The Love Bugs’ Secret Love

Lovebugs (Plecia nearctica) on green milkweed (Asclepias viridis)

A species of fly rather than a true bug, lovebugs are named for their curious habit of not separating after mating. Facing in opposite directions like the couple above, they fly and crawl hither and yon until the male (smaller, with large, round eyes) takes his leave and goes off to die, while the larger female finds some nice, decaying vegetation and lays her eggs.

Anyone who takes to the highways of the southeastern United States when lovebugs are swarming knows how curse-worthy they can become. Presumably attracted to the roads because of heated pavement and exhaust fumes from vehicles, they clog radiators, make it impossible to see through windshields, and do real damage to automotive paint if not promptly removed.

Hundreds of articles provide advice on dealing with the annoying insects, as well as a caution for anyone planning to paint during their twice-yearly swarms. In a word: don’t. For reasons not fully understood, lovebugs are attracted to freshly painted surfaces, especially light-colored ones.

What’s less well known is that lovebugs adore fresh varnish. I’ve yet to find an article that mentions their secret love directly, but every boat varnisher on the Gulf Coast dreads the arrival of lovebug season. The frustration of watching them settle onto a previously perfect, smooth, glossy surface can be substantial.

Even newly-opened cans of varnish draw them like an open bar at a convention. Within seconds of removing the lid, the insects appear. More often than not, they’ll fly directly into the can, where they promptly die.

Coping with their arrival always is a challenge. One trick is to varnish early or late, since lovebugs prefer to be out and about from mid-morning until later afternoon.

Still, it’s inevitable that a few will land. When they do, this simple technique sometimes makes sanding and revarnishing unnecessary.

After allowing the varnish to harden overnight, break the lovebug’s little legs, and toss away the carcass. A few days later, after the varnish has hardened a bit more, remove the leg remnants with polishing compound.

You heard it here first.



Comments always are welcome.

47 thoughts on “The Love Bugs’ Secret Love

    1. Thank goodness their two primary flights are only about a month long, and sometimes less. Because their larvae live underground and need moist conditions to thrive, they disappeared almost completely after our most recent extended drought. Now, they’re back, with a vengeance.

      The good news? They don’t bite or sting, they don’t carry disease, and they help maintain good soil quality. Who could argue against that?

  1. I’ve encountered these insects over by the coast but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any in Austin. It never occurred to me to think about the trouble they cause when someone is varnishing.

    1. The farthest inland I’ve seen a swarm was somewhere around Lake Texana. They were introduced into the country through Galveston in the 1940s, and have spread horizontally along the Gulf Coast.

      The theory seems to be that chemicals in both automobile exhaust and paint (and presumably varnish) emit scents that are similar to those of decaying matter in areas where the insects like to hang out. Sometimes, the world’s as weird as it is wonderful.

  2. Maybe the varnish manufacturer(s) should add this tid-bit of information to their instructions and warnings. Wonder if this holds true in California? I can just see it now: ‘Causes cancer in California’, ‘Messes with fresh varnish/paint in Texas’. Wonders never cease. Great post!

    1. Sometimes people ask me if I don’t get bored out on the docks, but who could get bored with so much to watch? Beyond lovebugs in the varnish, there are cutter bees building nests in the smaller vents, mallards laying eggs in cockpits, snails climbing up the fiberglass, and egrets fishing off swim platforms. It’s an interesting world.

      It wasn’t until this past year that I realized lovebugs mature under ground. I was photographing in a vacant lot when I realized I was surrounded by them — not flying, but crawling up plant stems from the dirt. They really are pretty when they’re nice and fresh, like the ones in this photo. Then, they go from being pretty to being pretty annoying.

  3. Boy that doesn’t sound like love, just some kind of creepy codependency.
    Have you tried playing “Turpentine” really loudly? It was a song by the ever-horrible Courtney Love, that would drive me off pretty quick, although her voice might actually appeal to insects. (There’s also a pretty song, same title, by Brandi Carlile that I kind of like).
    Somehow it made me laugh when you wrote “break the lovebug’s little legs…” I just somehow sensed a touch of annoyance? :) Give ’em a shellacking they won’t forget!

    1. Knowing what I do about Ms. Love, I was fairly sure “Turpentine” wouldn’t do as a lovebug repellant. I gave a minute of it a listen and then rejected it: not because it wouldn’t drive away the bugs, but because playing it at volume would get me tossed from the yacht club. Carlile’s music suits me better, but there’s a problem there, too. She’s so good the lovebugs probably would swarm in to listen.

      As for the leg-breaking line, laughter’s perfectly acceptable. After all, there’s a time for sentimentality and a time for practicality. By the time I perform my amputations, the lovebugs already have perished — but there’s no shortage of new ones to take up the slack.

      1. I don’t think you have mayflies on the Gulf Coast (“fishflies”) They’re kind of weird looking, and sometimes if you drive along the St. Lawrence in the spring, you have to stop every 15 minutes to scrape the mayflies off your headlights. There’s just clouds of them, millions everywhere, they seem to fly blind, no talking or they’ll go into your mouth and when you scrape ’em off, it smells like fish.

