Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Poignant Dance of the Mayflies

The river rises, flows over its banks and carries us all away like mayflies floating downstream. They stare at the sun, then all at once there is nothing.

Utanapishtiu, The Epic of Gilgamesh - a legend from ancient Babylon and Akkad. 
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There are no two ways about it the Mayflies life is short, lasting from 30 minutes to one day, very occasionally two days. It often occurs that an entire population of mayflies hatch together during a couple of days around the end of May or beginning of June. Their primary function is reproduction, but as their journey begins and they emerge from the rivers and streams they face dangerous hazards from hungry fish such as trout, ducks, and birds who are on the look out for insects to feed their fledglings.
Before becoming Mayflies they live as nymphs in the riverbeds, hiding under rocks in the sediment and feeding on algae. The nymph stage can last for several years during which time it will shed its body skin more than 20 times whilst maturing and developing.
We have both seen the Mayflies dance, just once, when we were visiting the Highlands of Scotland last June. We had finished our evening meal and were taking a stroll along the river bank during the dying embers of a warm June day. It was twilight, a deep orange sun was sinking rapidly behind tall trees on the horizon. We were admiring the River Dulnain at the spot where it is crossed by an ancient packhorse bridge .
Suddenly, we became aware of huge flies dancing just above our heads, glinting and shimmering gold in the dying sunlight, their performance greatly enhanced by their long surreal tails. We were delighted and amazed as we admired their balletic movements but were unsure as to what exactly they were. As we watched our growing anxiety was whether they might be a giant species of mosquito who would relish making a meal of us. How wrong could we be? It wasn't until we watched a BBC nature film shown recently that we realised just what a special and magical scene we had witnessed. We had been party to the dying, dancing, moments of the female Mayflies. They were judging where would be the perfect spot in the river to lay their eggs before plunging themselves down into the flowing waters to deposit their precious cargo and die.
If you would like to view four brief BBC videos about the life of the Mayflies you can see them here. 

60 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post, Rosemary, and a very informative video clip. I had no idea about the life of a Mayfly, or indeed what they look like, and what a great experience you had seeing them. It sounds like a rare event indeed. Fascinating.

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    1. Thank you Patricia - I am delighted that you enjoyed the post.
      As this event happens just once a year, I suppose the chances of being by a river at the right time and witnessing their dance is quite slim.

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  2. I think I have never seen the Mayfly, but the picture and the interesting video are wonderful. The packhorse bridge reminds me of other beautiful ancient bridges in England. Almost cannot wait to visit your beautiful country again which will be in May.

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    1. Dear Janneke - The month of May should be a lovely time to visit, and perhaps if you are near a freshwater river you may witness the unique dance of the Mayflies. As I mentioned I have only ever seen it once. Thank you for your kind comment.

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  3. A wonderful post, Rosemary, with such a beautiful short film. The sight of the Mayflies is magical and it must have been an incredible sight for you when you saw them in Scotland. It's a sight I've long wanted to see. Their story is so poignant, like that of butterflies but more so - such a short life for an amazing little creature.

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    1. Dear Wendy - I think that we were just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time - it will linger in our memories.

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  4. A wonderful moment to remember. What a fascinating post ... I knew they didn't live for long but didn't realise it could be just 30 minutes sometimes. Isn't nature amazing?!

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    1. We thought that we had seen something rather remarkable without fully understanding what at the time. Nature is amazing - prior to reading about their lives I had no idea that in their final reincarnation the Mayflies are without a mouth so that they cannot sustain themselves for any longer period of time.

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  5. Wauw.. what a interesting movie...And you seen this for real.
    I didn't know they live so short...what a beautiful moment when the fly's come out the water.
    Thank you for sharing Rosemary.

    Greetings,
    Inge, my choice

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    1. Dear Inge - they are remarkable little insects - I do not expect that we will ever see this happen again - a once in a lifetime experience for us.

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  6. Dear Rosemary, thank you for sharing this very beautiful movie.
    We don't have the large Mayfly rising from our pond but we do see the smaller version. We first notice them when the swallows start flying here and there trying to catch them. I have always admired the casings...they look exactly like the mayfly itself but without the wings.

