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Mayfly: Romeo and Juliet of the insect world

Friday 13 June 2008

Our countryside correspondent John Sheard, who worries a lot about bugs, reveals what he didn’t previously know about the magical Mayfly, and is sad that after 300 million years of evolution, one particular example failed this week to find a mate

I NOTICED it perched on my shoulder as I passed the mirror in the hall as I returned from a morning in my allotment on Tuesday: one of the most beautiful bugs to inhabit this land of ours but one which these days has one of the saddest of lives.

I have known quite a lot about the marvellous Mayfly since I was a child and my grandfather was teaching me some of the rudiments of fly fishing. The Mayfly looms large in this lexicon because, for a couple of weeks in the year on some special lakes and rivers, it used to hatch in its trillions – and gave even the clumsiest of fly fishermen a chance of a decent trout.


Those two weeks are known as “duffers’ fortnight” because the fishing is easy – except for this beautiful insect, that is. And, despite its name, it usually hatches – in the British Isles at least – in early June. When I was nobbut a lad, Whitsuntide marked the beginning of the Mayfly season – but that seems to be getting later and later as the years pass.

I have done less fishing this spring than normal – the waters have either been too high in flood or two low in the near drought of the past couple of weeks – but for a month or so I have been keeping a weather eye for Ephemera danica, to give this elegant creature its scientific name. And I have seen just one, on the River Aire near Skipton.

Compare that with the trillions which used to cover the great limestone lakes in the West of Ireland, where I used to fish Lough Corrib every year half a century ago. In their mating dances spiralling up to the sky, they could be mistaken for smoke from raging fires and they fell into the lake in such huge numbers that they brought even the big cannibal “ferox” trout out of the deep water to join the feast – native brownies weighing 10 lbs and more.

For anyone who appreciates insects, either for their own beauty or in pragmatic understanding that they are the bottom of the food chain for many wild creatures, these frantic courtship rituals have always had a sad side: for this one single day is both the beginning and the end of the Mayfly as a free flying spirit in search of love.

To get to this moment of ecstasy, they have spent up to two years grubbing about on the bottom of lakes or rivers as nymphs, feeding on whatever they can scrounge and avoiding many predators: trout love them even at this stage.

Eventually, they change form, creep out of the water and cling to the underside of leaves until they metamorphosise a second time into the flying adult with just one aim left in life: to mate.

That seems a pretty poor result for 300 millions years of survival

They find their partner of the wing, get together, and then the female drops her fertilised eggs into the water to start the cycle all over again – unless a trout gets her before she can perform that vital function. Even is she escapes those jaws, she still dies – as does her partner, a sort of Romeo and Juliet of the insect world.

I have known this story for many years and it always saddens me. But then, when I consulted that excellent website www.buglife.org.uk I learned even more tragic background. The Mayfly, you see, is one of the oldest creatures on this planet. Fossils specimens have been found 300 million years old, well before the dinosaurs.

So today I grieve for the Mayfly that landed on my shoulder on Tuesday. Although I placed it very carefully on the leaves of the clematis by our front door, it made no attempt to fly away and its chances of finding romance were, I am sad to report, zero. That seems a pretty poor result for 300 million years of survival!

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