I first experienced this invasion at sunrise, early one May as I was driving to the River. About a mile off, a black column rose high in the sky. It wasn’t a tornado and it wasn’t smoke. As I approached, the evidence was splattered on my windshield and caked to the front of my car. The huge, whirling mass was a living swarm of tiny bugs. Bugs stream off the tops of trees like smoke.
Before we retired, we usually visited the island in late July, so I had never before encountered the annual invasion of bugs. Early in May, it starts at twilight. The whirring; from inside, it sounds like a buzz, like my ears are ringing.
When I go outside the noise draws me to look up. Streaming off the tops of trees like smoke are clouds of bugs. The small plumes of bugs are about two feet in diameter, at the base, and can rise 50 ft. or more into the air.
The column constantly undulates. If there is a breeze, the swarms of bugs are blown away from the trees in long thin bands. They are tiny, black and busy. They whirr through the night. At first light, the buzzing subsides.
The next morning, their dead carcasses are everywhere. They seem to love anything white. All painting, a perennial task at the island, comes to a halt. Every morning, my husband cleans up the mess of bugs, scrubbing them from the white deck of our Chris-Craft and brushing them from the porch eaves.
Some years, their dead bodies pile-up on the dock, in drifts, against the white boathouse door. As the shadows beneath the trees knit together into growing darkness and the buzzing begins again. We’ve been invaded and it’s my husband’s least favorite time of year.
The good news is—the bugs don’t get into the cottage and they don’t bite. But what are they?
I’m no entomologist, but from what I’ve read, what I’m seeing is the mating ritual of Chironomids. The column is composed mostly of males. The females are resting nearby, but will enter the swarm, mate and leave. So what I’m witnessing is kind of a Spring Break, guys-gone -wild sort of thing.
Entomologists call them Chironomids or non-biting midges. I can’t find a common name that matches up with them. I’ve heard several terms thrown around: midges, eel flies, may flies, American or Canadian Soldiers (depending on which side of the river you are on), lake flies and fish flies. I’m not sure which of these names matches-up with this particular little bug or with other bugs we see on the river.
But no matter what they are called, seeing them is nothing to freak-out about. In fact, we should rejoice. Not only do they not bite or spread disease, they don’t eat anything either. They are here to mate; and, from what I’ve read, an abundance of Chironomids means that water quality of the St. Lawrence is good.
But conversely not seeing them doesn’t necessarily mean the water is polluted. The swarming usually takes place near water, but the wind can blow these clouds of insects further inland. The wetter it is, the more we’ll see—so a snow-heavy winter, followed by a rain-filled spring, results in much more buzzing. It’s only when the weather turns dry that they begin to drop-of.
The Chironomids are around for several weeks and just as they begin to die out, another fluttering, buggy invasion of Biblical proportion descends upon our island paradise—shad flies. These flies, which to me look more like tiny moths, begin to appear right before the Fourth of July. Like their tinier, blacker cousins, shad flies like light.
No one wants to sit near the anchor light, while watching fireworks, on the 4th of July, because you’ll be constantly swatting. And on the trip home over the water, you’ll have to keep your mouth closed, or risk swallowing a bunch. You are more likely to see shad flies during the day, fluttering above the water.
Shad flies are also indicators of good water quality. Fishermen hate them because fish are filling-up on shad flies and may not be biting for much else. But both bug invasions are harbingers of good water quality and important part of the ecosystem, as both fish and frogs eat them.
I try to avoid inviting newbie, “where’s-the-shopping-mall,” and “I’m-not-a-nature-person” type,s to the island in May or June. The whirring, fluttering and swarming are a little too much for them. One June, a bride-to-be, not from Grenell, but soon to be married in the Grenell Island Chapel—found the swarms of shad flies terrifying. After swatting away swam after swarm of shadflies she asked frantically, “These bugs be here next week, will they?” Meaning of course, “They won’t be here on my wedding day, will they?” To which a sage Grenellian calmly replied, “No, these bugs will be gone. There will be a whole new group to replace them.”
I would never forgo the joy and beauty of the islands because of our annual invasion of bugs. The light in May is dazzling and I love watching the fiddleheads poke through the earth. Bug season probably impacts my husband most, as all painting and varnishing must be put on hold until bug season is over. I’m just glad that my in-laws screened in all our front porches.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 70+ articles here (Actually this is number 79!)– as she helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing, walk with nature and this month, discover those little bugs… During summer 2014, Lynn researched a number of new topics that she shared throughout the winter… Now 2015 is here and we wonder what she has on the horizon!