Mayflies

My view of Mayflies before learning about them

What I knew about mayflies: They’re called mayflies and they molt. I could’ve put my knowledge in a thimble and had room for War and Peace.

What I thought about mayflies: They’re creepy looking, and the exoskeletons they shed are even creepier. I could’ve imagined them starring in a B movie titled, Return of the Giant Mayflies.

Then in June my almost-ten-year-old granddaughter asked, “Why are they called mayflies? I never see them until June.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “We’re going to have to look that up.” (My standard refrain to cover up my embarrassment because I can’t answer one of her questions about the natural world around me.)

But I had a theory: If mayflies arrive in here in June, perhaps they appear in May in other parts of the Midwest. I live at the western tip of Lake Superior. Everything in spring arrives late because around here winter doesn’t like to pack its bags and leave.

It turned out my theory had holes. In the United States, mayflies hatch anywhere from May to September. Hatching usually starts near the end of May but peaks in June or July, depending on latitude and the current year’s weather. The name mayfly may be a misnomer. But I like the name, so even if they don’t appear around here until June, I’m not starting a movement to rename them juneflies. (Besides there are beetles called June bugs.) Depending on geography, mayflies are also called shadflies, sandflies, dayflies, fishflies, and drakes.

I learned more about mayflies than their aliases. They’re fascinating and useful insects. This shouldn’t have surprised me because our ecosystem is like an intricately woven tapestry of nature. Pull on one thread and the effect ripples through the whole landscape. I was ignorant to assume their only purpose was to gross me out every June.

After mayflies become adults, they molt once. Every year I’d see their exoskeletons stuck to my screen doors, siding, plants, and deck furniture, and I’d cringe. Filmy, cracked, and devoid of color, exoskeletons are eerie. But after learning about mayflies, I look at their abandoned outwear and think about their amazing lives.

Mayflies are adults for only one or two days, and on rare occasions three days, accounts vary. They begin life in the water as fertilized eggs. After they hatch they’re called nymphs and spend about a year (depending on the species) lounging at the bottom of riverbeds and lake bottoms. While not as beautiful as the water nymphs of Greek mythology known for protecting gods and humans who were in peril, the mayfly nymphs are important. They help clean water by eating algae and detritus. And scientists use the number of mayfly larvae present in a river or lake as a bioindicator to gauge the water’s health. So mayfly nymphs can protect humans by informing us if our water quality is in jeopardy–if we’re smart enough to listen.

Before mayflies leave their water homes, they shed their nymph skins, so they can take flight for the first time. At this point they’re called duns (or subimagos). After coming to the water’s surface, they rest and dry their wings. Waterfowl and fish dine on some of them. The duns that survive the predators fly away from the water and molt one last time, becoming adults called spinners (or imagos).

After emerging from the watery homes of their adolescence, mayflies have only one concern–to mate and produce eggs. They don’t have functioning mouths so they can’t eat. As adults they don’t have to worry about finding food or feeding their young. They don’t have to worry about a career path or a mortgage. They don’t have to worry about saving for retirement or signing up for Medicare. As adults they molt, mate, lay eggs if they’re female, and die, all in a day or two.

Of course, a mayfly’s adult life isn’t completely worry free. If spinners are to achieve their one adult ambition–reproduction–they must avoid becoming fresh meat for fish and birds. They also need to conserve energy for mating and laying eggs. This explains why the mayflies I see on my screen door or deck are so impervious to me: It’s risky for them to use up energy by fleeing from me.

After molting, adult males return to an imaginary dance floor above the water. Flying up and forward, then floating down, they beckon the female spinners to dance with them. The spinners pair up and mate in midair. All this looks nothing like my first seventh-grade dance, where boys and girls stood on opposite sides of the gym and gawked at each other. [Watch BBC’s Beautiful Video Clip About Mayflies to see the mayfly mating ritual.]

After the circle-of-life dance, the females descend to the water to lay fertilized eggs. Some females become food for fish before they deposit their eggs. In my research, I learned fly fishers use tied flies resembling duns then spinners during mayfly season. But many females do deposit their eggs, which drift to the bottom of a river or lake. Then most females die, but a few manage to mate again and lay another batch of eggs because they have extra energy reserves, most likely because of what they ate as larvae. (But I like to imagine they have extra energy because they danced a slow waltz instead of a hot-footed jig during their first tango with a male spinner.) Two weeks later the eggs hatch into nymphs.

My new view of mayflies: Lovely as flowers

Before my mayfly education, when I saw mayflies clinging to my door or siding or deck furniture, I left them alone. I didn’t touch them because they creeped me out. Now I can say I leave them alone because I understand they’re saving energy for their big dance. Now, I can appreciate mayflies for purifying rivers and lakes, for working as bioindicators, and for being part of the food chain. Now, I can answer my granddaughter’s question about why mayflies seem to be misnamed.

We need to cherish mayflies and protect them, and if their numbers decrease in our lakes and rivers, we need to figure out why.