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    1. Dear Gina - my understanding is that pond Mayflies live for longer than the fresh water river Mayflies. I read somewhere that pond ones can live for 2 weeks. The river ones are born without a mouth so are unable to sustain themselves - glad I wasn't born a Mayfly!!!
      It must be lovely to see the swallows swooping down to catch them and must also make you feel that spring has arrived.

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  7. I was absolutely mesmerised by the video clip. Thanks for sharing this nugget of educational material. I suppose mayflies are not tropical insects as I have not seen them before.

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    1. I wasn't sure of the answer to your question, but the BBC Nature and Wildlife website states - there are over 2,000 different species of Mayflies found everywhere except the Arctic, Antarctic and some oceanic islands.
      Glad that you enjoyed the clip and information about the curious life of the Mayfly.

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  8. Hello Rosemary, When I worked in downtown Cleveland, near Lake Erie, there were incredible hatches of mayflies once or twice a year coming off the lake. All of a sudden, millions of the short-lived insects were on every surface and flying through the air, and in the gutters the dead ones built up several inches thick. Then a couple of days later they were all gone.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - I have come across images of the Mayflies around Lake Erie with them lying thick over vehicles, houses etc.
      The Mayflies that we saw were nothing in comparison - just a few dozen dancing above our heads.

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  9. Hi Rosemary, wow, what a stunning and interesting insect. Before your post I hadn't even heard of Mayflies! You have been so lucky to be able to observe their dance yourself. That must have been an incredible experience! Thanks for blogging about these amazing creatures!
    Christina

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    1. Dear Christina - I am pleased that you enjoyed learning about the Mayflies. They were an unknown quantity to me last year when we first saw them. Having learnt so much about them subsequently I would love to see them again. However, I think that is highly unlikely.

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  10. That really is a case of being in the right place at the right time. What a great thing to witness.

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    1. We were fortunate - I am so pleased that we decided to take an evening stroll.

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  11. So amazing you witnessed this. I have to say, if I had witnessed it, I wouldn't have known what it was either but if ever I do now, I will, thanls to your post.Thanks for sharing Rosemary and how great that you know what it was exactly you saw on your trip to Scotland last June. I remembered that little bridge over the river, so delicate and beautiful, like the dance of the Mayflies.
    Marian
    PS Happy 2014 to you and your family!

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    1. A Happy 2014 to you and your family too Marian.
      Lovely to hear from you. I hope that one year you may have the privilege of seeing the Mayflies dance too. It was a magical moment particularly at that soft twilight time in the evening.

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  12. That must have been a wonderful experience in such a fantastic location. We saw an another lovely piece about the dance of the may flies on TV last year. It was so magical even viewing it from our sofa!
    I have just noticed your rolling Cotswold pictures, how did you create it?
    Sarah x

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    1. I suspect that was the same programme that we saw Sarah - was it the one from The Great British Year which showed the four seasons in Britain? It featured the Mayflies on the Bourne River - I found the clip of it which you may remember had ducks chasing after the Mayflies, but it was only a short clip which didn't give as much detail as the other video I found.
      I created the rolling Cotswold pictures from here:- http://www.photocube3d.com/
      If you need any help let me know.

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  13. What a fantastic moment for you all! I have never heard of Mayflies. Perhaps we will have luck seeing them in Maine - lots of rivers, streams, ponds, etc.

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    1. It was a beautiful and memorable moment Loi - you could always check out the Mayfly situation in Maine by checking some sites on Google.

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  14. I first saw them dance by Lake Lucerne when I was about nine - I'm afraid I was petrified, despite my mother's reassurance. A magic moment went unappreciated!

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    1. I can fully understand how you felt as a nine year old - although charmed by what we saw we did, as I mentioned, have unnecessary concerns ourselves.

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  15. What an amazing creature. I wonder if Mayflies and Dragon flies are the same thing or at least in the same family...looks like it to me . How awesome to witness their dance !

