The Ripple: Insects of Spring

Before May Flies, Meet the Mayfly

Every September, just after the leaves start to fall, I go out with Sienna and Hilltown Families citizen scientists to do a Rapid Biotic Assessment (RBA) of the East Branch of the Westfield River downstream from the RT 143 bridge in West Chesterfield, MA. Returning to the same site as the year before, we collect aquatic bugs—including mayfly nymphs—and, based on what we’ve gathered, we can tell how healthy the river is. If a river has a lot of mayflies, it is a healthy river—with lots of big and healthy trout in it (We’ll invite you to help us; so be on the lookout for our invitation!).

Imagine never getting swarmed and bit by mayflies as you revel in the vivacities unleashed by the ubiquitous green fountain of spring. Imagine gardening, or hiking, or simply sitting on a park bench without having to constantly swat and flinch and keep from going mad as the mayflies crawl on your neck and arms and ears, looking for a sweetspot to slice skin and lap blood. Now, imagine your dream of never getting bit again by mayflies comes true, right now as you read this! Because mayflies don’t bite.

Blackflies: they’re the little flying vampires that mob us in spring—not mayflies. Here is a picture of a mayfly. Notice its two long tails (though some have three), and large transparent wings. Most are an inch or longer.

Here is a picture of a blackfly

Not only do they gorge on our precious blood and, in Africa, spread disease; they also make us think nature is mean; and for that, especially, I don’t like them. Blackfly seem to be everywhere—even in sunny Hollywood, where “the experience of being continually bitten, unable to step outside from countless bites, is a demoralizer with few equals.”

Blackfly can be kept at bay by spraying hats and clothes (not your body!) with bug repellent (avoid DEET).

Mayflies require no repellent, and—once you become aware how beautiful they are—deserve your attention, respect and appreciation. The blog, Mayfly.org, is dedicated to mayflies that explains what mayflies symbolize.

Trout fishermen know how wonderful they are; they send out alerts the moment mayflies start hatching. Trout patiently wait for them to touch down on the water and then shoot up and eat them; and fishermen who know trout learn not only to make fake mayflies; they carry with them a variety of fake flies, each one representing a different subspecies. These fake flies are an artform in and of themselves that represent a laudable awareness of the particularities of the biome that the fisherman is fishing in. Want to know about how alive a river or brook is? Ask a trout fisherman—they’ll know, because they know the ways of the mayfly.

Every September, just after the leaves start to fall, I go out with Sienna and Hilltown Families citizen scientists to do a Rapid Biotic Assessment (RBA) of the East Branch of the Westfield River downstream from the RT 143 bridge in West Chesterfield, MA. Returning to the same site as the year before, we collect aquatic bugs—including mayfly nymphs—and, based on what we’ve gathered, we can tell how healthy the river is. If a river has a lot of mayflies, it is a healthy river—with lots of big and healthy trout in it (We’ll invite you to help us; so be on the lookout for our invitation!).

That is why I love to see mayflies. Their life is an expression of the larger life that we call our biome, our “bio- home”: our home of life. By paying attention to them, we can tune into our larger shared life, and begin to imagine ourselves—not as just workers and consumers and voters and etc, but—as participants—not audience members—in a ceaseless pageant of miracles.

This is my bet—if you look at your car for the next few weeks, you will see a mayfly resting on it. Take a moment. Look at it closely. Get to know what it looks like. Think of what watercourse it came from—because it probably is nearby. Then, as you stand on pavement with some no-doubt pressing business take one more additional time out to realize that this mayfly belongs to a family that has been living here since the glaciers melted plus or minus 15,000 years ago.

The mayfly might be symbolic, but its reality awes—if you take the time to get to know it.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (ccl) Mark Robinson]

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