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Inside the Outdoors: Some will be bugged by summer’s insect life

Inside the Outdoors

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

At one time or another you’ve heard the expression “…in a perfect world.” It suggests that circumstances or outcomes can be a little bit short of the ideal. The same idea can be expressed in other ways, too. For instance, we can be told that we might have to “take the bitter with the sweet.” Then there is the classic description of something imperfect as “a mixed blessing.” Summer is like that, too: pretty nice, but not always perfect.

One of the more common complaints you might hear about summer is about its abundance of “bugs.” Bugs is a catch-all term to describe a myriad of creatures—mostly small—that crawl, creep, swim, or fly. Most are insects, though spiders technically are not, and some of the distinctions between and among them are more important to entomologists—the people who study such creatures—than to the average person. Most of these creatures live out their lives entirely off our radar. But some are conspicuous, and not always in ways that are appreciated by humans.

A swarm of long-tailed mayfly on a river. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

The past week at the family cabin saw the first emergence of the lake’s mayflies. These are aquatic insects that my wife’s family has called —for as long as I’ve known them—by the unscientific name of “fish fly.”


They live most of their lives underwater as flat, wriggling things called nymphs. But at the right time each June, these underwater nymphs swim to the surface, the skin on their back breaks open, and a delicate insect with transparent wings emerges. As the wings dry in the air before they can take flight, they resemble tiny inch-and-a-half long sailboats riding the lake’s surface. This is a time—both as the nymph swims for the surface, and during wing-drying before they can take flight—when they are vulnerable to feeding fish.

I’ve fished for panfish and bass during such mayfly emergences, typically at dusk on a calm, warm night, when the lake surface looked like rain was falling, dimpled as it was with the rises of fish at or near the surface, sipping the helpless and hapless mayflies before their wings were dry enough for them to get airborne and fly to shore.

Onshore, these mayflies collect by the dozens or the hundreds on boat house and cabin walls, docks and boat lifts, on trees and in the grass. My wife recalls how as youngsters she and her brothers disliked walking barefoot and having these large mayflies crunch beneath their feet with each step. Disturbed and flushed into the air, they may also alight and cling to legs, arms, clothing, and any convenient part of the human anatomy. One positive thing that can be said of their behavior is that they do not bite! During the several days of this annual emergence, my wife says that she and her brothers spent a lot more time indoors playing games, and generally getting in their parents’ hair.

A mayfly warms itself on a green leaf. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

After a day or two spent attached to one of these natural or man-made surfaces, the graceful mayflies become “changelings” once again. For a second time the tissue-thin skin on their back splits, and through that split a sexually mature copy of the slender-bodied, long-tailed, sailboat-winged fly emerges. When the right moment is at hand, typically on a calm evening, males and females take to the air, mingle in clouds above the water, mate, egg sacks are deposited on the water, and the “parents” die and fall to the surface. The cycle of life for these insects is complete. Humans may not be big fans, but the fish in the waters where they are found certainly are.

Mayflies come in all sizes, from those not much more than a quarter-inch from stem to stern, to the huge Hexagenia limbata found in the slow, silty stretches of some trout streams, a mayfly that is about two inches long, give or take.

There are certainly other “bugs” that could be assigned to the mixed-blessing category. The most obvious, one that has been described tongue-in-cheek as our second state bird, is the mosquito. The mosquito has little of the novelty or charisma of the lake and stream-dwelling mayflies. You might say that another expression—“familiarity breeds contempt”—could be aptly applied here.


There are multiple mosquito varieties, but most of us do not draw fine distinctions when we’re slapping at the site on our anatomy where we feel the insect’s needle-like prick, or reaching for the spray can of Deep Woods Off to keep them at bay. There is definitely gender bias in the world of mosquitoes. Only the females bury their needle-sharp proboscis in our skin to take a blood sample—for protein necessary in the egg laying process—while the males rely heavily on plant fluids for sustenance.

Brown trout jumps to eat a Mayfly. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

It’s doubtful that many humans would shed a tear if the last mosquito in the world met its demise under a slap from a well-aimed palm. But there are creatures in Nature that profit by eating what sometimes seems an endless supply of mosquitoes. Very small fish, such as immature bluegills or bass, may consume tiny mosquito larvae in their under-water stage. So do turtles. Swallows, purple martins, and bats take them on the wing. Dragonfly larvae eat mosquito larvae when both are in their under-water stages, and adult dragonflies hunt down adult mosquitoes in flight.

Beyond the obvious annoyance factor, mosquitoes can—though comparatively rare—also be agents of disease, from West Nile virus to yellow fever, to malaria and several others. No surprise, then, that mosquito-targeting repellents have long been big business, from early citronella oil formulas to the modern concoction we know as DEET.

There are other “bugs” that can make summer less than pleasant, from deer flies to black flies, wood ticks to deer ticks, wasps to yellow jackets; not to mention those that attack not us but our flowers, vegetables and fruits. But whether we like it or not, each creature—even the “bugs”—serves some purpose, even if it’s not our particular purpose.


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