could get funding to do research. There is quite a bit of concern about declining insect populations. And maybe somebody would want to include (lovebugs) with some studies right now that focus on things like honeybees and pollinators.
And lovebugs aren’t big pollinators, right?
No. We don’t even think of them as pollinators. They are basically thought of as nuisances. That’s a real classification. It’s insects that don’t bite or sting or transmit diseases or do things that harm other animals and plants.
Those would be nuisances.
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Florida is really, really diverse in habitats. We’ll get rainfall in one area and drought in another 30 miles (away). So there’s so much variability in the habitat that that would not account for the lovebug decline.
They’re pretty hardy, but they’re also in lots of different habitats. So, all in all, there are plenty of ways that we would still have lovebugs in certain parts of Florida.
The larvae can move. If they have a bit of drainage — like on the side of a highway — they can move up and down, so they don’t drown or desiccate. They are under things like leaves, cow manure, just plain, decaying plants. So they get a certain amount of protection.
One thing that really would cause them to decline is their attraction to automobile exhaust. But that’s never caused them to go away before. I guess the only other thing would be some sort of general pressure.
It’s got to be variables that we look at, and that’s obviously climate, habitat, pollution. They’re just standard reasons that we look at and wonder, “What happened?”
Scientists are warning of an “insect apocalypse.” Forty percent of all insect species are declining globally, and a third are endangered. Why is this happening?
It’s gotten to the point where it’s alarming. Entomologists are concerned about it, and we’re doing more and more to try to figure out what’s going on, but it’s just that our habitats are changing. Our climate is changing, and it’s putting pressure on lots of organisms. Certainly, we’re tracking all kinds of vertebrates. As you know, populations are declining and habitats going away. We’re concerned that insects are part of that problem.
They’re part of the food chain. I guess even lovebugs have entered it. In the case of lovebugs, they’re invasive. Our ecosystem doesn’t depend on them, so they’re not that big of a concern.
Nobody seems like they wanted them to come back, but people are asking. I’m surprised there’s quite a bit of interest in wanting to know why they went away, and I wish I could give you an answer, but I don’t know, either.
You’ve studied these insects for decades and seen populations wax and wane. Do you expect them to bounce back?
This continuous decline for three years indicates that something has changed. The flowers that typically attract them are abundant but the insects are absent.
What could have caused lovebugs to decline in Central Florida? Lovebugs have occurred over a wide geographical area and in a range of habitats. It is unlikely that environmental conditions have changed significantly everywhere in Central Florida. It is more likely that lovebugs have been attacked by a parasite or pathogen. If so, these organisms require hosts for continued reproduction and may not be limited to lovebugs. This hypothesized situation would keep lovebugs from resurging.
Honestly, I can’t accurately predict what will happen to lovebugs in Central Florida.