When I was at Southern Miss in the early seventies, if a car stopped in Hattiesburg, you could tell the direction it had been traveling.
The rotting remains of the love bugs were smeared across the front of their vehicle. If they’d been traveling from the south, they were covered by the suicidal flies. If they were coming from the north, their car would be relatively clean. At that point in time, love bugs arrived in our state and were restricted to the bottom five or six counties.
Since then, they’ve managed to spread well beyond Mississippi. This time of year, and again around springtime, these amorous kamikazes begin appearing in huge numbers. Anyone driving through the Gulf Coast states have experienced the splitter-splatter of their entangled bodies smashing onto a windscreen. If you’re quick, you can wash off the first wave with your windshield wipers. But in most instances, all you’ve manage to do is smear their crushed corpses across the glass.
Love bugs migrated here from the west. They were first identified in Texas around 1940, but they were already quite numerous in the eastern part of Texas, having moved up from Central America a few decades earlier. Now they are found from Texas to Florida and up into the Carolinas.
Considering that they don’t bite, sting or spread disease, love bugs rank right up there with cockroaches, mosquitoes and fire ants when it comes to the consternation they cause. The reason we encounter so many love bugs with our cars is due to a chemical reaction between the exhaust fumes they pump out and ultraviolet radiation.
Love bugs confuse the volatiles created by these reactions with the smell of the rotting vegetation in which they lay their eggs. The mowed grass decomposing along our highways has made these thoroughfares ideal habitats for these flies. Plenty of rain and mild winters increase their numbers even more.
Their tendency to splatter their bodies across the fronts of our cars and trucks doesn’t endear them to us despite their name. In sufficient numbers, they can clog radiators and may cause vehicles to overheat. Windscreens coated with smeared bodies can seriously obscure vision and a car’s paint finish can be be degraded by the rotting bodies of love bugs.
Decaying love bugs release an acid that will etch paint surfaces over time.
As bacteria interact with this gunk, more acid is released. A good soaking with water for about five minutes, followed with 15 to 20 minutes of scrubbing, will generally remove most of the dead bodies without harming the surface. A hood deflector or screen can reduce the number of love bug death dives onto your car.
Love bugs are one of those things we have to learn to live with. Their numbers can be so high and their distribution so great that no economic means of controlling them exists. If you want to reduce the impact of love bugs, try driving early in the morning or late in the evening when they are less active. You can also try driving slower, walking or riding a bike.
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.