Too Much of a Good Insect?

It’s no secret that the Great Lakes are cleaner than they were 25 years ago. But some of the wildlife that’s rebounded because of the cleaner water is causing some problems for people who live near the lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Paul Cox explains:


It’s no secret that the Great Lakes are cleaner than they were 25
years ago. But some of the wildlife that’s rebounded because of the
cleaner water is causing some problems for people who live near the
lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Paul Cox explains:

(sound of waves and seagulls)

It won’t be long before a sleeping multitude awakes in the Great Lakes.
Millions of mayfly larvae have been burrowed in the muddy bottom of the
lakes. Soon, they will rise, take wing and fly off in search of a mate.

Often, they end up on shore. There they get on everything.

Breck Coombs has seen them invade the car dealership he manages in
Port Clinton, Ohio on Lake Erie.

“I have bugs all over the whole building. It’s almost like you’ve got to
have a second set of clothes when you come into work a lot of times.
You sit down and they make a big mess on your clothing. It’s pretty bad.”

During mayfly season his workers have to wash every car in the lot every
day so the bugs and their droppings don’t mar the paint.

The mayor in Port Clinton is Tom Brown. He says since the mayfly has
been increasing in population the insect has caused some bizarre
events. The way he describes it, it sounds as though it’s like living in an
Alfred Hitchcock thriller. He remembers once getting hit by the bugs
while he was at a drum and bugle corps competition.

“We were watching the show and all of a sudden I looked to the sky
and I saw a black cloud. The mayflies came onto the field, they began to
swarm. I was covered with mayflies from head to toe.”

Aside from the mess they make, the mayflies are – for the most part –
harmless. Fred Snyder is an aquatic biologist with the Ohio State
University Extension Service. He says the mayfly is a bug with no bite.

“Mayflies do not have working mouths. This is a mouthless insect. It has no stinger.”

But Snyder says the mayfly is still something of a nuisance because they
don’t smell very good.

“One evening just coming back into town I noticed a very,
very disagreeable smell. The place stunk. Sort of like dead fish, but
different. But very strong.”

And… the sheer numbers of the mayflies are a problem because the
insects not only fly by the millions, they die by the millions.

Mayor Brown says when that happens… the dead bugs can be a bit of a

“When they were heavy we had signs on the streets: ‘Slippery, mayfly hatch.’
And there were a couple of accidents from people sliding around on those mayflies.”

As you might imagine… millions of smelly, messy and dead mayflies are
bad news for any town… but especially so in a tourist town such as Port

But biologist Fred Snyder say the mayflies are also good news. The huge
mayfly population means the lake is environmentally healthier.

“Mayflies have a high need for oxygen. So when you find
good numbers it tells you that the oxygen level in the water is very

It’s not always been that way. Pollution in the lake took its toll. Oxygen
levels dropped. And the mayflies almost disappeared by the 1950’s.

Dr. Carl Richards, with the Minnesota Sea Grant program, says the
presence of organisms such as the mayfly can be a better indicator of
the lake’s health than testing for polluting chemicals.

“It’s often very expensive and difficult to measure chemicals.
And the ultimate reason we’re interested in chemicals is because of
the organisms. It’s the fish, the birds and the plants we’re concerned
about. So the idea is if the fish and the birds and the plants are
healthy, then the environment must be healthy.”

And a recent federal grant will help scientists look further into the
connection between the health of organisms such as mayflies and the
environmental state of the Great Lakes.

Lake Erie near Port Clinton is not the only example of rebound in the
mayfly population. There’s also been a sharp mayfly population increase
in the waters immediately near Erie, Pennsylvania.

It’s not only good news for the mayflies. It’s good news for fish too.
Some fish feed on the mayfly larvae. So, with more mayflies, there’s
more food for fish.

But, people still have to deal with the annual mayfly onslaught. In
places such as Port Clinton, that means trying to find ways to reduce the
invasion. One thing the city does is turn off streetlights and ask
residents to turn off as many exterior lights as possible in hopes of
attracting fewer bugs during the peak season.

The mayflies that do make it ashore and die are picked up with street
sweepers and composted. In fact, the city got a grant to build the only
licensed landfill in the U.S. for mayflies. There, they compost the
carcasses. Biologist Fred Snyder cooked up the recipe.

“It’s basically sawdust that is mixed about two to one with the
mayflies that are picked up by the street sweepers and brought to
the composting site.”

After several months the mayfly compost is used for gardens and lawns
all over town.

(sound of waves)

Now, Mayor Brown is trying to convince the townspeople to look beyond
the nuisance factor and embrace the mayfly as the standard-bearer for a
cleaner lake.

“We even came up with a theme: Come to Port Clinton where
your dreams may fly.”

It might not offer much comfort to those afflicted by the annual mayfly
invasion… but hey, it’s catchy.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Paul Cox.

Mayflies Make a Comeback

People have long considered the burrowing mayfly a pest. And 40 years
ago, they were glad when the clouds of bugs virtually disappeared from
the Great Lakes. But the mayfly is making a comeback. And as the Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, scientists say it’s a sign
of a healthier water system: