Wednesday, June 24, 2009

COLUMN: Mayflies

Sometimes it's bad to be curious. Heading to the parking lot on my way home from work just now, I glanced over at our loading dock. What's usually a meticulously tidy area was covered in what looked to be piles and piles of sawdust. That's weird, I thought to myself. Did I miss out on some kind of industrial-arts fun time out back? As the investigative journalist that I am, I went over to check it out. Well, okay, as the man-boy that I am, I went over to kick one of the piles, because that's the kind of juvenile fun you just don't grow out of. Smirking like a schoolkid, I charged at one of the piles and sent sawdust flying into the air and all over my pants.

That's when I noticed that the sawdust was squirming.

That's when I realized I had just kicked a heaping pile of dead and dying mayflies. Umm... eww, to put it mildly.

There are times in life that I'm conscious of trying to look relatively cool. This was NOT one of those times. When your clothes are suddenly writhing with the death throes of a kajillion mayflies, one does not think of looking cool. One DOES, in fact: shudder, nearly vomit, hop up and down like a lunatic, wave one's arms like a madman brushing insect corpses off of one's pantlegs maniacally -- and, as it turns out, one might even do all of the above while making a noise that sounds like "blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!"

After living in the Quad Cities for over two decades, I've gotten used to a LOT of things about life on the river. Mayflies, however, are not one of them. I'm originally from Galesburg, a town thankfully lacking in aquatic breeding grounds for prehistoric creepy water bugs. Never in my life have I encountered insects that live and die in such mass quantities that they actually show up on doppler radar and begin PILING UP upon their demise. It is, without doubt, the grossest part of living in the Quad Cities:

The North American Ephemeroptera. Otherwise known as the common Mayfly, because they're supposed to be prevalent in the month of May even though it's June and they're so stupid they don't even know what month it is. Otherwise known as the Dayfly, because the Day they come out is the Day we should all stay inside. Otherwise known as the Shadfly, because "shaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!" is the noise you make when you're trying to repress vomit after kicking a pile of them.

If you've ever thought that your life sucked, at least you're not a mayfly. Here's their basic life cycle: First off, you hatch in the water with somewhere around 8000 siblings. You're an incredibly ugly infant called a naiad. You spend anywhere from a few months to a few years crawling around the bottom of the river, spending your days dodging predatory fish and eating algae. You stave off boredom by moulting up to 20-30 times and checking out your fancy new exoskeleton. Eventually, one of those exoskeletons comes complete with a spanky new set of wings. You might also be taken aback by the fact that your mouth stops working and becomes vestigial. This is your cue to float up to the water surface, learn to fly, and have some REAL fun.

At this point, you have but ONE thing to do in life: search for some Barry White records, because it's time for some mayfly lovin'. Humans might just see a streetlight, but to the hordes of mayflies flitting around them, it's the Playboy mansion. In fact, mayflies even -- wait, it's a family paper, how can I say this -- umm, boy mayflies have not one but TWO boy parts, and girl mayflies have TWO girl parts, thus the potential for some serious freaky-deaky. The good news is that you don't even have to take her to breakfast the next day, since you no longer have a functioning mouth. The downside, of course, is that you die.

If you've ever thought that your life sucked, at least you're not the guy who created, the web's #1 fansite for mayflies. There you can find "fun" videos and pictures of the common shadfly, in case the 10,000 of them stuck to the side of your house aren't enough to satisfy your viewing habits. You can read shadfly poetry (example: "shadfly / clinging to the light / it strives to hold / shadfly / clinging / the spirit blows away.") You can learn to dance The Shadfly Shuffle (grind heel, step, rock recover, bird vine, step forward, 1/2-turn, shuffle in place. C'mon, everybody, join in!) You can even buy a fabulous white gold shadfly pin so you can experience the joy of having an insect carcass clinging to your clothes all year long.

All I know is I hate the dumb little buggers and it wouldn't upset me if they disappeared from our little ecosystem altogether. But once again, science scolds and reminds me that mayflies are an important part of our food chain -- they're a tasty little dish for trout and catfish. But last I checked, there weren't too many hungry catfish in our company's loading dock, so I wish they'd stick to the river. Apparantly, though, a healthy mayfly crop means a healthy river, since they can't reproduce well in polluted waters. And while the shallow, insect-hating part of my brain would encourage all of you to start polluting the Mississippi with extreme malice, the wrath of Chad Pregracke is probably worse than the wrath of mayflies, so I'll keep my yap shut (but mostly for fear of inhaling a cloud of insects.)

Just do me a favor -- the next time you see a horde of mayflies swarming around, remind them that they're a month late to seasonal extinction. I'm sure they'd thank you if they had mouths.

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