Lovebugs: The bug we all love to hate
It’s that time of year again where cars become smeared with the remains of what many call nuisance pests: lovebugs.
Lovebugs, or more specifically Plecia neartica, are the little black and orange bugs that resemble fireflies that become the scourge of drivers across Central Florida, especially along I-4, twice a year.
There are many theories and urban legends about the lovebugs’ origins. Dr. Norman Leppla, a professor of entomology and nematology with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Gainesville, say these are simply myths. Lovebugs originated in Yucatan in Central America before migrating north to the United States, reaching Florida in 1949. By the late 1960s lovebugs became established across the Sunshine State.
“It was an explosion, an absolute explosion,” Leppla said. “Everyone was just so concerned.”
That outbreak led the Florida Legislature, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the USDA to provide additional funding specifically to research lovebugs. Researchers learned that the small critters are attracted to vehicle exhaust, which is why they swarm near busy roadways.
Although Lovebugs swarm, they only do so about twice each year and only for a few weeks. According to Leppla, love bugs only swarm in certain areas. They are temperature dependent and only come out in warmer temps. Because of this, Leppla said that people will call him to ask if lovebugs are still around.
“Although some people feel like they're out too long, it isn't very long in any particular one place,” Leppla said. “The distribution is spotty. So you get a swarm driving through an area, say on the interstate, and think that it's an outbreak all over the state when it's very local.”
A case of copious copulation
Although they are only out for a few weeks, they wind up splattered on cars and litter along highways because of their daily activities, which cause lots of copious copulation. Leppla explains that males compete for females in mating swarms twice a day. Once this process is complete, the bugs take off in pairs to distribute their eggs. Similar to bees, lovebugs use the nectar from flowers to “fuel up” for their swarm, mating and dispersal of eggs. The grassy areas along highways are perfect disposal and mating spots for the bugs.
“That's what you find floating around the highway because they're dispersing. The ones in the evening wait till the next day,” Leppla said. “What that means is they don't fly at night and if you have a vehicle with a bunch of bugs and a mess on your car, it wasn't lovebugs. You can't blame lovebugs. It's another insect.”
Dr. Leppla said the overall amount of lovebugs seems to be waning in recent years. While the bugs are still a nuisance to Florida drivers, they don’t pose any serious health effects to humans. They can damage your vehicle. But not in the way many people believe.
“There’s kind of a rumor that they are acidic,” Dr. Leppla explained, “but they’re not. The damage they cause is really a result of their eggs. If you look closely, the white things on your car are actually eggs.”
"Bug juice" and other ways to clean up the mess
It’s those eggs that can block radiators and damage paint. Trista Kennedy manages Mr. Clean Car Wash in Leesburg and says lovebugs can do some serious damage.
“I definitely have seen damaged paint,” Kennedy said. “If it bakes on there and isn’t getting washed often enough, it does chip into and bake into your paint and chip off clear coat.”
Kennedy explained how the carwash tackles lovebugs.
“For every vehicle, we spray the front with a bug prep. We call it bug juice. We also use our hog hair bristle brushes to wash the front. If it doesn’t come off with that, we use a bug brick or bug sponge, plus a little elbow grease to remove the caked-on bugs.”
While a car wash is the ideal method to get the splattered bugs off your car, Leppla has his own trick for removing lovebugs.
“Dryer sheets. Just moisten dryer sheets, and you can just lift them right off without damaging your paint...So the thing to do is use those Dryer sheets and you'll have a very nice, uh, finger painting on your car that is mushy and loose, and then you wipe that off and the problem is solved,” Leppla said.
Learning to love the lovebug
While love bugs are typically loathed, Leppla says that they have no negative impact towards humans other than their splattered eggs across your vehicle. They are related to mosquitos, but Leppla explains that they do not spread pathogens or diseases like their blood-sucking relatives.
While their positive attributes may be hard to see, Leppla said that they are also an indication of seasonal changes. As mentioned previously, Leppla said that he will get phone calls and emails from concerned individuals when they don’t see lovebugs.
“They're an environmental indicator, if I can say so, they may indicate that the environment's healthy because they're growing and they're out there and if they aren't, maybe there's something wrong,” Leppla said.