        1. We do have them, although not everywhere in the state. I’ve read reports of them from places like Beaumont, Edna, and Livingston — all towns that are close to lakes. They show up on radar from time to time. This short article not only confirms everything you said, it also has a radar gif of the mayflies taking off. It’s really cool. Any time insects show up on radar, it pretty much tells the story on their numbers.

    1. I’m sure you have your own annoyances, Dina. The trick is learning how to deal with them. Given the lovebugs’ schedule, varnishing early or late can work pretty well. And after all — I’m sure the lovebugs aren’t any more happy to find themselves stuck in wet varnish than I am to find them there!

    1. I assumed I’d learn a thing or two about varnishing as the years went on, but learning the habits of lovebugs? That never occurred to me. It’s important to know what they’re up to, though. After several weeks or months of peace, when the first reported sightng comes in, word gets passed around pretty quickly.

      Stories get told, too. Someone says, “I remember that swarm in Fulton, back in ’98…” and everyone settles in. The oral tradition lives.

  4. People used to kill them because of the mess they made on their cars, but then they discovered that lovebugs are actually good for plants.

    1. That’s right. They are good for the soil, and the mess they make in our world is purely accidental. They certainly aren’t attacking cars or new paint jobs, any more than they’re attacking us.

      I noticed that most of the pest control sites I looked at offer small-scale solutions for specific problems, like removing them from front doors or the fronts of cars. But they also note that large-scale spraying isn’t at all effective, and shouldn’t be tried.

      I thought it was fascinating that they’ve only been in this country since 1940 or so (dates given online vary), and that they arrived through the port of Galveston. I’m seeing some every day now, but only a few. They could be holdovers from the spring, or advance scouts for the fall swarm. We’ll see!

  5. Yes, I heard it here first! If I forget because I don’t get a chance to practice, I do think I’ll remember where I heard it, and I know I can ask for a review. :-) (Fascinating!)

    1. My hope is that you never need to practice, Lynn,. On the other hand, I’ll take lovebugs over chiggers and fire ants any day. The dear little lovebug doesn’t want to cause any problems, while those other critters seem to live for the chance to make us miserable. Of course, that assumes they’re capable of intention, too, which probably isn’t the case. Still, I wonder from time to time…

  6. Ah you’re a soul with many and varied talents :-)
    Those talents will serve you well when you visit Oz as this is the land of bugs also depending on the season.

    1. Sometimes my curiosity gets me in trouble. I just looked at one of those pages that shows the most ghastly Australian insects. Oh, my. Some I could cope with, although the ten-foot-long earthworm was a bit much. The page did say that the Hercules moth lives in the north; have you seen one? I think it was included because of its size, but it was quite beautiful.

      I suppose we all develop skills as we need them. I never imagined I’d be polishing out insect legs, but at least it’s still in the realm of annoyance.

  7. Too funny. Love the love bug tales about how pretty they are and then they’re pests. I’m not sure they are in my area but the bugs probably are. I’m not much for insects with the exception of bees and butterflies and I suppose dragon flies. The photo is very nice.

    1. The love bugs are a testament (as if we needed another one) to how large the state is, and how different the eco-regions are from one another. The lovebugs do tend to be found in counties closer to the coast. I couldn’t find any reports of them in your town this year, although they seem to have been hanging around Bryan and College Station in large numbers.

      I’ve never been much of an insect person, but the more I learn about them, the more interesting they become. A few weeks ago, I found some lady bugs with no spots at all. Sure enough, it’s yet another species. It was almost as shocking as finding out that ladybugs aren’t bugs at all, but beetles. I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep calling them ladybugs, though. “Lady beetle” just doesn’t sound right.

      1. You are correct about those called the ladies bugs. But I did know they are beetles. That is one of the other insects that I actually like and had forgotten about. I have them sometimes in my little butterfly patch and sometimes I see them in the little vegetable garden.

        1. They may be beetles, but they’re cute as a bug. I always enjoy seeing them, and now that I know they come in several varieties, I take a closer look.

          Have you heard about the Lost Ladybug Project? That’s something you could do in your own backyard.

  8. What an interesting insect, but I’m glad they don’t appear around my area. I daresay the bugs get ‘high’ like young folk who sniff glue. They look rather attractive with their red chests.

    1. They are attractive, and since they present no threat to humans or animals, I’m feeling more tolerant toward them. I do get tired of cleaning up after them, though. On a spring trip back from the hill country, I had to stop three times to clean my windshield so I could see. I hadn’t seen swarms like that in many years. Since their numbers decline in drought years, I tried to remind myself that their presence was a sign that the drought truly was over — and that’s a good thing.

        1. No, I don’t think so. Some years they’re everywhere, and some years there are none. It has more to do with soil conditions, rain, temperature, and so on. I’m not even sure if they have any natural predators, since they’re originally from South America. I should explore that a bit.

