By Leslie Mertz
Near Lake St. Clair in the southeastern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, your summer starts off with a crunch. You pick up your foot and see what’s left of an inch-long burrowing mayfly (Hexagenia limbata) on the sidewalk.
This is the beginning of a short-lived but massive mayfly invasion, when millions and millions of the fluttering insects rise up from the lake and into the air in thick clouds, and then land on anything and everything from houses, stores, and cars to arms, legs, hair, and faces. Within a matter of days, the brief en masse mating free-for-all is over for the insects, and other than the deep piles of their carcasses on sidewalks, lawns, and roads, the onslaught is but a memory. If you’ve never experienced a mayfly swarm for yourself, take a look at this National Geographic video:
How do the people live through it? Here are a dozen tips for surviving the swarm.
1. Either revel in the spectacle of nature … or run. On one fine June night about three years ago, Nick Di Cresce, a naturalist at Lake St. Clair Metropark, and his wife decided to take a walk to a lakeside park. “About 10 feet above the water, there were literally so many mayflies you couldn’t see clouds, sky, stars, nothing. It was just completely black. I’ve never seen it that thick,” he recalls. “My wife took off, but I was out there thinking, man, this is great! I was walking right into them.”
2. Know your terminology. On Lake St. Clair, mayflies are known as fishflies. OK, it is confusing because there is a whole different group of insects that are formally called fishflies. Around Lake St. Clair, however, the oh-so-pungent fishy smell of combined living and dead mayflies trumps proper entomological naming. This leads to tip number 3.
3. Rub a little Vicks VapoRub under your nose. This will help tame the insects’ captivating aroma, which probably goes back to their aquatic origin. Although most people aren’t aware of it, mayflies actually spend 99 percent of their lives as aquatic animals, wandering on lake and stream bottoms and living on algae and decomposing matter. “They’re eating the same kinds of things that many of the fish are eating, so that may explain their smell,” said Jo Latimore, an aquatic biologist who has spent more than her fair share of time in mayfly swarms, and is now a lake, stream, and watershed management outreach specialist at Michigan State University.
4. Skip the bare feet and flip flops. During the big swarm, it’s impossible to avoid stepping on mayflies. So if you don’t want to pick insect wings or guts from your heels or between your toes, wear full-coverage footwear.
5. Dancing is optional. If you’re a tap aficionado, close your eyes and pretend you’re at a recital instead of walking down the sidewalk. “Just like any insect, they have exoskeletons that protect their bodies, so they have that satisfying crunch when you step on them or run over them,” Latimore said.
6. Use windshield wipers sparingly. Smeared mayflies are just nasty.
7. Leave the motorcycle at home or wear a full-face helmet. Nuff said.
8. Go light on the brakes. Mayflies are attracted to light, so their numbers are especially high near streetlights. That means they accumulate on the roads at intersections, and combined with the squishing afforded by passing vehicles, they can form greasy slicks. Picture smears of gray lard dotted with little wings. Or perhaps it’s better not to picture that. “When people try to stop, there are so many mayflies on the road that cars have slid into one another,” Di Cresce said. Try explaining that fender bender to your insurance company.
9. Remember, it’s a love thing. Well, not love, it’s a sex thing. “They emerge from the water at the same time with the sole purpose of finding a mate and laying some eggs,” according to Latimore. “It’s all about reproduction.” To get yourself in the mood of the season, perhaps plan a date at the Bay-Rama Fishfly Festival. That’s right, fishflies get their own festival in this part of the world.
10. Get ready for a feast. And no, that’s not a feast of mayflies (although in one of the all-too-rare instances of sweet justice, they have been known to fly into the mouths of overly talkative people). The mayfly invasion — or “hatch” as it is often called — is one of the best times to catch many sport fish. The fish enter a feeding frenzy during the hatch smorgasbord, snapping up the fishflies as well as anglers’ lures. So when the local weather radar picks up the cloud of mayflies, get your fishing pole and your frying pan ready.
11. Adopt the right mindset. Think of it this way. The hatch is a remarkable demonstration of nature in action. For instance, you may be able to watch a mayfly molt right before your eyes. “If you’re lucky, one will land on your arm, its back will split open, it will emerge from the old exoskeleton, and then it will fly away leaving its little skin behind,” Latimore said. Yes, lucky you.
12. Repeat this mantra: “Mayflies are important to the ecosystem.” “I know everyone says they’re terrible, but here’s the thing: They are an indicator of clean freshwater,” Di Cresce asserted. “And not only that, they’re an enormous food source for several different animals here. Birds, for instance, are nesting and they’ve got young at that time, so mayflies are a huge input of food for them at a critical time in the development of their young. We have frogs, toads, and other amphibians that eat them, fish eat them, so mayflies are what’s on the menu. The minute we don’t see mayflies? That’s the time to worry.”
Besides, Latimore remarked, the whole thing is over very quickly. “The hatch only lasts a couple of days. After that, all that’s left are the bodies to be swept away and cleaned up.”
Yes, it’s just another summer at the lake.
Leslie Mertz, Ph.D., teaches summer field-biology courses, writes about science, and runs an educational insect-identification website, www.knowyourinsects.org. She resides in northern Michigan.