Bugs In Lust Make Roads A Bust

Posted: May 16, 1989

HOUSTON — Residents of the nation's Gulf Coast states have learned to cohabit with a number of strange critters over the years. Roaches the size of small mice, green lizards with inflatable orange necks, slippery snails that leave a slimy path wherever they go - all of these are quite ordinary to the people who live in the Gulf Coast's steamy embrace.

But at this time of year, and again in September, Gulf Coasters become more than a little upset over an innocuous, black and red insect that looks no more threatening than a smallish lightning bug.

It's called the lovebug, or in some circles the double-headed bug or honeymoon bug. A type of fly that spends most of its adult life hooked end to end with another adult lovebug in a lengthy mating dance, the lovebug's twice- yearly appearance spells disaster for motorists who find themselves in the middle of lovebug swarms.

Mating in the air by the millions, many lovebugs end up as a thick paste on the windshields and hoods of cars - a paste so corrosive that it leaves holes in a car's paint job unless it is quickly removed. The bugs are sometimes so thick that they plug up radiators and cause vehicles to overheat.

"It's miserable," said manager Bruce Buckler of the Econo Auto Painting outlet in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

In his own case, Buckler's recent encounter with the bugs forced him to stop several times on a drive to Georgia. "I had to scrape the headlights off to get light out of them," said Buckler, who is thankful, at least, that lovebugs don't bite: "If they were like bees, everyone would be dead."

Making a still-unexplained appearance along the coast in the 1920s, the

bugs - also found in Mexico and Central America - have appeared in epic numbers in some years, according to Texas A&M University entomologist Garland McIlveen.

They were so bad in Florida in the early 1970s that some service stations began charging motorists for window cleaning. "It was as much as $1.50, or 75 cents if you did it yourself and used their water," recalled Chuck Tovey of the Certified Products company in Orlando, which lately has been swamped with orders for its special lovebug car screens.

In recent years, for reasons unclear, the Gulf Coast's lovebug population has dropped off. But this year, they seem to be back in great force. Again, no one can say for sure why, although University of Florida entomologist Donald E. Short says the insects are doomed to succumb to natural controls such as fungal disease.

Lovebugs do no damage to crops; in the larval stage they eat decaying leaves, and as adults they sip on nectar. The females live only about a week, and the males - who spend most of their time being dragged around by the bigger females while hanging upside down - die after mating for two or three days.

But their harmlessness doesn't make coastal residents like Joann Duncan any happier about them. "This year they're even in my home. . . . They come through the back patio into the den," said the Cocoa, Fla., woman, co-owner of the Brevard Paint & Body shop. People "dread" the invasion "but know it's going to happen," she said.

And there's always the question of what to tell small children who ask why the lovebugs are flying hooked together through the air. "I guess you just say they're carrying a spare part in case one of them breaks down," Tovey said.

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