  9. Well, stone the crows, Linda.

    I have done a fair bit of varnishing myself but have never encountered this love-bug phenomenon. We do get at times, invasions of crickets and Bogong moths. I went to a wedding some years ago, when the moths decided to infiltrate the wedding venue which was being held inside a golf club. They got shredded by the overhead fans cooling the wedding party. The wedded couple and all the guests ended up covered with this moth-grey dust during the wedding-waltz, as sung by Leonard Cohen. (Dance me to the end of love.)

    As for the love bug. What a pitiful end for the male. I hope that this is not seen as a victory for female liberation. How inappropriate, and it can’t even be a case of the wrath of a scorned woman because the poor bloke is carking it. The male mates once and dies. This us something out of a Greek tragedy. No wonder the male gets bulging eyes.
    If I was a male love bug I would seriously consider same sex cohabitation. Nice and safe.!

    1. I’ve read of the release of butterflies at a wedding, but never the shredding of moths. For some reason, that strikes me as amusing, in a best-laid-plans sort of way.

      Just so you know, in the love bug world it’s not all that great for the lady, either. She gets to hang around long enough to lay her eggs, helping to ensure the continuation of the species, but she doesn’t have the pleasure of watching her kids grow up. Once the eggs are laid, she’s a goner, too. The life span of a love bug is about two to five days for a male, and generally three or four for a female. That helps to put things in perspective. Any who land in the varnish might have cut their lives short only by hours.

  10. My suspicion is that some sort of alcohol or ester compound in paint (and especially varnish) that outgasses when it dries is what draws them. It may be similar in chemical composition to something they find attractive like a food source or rotting vegetation, or it may bumfuzzle their senses.

    1. I’m sure you’re right. I can’t speak to varnish specifically, but in the article I linked up above, I found this:

      “Lovebugs are attracted to irradiated automobile exhaust fumes (diesel and gasoline) when the ultraviolet light incident over the highway ranges from 0.3 to 0.4 microns (3000 to 4000 angstroms (A)) between 10 AM and 4 PM, with a temperature above 28°C. Hot engines and the vibrations of automobiles apparently contribute to the attraction of lovebugs to highways. Callahan et al. (1985) reported that formaldehyde and heptaldehyde were the two most attractive components of diesel exhaust.”

      So: chemical, yes. Some articles say that there are similarities between exhaust and the debris that they enjoy living in. It’s a strange and wondrous world.

  11. Oh ick! I can remember insects being attracted to the resin or coating they put on printed circuit boards. And, oh, much to my disappointment and lack of paying attention, they LOVE the glue in my old book bindings.

    Love bugs are a factor here in Florida certain times of year also and very messy for cars on I95!! I can absolutely sympathize with the consequences to a perfect coat of varnish!! Love Bug Mercies to you!!

        1. Well that is true…in the bird world where grackles can be considered a nuisance….they still grace our world with such beautiful iridescence! I was just admiring the other day how our world is full of beauty and colors. Does not matter whether it a tulip petal, or a bird feather, or an insect carapace or wing…..things of the earth have such remarkable beauty and texture. Even the humble love bug!!

    1. I’d forgotten what insects can do to books. I used to buy boxes of books from farm sales, and many of the really old ones would look perfect, until you opened them up and discovered the binding had turned to powder, or sections of pages would be gone. I’d never thought about circuit boards, but every now and then an electrical transformer will go out because of fire ant nests.

      I knew you Floridians would recognize these little critters. I’ve seen videos of some pretty impressive swarms over there. They certainly are an irritant, but on the other hand — they’re not mosquitos!

  12. Thanks for the closeup of these two. Of course, I’ve seen love bugs, but usually after they’ve splatted on the front of the car. I’m glad we don’t have the little nuisances here! Who knew they’d be so attracted to paint and varnish??

    1. It’s strange, isn’t it — that they’d be so attracted to paint and cars. Of course, those things may smell to them like bacon or lilacs smell to us, so there’s that. I must say, when they’re nice and fresh and perhaps haven’t even flown yet, they’re really kind of cute. I especially like the big, round eyes on the boy bug.

  13. They remind me a little of our lily beetle, pretty but darn annoying. Great photo. What is it with varnish and insects, I used to dread painting and varnishing our old narrowboat, it’s was a mass of gnats and such in

    1. That lily beetle certainly is pretty, but my goodness! What a lot of damage it seems to do. Even though the lovebugs can “damage” varnish, it’s more the annoyance of having to redo work that’s the issue. Even the cars aren’t damaged, as long as the bugs are cleaned off before the sun bakes them on, and their acids start eating through the paint.

      Interesting that you mention gnats and such getting into your varnish and paint. The lovebugs are the only things that really cause me trouble. There are some very tiny black insects that come around, but they’re so small they can be buffed out easily. The funniest experience I ever had was when a mallard landed on a freshly varnished coaming. The boat owner was so taken with the prints, he decided to leave them — a sort of conversation starter.

    1. Even a passive cat doesn’t help things. That’s one reason I never do a final coat on a smaller piece here at home. There is no place where cat hair isn’t. It’s not precisely thick or noticeable to humans, but any that are floating can find their way to that fresh varnish in a flash.

      As for the lovebugs — I don’t have to tell you there’s no waving them off. I noticed to day that there are a few around again. I wish they ate mosquitoes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.