“Fly fast, mate quickly, die young.” If mayflies had a motto, that would probably be it. That’s because these elegant insects have among the shortest adult lives of any insect. Indeed, scientists have named this group of insects the Ephemeroptera, Latin for “short-lived flyer.”
Researchers believe the record for shortest adult life span belongs to the female mayfly called Dolania americana. After spending a year or more living on the bottom of a stream in its aquatic nymph form, it emerges as a flying adult — and lives for less than five minutes. During its brief adult life, the mayfly must find a mate, copulate, and lay its eggs back into the water from which it came.
Though mayflies may be short-lived as adults, they play a crucial role in the health of streams and lakes. Because they occur is such large numbers — a swarm of hatching mayflies may contain millions of individuals — mayflies are a vital link in the food chain. Anglers, for instance, know that fish love to eat both the flying adults and the worm-like larva, which often live under rocks on river bottoms. Mayflies also provide important clues to water quality. Large populations can indicate clean water, while their absence may suggest some kind of pollution problem. Unfortunately, researchers believe pollution has already driven two species of North American mayflies to extinction.
Scientists, however, aren’t the only ones keeping a close eye on mayflies. Poets, too, have become captivated by their sweet, short lives. The California poet Darren “Gav” Bleuel, for instance, had this to say about the insects:
“The Mayfly never sees the dawn
But once before his end.
To think he’s born,
Upon the morn,
Yet not see one again.”