[To read more about mayflies: Mayflies: National Wildlife Federation and Britannica: Mayfly. If you live where mayflies swarm, read How to Survive a Massive Mayfly Swarm by Leslie Mertz, Ph.D. Don’t worry it’s not as scary as my imaginary horror flick, Return of the Giant Mayflies.]

Come Again Now

[“Come Again Now” was published Minnesota’s PBS Stations on their webpage Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration on April 17, 2021.]

FRANK AND ROSE MEET

Frank and Rose Youngquist, wedding photo, September 1898

            About 1892, Frank Youngquist left Stillwater to work as a blacksmith in Gordon for Musser-Sauntry, a logging company with interests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1897, Rose Yost left her parents’ farm in Columbus, Minnesota, to work at the Smith Hotel in Gordon, owned by her sister and brother-in-law, Aggie and Jim Smith.

            Frank, 32, handsome, brown-haired, and blue-eyed, met Rose, 29, pretty, dark-haired, and brown-eyed, at the Smith Hotel where he lived. They fell in love and married on September 21, 1898, in Hennepin County, which gave them an opportunity to visit family in Minnesota before returning to Gordon.

FRANK’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION

            Before Frank’s and Rose’s lives intersected in Gordon, they grew up 32 miles from each other in Minnesota. Frank’s father, Johan Youngquist, came from Sweden to Minnesota in 1868, and settled in the Stillwater area. A year later Johan’s wife, Eva, arrived with their four young children, including 2-year-old Frank. They would have four more children.

            Johan’s family probably emigrated because of economic hardships. Sweden’s rapid population growth in the 1800s diminished job opportunities and caused farmland shortages. Crop failures in 1868 and 1869 deepened economic woes, pushing more Swedes to seek opportunity in America. After reading letters from family, who spoke highly of their lives in Minnesota, many Swedes chose to settle there.

            Johan, Eva, and their children prospered as laborers, farmers, blacksmiths, lumberjacks, and business people. The railroads and lumber industry provided plenty of opportunities for immigrants. Five of Frank’s seven siblings spent most of their lives in Minnesota, and his parents lived there until they died.

ROSE’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION

            Rose’s parents, Yost Yost and Agatha Gassman, emigrated from Switzerland around 1854. Yost and Agatha, both Catholic, might have left Switzerland because of religious unrest during the 1800s. Yost lived in the Canton of Lucerne, which became embroiled in religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants after the Jesuits, reinstated by Pope Pius VII in 1814, returned to Switzerland.

            Yost and Agatha married in Rochester, New York, in 1855. A year or two later, they moved to Columbus, Minnesota, to homestead 160 acres. They raised seven children, all born on their farm. One son became an engineer for the Great Northern Railway, working on the mail train out of St. Paul. The other son ran the farm when Yost retired. Their five daughters all married, but only one remained in Minnesota. Yost served as a town clerk and justice of the peace in Columbus. From 1864 to 1866, he served in the Minnesota Cavalry, Hatch’s Battalion, Company E, and was stationed on the Dakota-Minnesota frontier. He and Agatha are buried in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Wyoming, Minnesota.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

            In 1910, after twelve years of marriage and four children, Frank and Rose, still living in Gordon, died a month apart, Frank, 44, on October 18, and Rose, 41, on November 17.

            Frank lingered four months before dying of tuberculosis. He wished to be buried in Stillwater at the Fairview Cemetery with his father and two brothers. Frank had lived over half his life in Minnesota, and his mother and some family members still resided there. After Rose died from heart failure, she was buried next to Frank. Their children, George, 11, Elmer, 9, Leslie, 8, and Lola, 4, stayed in Gordon. Aggie and Jim Smith, Rose’s family, looked after them.

GEORGE’S COMFORTING TRADITION

George Youngquist with his wife Olive and Frank, their first child, circa 1940

            Perhaps because of a mysterious, debilitating illness George had when he was about 1½, he was close to his parents. The illness left him unable to walk, so his father forged railings in his blacksmith shop and attached them to the walls of their home. Encouraged by his parents, George pulled himself up and held the railings. He regained strength and learned to walk again. However, as a young schoolboy, his illness left him unable to run and play with other children. To entertain George, Frank taught him blacksmithing skills after school. George cherished the time with his father. Thirty-some years later, a doctor told George that he had had polio.

            From the 1930s until 1979, because George never forgot his parents’ love and kindness, he drove 120 miles from Gordon to Fairview Cemetery in Stillwater, Minnesota, to visit their graves either on or near every Memorial Day. By the time George and his family arrived, any Memorial Day services were over. But in the hushed cemetery with spring unfurling, George remembered his parents.

            Whenever George had company, he always bid farewell to his visitors by saying, “Come again now.” Perhaps, each year when he left the cemetery, he imagined his parents telling him, “Come again now.” And he did until he lost his eyesight in the winter of 1979, two-and-a-half years before he passed away just shy of his 82nd birthday.

[More Moving Lives posts written by other writers can be read at Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration.]