Ah, love is in the air ... love bugs, that is.
You've probably seen them drifting about, swatted them, or cleaned them off your car, but you may not have looked closely enough to realize that the numerous flies floating about are bug couples locked in a love embrace so passionate it will result in their demise in a matter of days.
It initially seems like they might just be sharing a friendly bug hug, but closer examination reveals a more productive connection.
Timothy A. Mousseau, a professor with the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, has studied the love bugs' tryst of fate for a decade.
With all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy, the love bug mating dance begins. It's a sad story from the start. Love bugs only live to the ripe old age of six months. They have a fairly long childhood and adolescence, and probably a significant mid-life crisis considering the fact that they usually kick the bucket about a week after becoming an adult.
With a lot of living to do in a short time, they're eager to be amorous.
"Their courtship is incredibly long," said Mousseau. "They are coupled about 56 hours on average, hence the term 'love bugs.'
The peculiar courtship is one thing that makes the species interesting to scientists. Mousseau said males make a significant investment in the relationship.
"The males are investing most of their bodily innards by transferring them to females into eggs," he said.
Female love bugs don't play when it comes to motherhood. With no candlelight dinners, walks on the beach or Tiffany's jewelry, love bugs still manage to make a 'til-death-do-us-part' commitment. And the female has a natural way of making sure the male love bug keeps his.
"The females have a pair of claspers to hold a male in place," said Mousseau. "Once he commits to copulating, he can't escape very easily."
As could be psychologically expected, the result literally turns the male partner into an empty shell of a bug.
"She injects an enzyme, and after a two- or three-day period, he falls off an empty shell and dies," said Mousseau. "The female lives a few more days and builds up her eggs before she dies."
Love bugs don't go to the gym or buy expensive sports cars, but Mousseau said there is some evidence of competition among male love bugs for access to female love bugs.
"There is some evidence that females are picky," he said.
Female love bugs are looking for the biggest, brawniest male love bug they can get their feelers on. And males aren't interested in supermodel love bugs. It's "the bigger, the better" for them.
"The bigger females have more eggs," said Mousseau. Ridgeland resident Wade Fowler said he finds love bugs distracting.
"I am hyper-allergic to bees and wasps," he said, "so any flying bug causes me to react extremely. People probably think I'm doing some kind of strange dance, flinging my arms around trying to swat them away. I'll be glad when their season is over."
Ridgeland resident Steven Austin has also been bugged by the lovers. "I swallowed one last night that flew into the cup of water I was drinking while hitting golf balls," he said. "I am still alive, but I feel like my body was invaded." Madison resident Lou Shornick said this is the first time he's seen love bugs in large numbers this far north.
"A week ago, I was in the Mendenhall area, and they were thick," he said. "I had to get my car washed. Now they are migrating further north to where they are a nuisance in Madison County. I believe the Katrina blew them from the coast to our area."
Mousseau said it's conceivable the love bugs we're seeing now were blown here by Katrina. "The reason Jackson folks are seeing such a huge number is due to the storm," Mousseau said.
"Following a rain storm, if this follows a period of drought, they will come out, giving the appearance that they are increasing in numbers."
Love bugs have been a major pest on the coast for many years, Mousseau said. They are actually an invasive species, much like fire ants that came from Central America.
"They show up without predators or diseases, so their population sort of takes off," he said.
As larvae, they feed on decomposing plant materials in the ground and contribute to organic matter and nutrient recycling. "They enhance the ecosystem in that way," said Mousseau, adding that their tastes become more refined in adulthood.
"As adults, they only feed on flower nectar," he said. "They do like to sip on sugar water. Some people have complained about them clogging their hummingbird feeder."