Love is in the air, at least if you're a Plecia nearctica, commonly known as the love bug, which appears in great numbers this time of year in the Lowcountry. First described in detail only in the 1940's along the Texas Gulf Coast, this species of fly has since followed warming temperatures across Florida and up the southeast coast and is now well-established throughout Georgia and South Carolina. Males and females remain mated tail-to-tail as they hover in the millions during two flight periods in the late spring and late summer, each lasting up to five weeks and giving the species its other common name, the honeymoon bug. (In the photo above, the male is on the right.) Adult life spans are only several days long, so to ensure maximum fertility, the pair remains bonded for two or three days until the female disengages to deposit her eggs, up to 300 of them.
Love bug larvae feed out of sight throughout the year on decayed vegetable matter before pupating for about a week into adults. Males emerge first, hovering until females appear and nuptial flights begin, which may reach altitudes as high as a thousand feet. But the insects are attracted to light-colored surfaces, and so share space with us on our decks, patios and most annoyingly, our cars, when white road markings and signs beckon the insects. Because their body chemistry is slightly acidic, expired love bugs who met their ends in collisions with cars once caused pitting in chrome and paint, although modern coatings have mostly eliminated that difficulty. Love bugs are otherwise non-threatening. They don't bite and are not known to be vectors for disease of any kind; and because the larvae feed on decaying matter, they are among nature's important recyclers. Adults, who feed on flower nectar, serve as pollinators.
Because the bugs seemed to appear in the largest numbers in Florida, a popular myth once making the rounds speculated that the bugs were accidentally released from a University of Florida laboratory experimenting with genetically engineered methods of reducing mosquito populations. But research clearly indicates that warmer air temperatures have encouraged northward migrations since the mid-twentieth century, bringing the season of love (bugs) to our backyards.