Think lovebugs are bad now? They once caused a public safety crisis in Florida.

Drivers used to have to pull off the interstate every 10 miles just to wipe the paste of guts from their windshield during lovebug season.
Travelers throughout central Florida found love bugs by the millions, clogging their radiators and smearing windshields. A woman sweeps the pests from the protective screen of her car near Cocoa, Fla., after a recent trip through the area. AP (1973)
Travelers throughout central Florida found love bugs by the millions, clogging their radiators and smearing windshields. A woman sweeps the pests from the protective screen of her car near Cocoa, Fla., after a recent trip through the area. AP (1973)
Published May 9

They’re pesky, they’re plentiful, and they’re probably splattered all over the front of your car.

Welcome back, lovebugs! We did not miss you.

It’s the return of our least favorite clingy couple, the tiny jerks who spend about 12 hours having intercourse — and usually fly in your face at some point during the process.

Yes, the front of your car has accumulated more carnage than the Battle of Winterfell. Yes, it’s gross. But the lovebug population actually used to be so much worse.

Lovebugs have been wreaking havoc on vehicles for decades. Times (1977)
Lovebugs have been wreaking havoc on vehicles for decades. Times (1977)

Lovebugs arrived in Florida sometime during the mid 1900s. The invasive species came to Texas from Central America and migrated east, creeping from Louisiana down to Florida. (No, University of Florida researchers did not create them in a lab to eat mosquitos — that is a myth.)

Things weren’t so bad, at first. But over the years, humans accidentally created the perfect recipe for these invaders to flourish. Farmers rearranged the way pastures were organized, bringing cattle closer together instead of letting them spread out far across open fields. Meanwhile, the Florida Road Department increased its grass-trimming by the highway.

Where do lovebugs thrive? Among cow poop and cut grass.

The bugs spread across the state. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were so many lovebugs that it could be dangerous to drive during the day, said Dr. Norman Leppla, a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology.

The north and central portions of the state are especially appealing to the pesky little windshield plasterers, who love to decorate Greyhound buses and make life miserable for the people. Times (1977)
The north and central portions of the state are especially appealing to the pesky little windshield plasterers, who love to decorate Greyhound buses and make life miserable for the people. Times (1977)

You’d have to pull off the interstate every 10 miles just to wipe the paste of guts from your windshield, or else you wouldn’t be able to see where you were going.

“Many service stations charge up to 75 cents to remove a lovebug incrustation if that motorist doesn’t buy at least 10 gallons of gasoline,” said a 1972 article in the St. Petersburg Times.

Forget about lemonade stands. Children used to stand along the highway offering lovebug cleaning services for a dollar.

The state’s Plant Industry Division took to the skies to solve the problem, spraying insecticides from a helicopter over the highway to kill the bugs. But they quickly came back.

In 1971, the Legislature shot down a bill that would have authorized $25,000 to stop the pests.

Politicians soon realized they’d made a mistake. Just one year later, the state of Florida decided it had enough of lovebugs.

Times (1980)
Times (1980)

In October 1972, Florida Democratic Rep. William Chappell Jr. testified in Washington, D.C., about the winged horrors his constituents were facing.

“The number of lovebugs in central and northeast Florida has reached mammoth proportions and constitutes an hazardous situation to the motoring public," Chappell told the Agriculture Department. "This epidemic has already affected the tourist trade and the local people are plagued with stopped-up air conditioners and radiators.”

Chappell wasn’t able to get the emergency funds he requested. The state of Florida had to finance the lovebug war on its own. That month, Florida Gov. Reubin Askew and other members of the Florida cabinet ultimately decided to devote $75,000 in state university research funds.

Researchers spent several years focusing on love bugs. By the end of the ’70s, lovebugs were still annoying, but not plentiful enough to be dangerous anymore.

Times (1981)
Times (1981)

To this day, entomologists still have no idea why the population dwindled, Leppla said.

“Typically, an 'alien invasive species’ like the lovebug arrives, becomes established, reproduces prolifically, and survives in high numbers until it is affected by limiting factors (pathogens, predators, parasites, competitors, host availability, etc.),” he wrote in an email.

Researchers don’t know the habitat limitations of lovebugs. Maybe it was too wet or dry for the larvae to survive? It’s also possible other creatures in nature helped — robins could have developed a taste for love bug larvae, or maybe armadillos found them first.

As the lovebug population decreased, the bugs no longer were a threat to drivers and slipped comfortably into the “nuisance” category. Researchers shifted their priorities to other, more dangerous critters.

“It’s been a decade since we’ve had enough bugs to clog radiators," Leppla said.

Truck driver Jesus Gomez of El Paso, Texas, cleans dead love bugs off his windshield at a truck stop. AP (2005)
Truck driver Jesus Gomez of El Paso, Texas, cleans dead love bugs off his windshield at a truck stop. AP (2005)

That being said, don’t expect them to go away forever. Even though a recent study said more than 1 million species face extinction, there’s no sign that lovebugs are even close to becoming endangered.

Researchers aren’t monitoring the population, so there’s no data-driven way of comparing how many bugs we have this year to last year. But based on the number of calls Leppla receives each year (and the buildup on the front of his own car), he said it seems like there has been an increase.

According to research by the University of Florida, lovebugs feed on decaying matter and return organic material into the soil. So they do have at least one positive benefit, other than providing a biannual traumatic experience that brings Floridians together.

Twitter, Facebook and Reddit are filled with photos of this year’s particularly gnarly lovebug infestation.

It’s like a gunky, crusty train wreck. We can’t look away.

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The good news is, the bugs will be gone soon, though their short stay can still wreak havoc on your paint job.

It’s not that lovebugs themselves are acidic – Leppla tested them himself to disprove this. Instead, the damage is caused by the insect’s chemical-rich eggs.

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Leppla and his colleagues have seen some truly creative methods to ward off the bugs.

“Sometimes we have symposia where we present all of these interesting ideas people come up with," he said. "And sometimes we laugh so hard we fall out of our chairs.”

One trick that went viral involves putting baby oil in a bowl of water. You may have seen the post.

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It looks effective, but unless the trap is in a confined space it won’t prevent more bugs from coming.

You’re better off focusing on protecting your car. There are loads of methods out there, from spraying cooking oil on your bumper to pouring Coca-Cola on the paint. One of the most popular hacks involves using a damp dryer sheet. Leppla warns that while effective, that one turns dead bugs to mush and creates a mess.

The best trick of all (and one that won’t damage your car) is the most simple. Just carry a spray bottle with water and some car cleaning fluid, and wipe down the front of your car at the end of the day.

Oh, and get a wax a few times a year. Lovebug season only comes in May and September, but there are plenty of other bugs that can splat on your bumper during the other months.

This report was compiled using Times archives.

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