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    1. They do share many traits with Dragon flies as they both live for years in the water as nymphs. However, a Dragon flies life after emerging from the waters is different. Dragon flies hatch as individuals - not en masse, and although their life is short too, they do live for several months.

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  16. Dear Rosemary,

    After watching that fascinating video, I realize that you and H were privy to a rather rare sight. How strange it is a for any animal to evolve without a mouth!

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    1. Dear Mark - it was as a result of seeing this rare sighting that I read more about them. The more I read the more intrigued I became by them. I doubt that we shall ever see them dancing again.

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  17. How delightful. I had no knowledge of mayflies whatsoever. Wishing you a blessed new year, olive

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    1. Thank you Olive - glad that you enjoyed finding out about the Mayfly. A special and happy 2014 to you and Joe.

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  18. How lovely to see that, nature at it's best.

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  19. How fascinating, Rosemary, a wonderful video clip.

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    1. It was a eureka moment for us when we discovered exactly what we had witnessed.

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  20. This is a most intriguing insect. Very much like the flying ant.
    The video clip is amazing. Once again learnt something new.
    Thank you for sharing Rosemary.
    xval

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    1. It was a memorable moment for us Val.

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  21. A memorable moment indeed in a wonderful location. I saw a nature programme about this, probably the same one.
    How wonderful to see the dancing mayflies when you were in Scotland!

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    1. Dear Linda - there was a wonderful clip of them shown in the Four Seasons of Britain which was the moment when we realised just what we had witnessed.

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  22. Really interesting Rosemary. You know how to create an exciting story for us, ignorant bloggers sometimes...but so fond of learning! Such experience! Such an enchanting dance! Thank you for showing us the beauty of nature in your own way.Great video as well.

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    1. Dear Olympia - I am the one who is an ignorant blogger - I had no idea what they were when we saw them, in fact neither of us did. It was a learning process for me too, but I do feel fortunate to have seen the female Mayflies last dance.
      Thank you for your kind comment.

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  23. Nature gave you a beautiful gift. I think these things have a way of coming to people whose psyche is open to it.

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    1. Dear Susan - you are so right it was a beautiful gift from nature for us to witness this dance. I am sure that it was a once in a life time moment.

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  24. Thanks for the video Rosemary. Who stops to think about the turbulently brief lives of Mayflies? Well, I did, today. I'd forgotten how wonderful those BBC Nature programs can be - primarily because they show such a reverence for life. I also loved seeing your photo of that beautiful stream in the Highlands.

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    1. Watching the Mayflies dance in such a beautiful setting made it even more special.

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  25. Such a fascinating story Rosemary and amazing that you were present at such a unique event in nature. The wonderful David Attenborough explains it so beautifully, backed up with such amazing camera work.
    Thank you for sharing.

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    1. I was pleased when I found that clip as the video finishes on the precise moment of their lives that we saw in the twilight.

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  26. What a beautiful post. Fabulous images, and as always, brilliant explanation and descriptions. You were so lucky to have seen this. Jx

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    1. That is so kind of you to say Janice - you have made my morning along with the glorious sunshine. Hope things are going well for you.

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  27. Absolutely fascinating Rosemary. Love the photos and enjoyed the video clip.
    Patricia x

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    1. Thanks Patricia - I enjoyed remembering and being reminded of the event.

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  28. Lovely post... as always!

    Happy New Year, dear Rosemary!

    Anna will be back, soon!

    HUGS

    ANNA
    xxx

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    1. Delighted to hear from you Anna - you have been greatly missed.
      Look forward to your return.
      May 2014 be a wonderful year for you and your family.

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  29. What a magical thing to have witnessed. Lucky you!

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    1. Thanks - it was a moment to remember.

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  30. Thanks so much for that fascinating post and the link to the clip, Rosemary. I knew in my head how short the adult life is, but after that poignant bit of film, I really feel it.

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    1. Dear Perpetua - It is surprising that I have spent my whole life without seeing or recognising the Mayflies - it is never too late to learn. I do not expect that the opportunity is likely to come my way again to watch their final dance.

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