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Published: Friday, 6/20/2003

Mayflies swoop into Lake Erie's western reaches

BY DAVID PATCH AND TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Call it an annual rite of the summer season: Millions of mayflies emerging from western Lake Erie in search of a good streetlight.

The harmless winged insects have arrived like clockwork in shoreline communities from Point Place to Port Clinton, where they are expected to congregate in near-typical swarms for the next few weeks.

But the Lake Erie islands could get hammered.

Ohio's most-renowned mayfly guy, Dr. Ken Krieger, of Heidelberg College in Tiffin, told The Blade yesterday he was wowed by a recent sampling result that showed as many as 1,200 tiny mayfly juveniles, known as nymphs, could be burrowing in many of the square meters of lake mud between Kelleys Island and Pelee Island.

In mayfly talk, that's a standing-room-only crowd of bugs waiting to sprout their wings. If the nymph density has ever been that thick between Kelleys and Pelee, it has never been recorded. The particular station where the sample was drawn surpassed 1,000 nymphs per square meter for the first time in 1999 after posting numbers of as few as 76 nymphs per square meter a few years ago, Dr. Krieger, a senior research scientist, said.

Port Clinton's annual love-hate relationship with mayflies has been legendary. The Ottawa County city has in years past been so blanketed that it scraped them off its streets with snowplows and warned drivers to slow down because of slippery roads. It also once had such a big pile of dead bugs that it received a state grant to compost them.

So when the first mayflies of 2003 were seen in Port Clinton on Monday, nobody really blinked. Mayflies had arrived merely one day earlier than their average arrival date of June 17.

Ohio Department of Transportation crews painting the State Rt. 163 drawbridge over the Portage River got a fair amount of work done the first two nights by working under less powerful, shielded lights.

But about 10 p.m. Wednesday, the ODOT painting crews hit a roadblock. “The mayflies just came out of the water - they seemed to come out of nowhere - and covered everything [the painters] were trying to do,” Joe Rutherford, a transportation department spokesman, said.

The paint job is now “on a night-to-night basis” as crews try to figure out ways to work around the mayflies. The painting is confined to evening and overnight hours to minimize the impact on traffic flows, because lift spans need to be raised, he said.

The project, originally scheduled to be done in four nights, likely will continue into next week. That shouldn't translate into any extra expense for ODOT, Mr. Rutherford said, but it will mean more inconvenience for weeknight Port Clinton traffic.

There are some 2,000 species of mayflies. The bugs go by other names, such as Junebugs, Canadian soldiers, and - get this - various types of Hexagenia, for those more rooted in the science of them.

They join bald eagles and walleye as the top three biological indicators that a state commission has chosen to help maintain a thumbnail sketch of Lake Erie's water quality. Eagles, walleye, and mayflies are designated as such because none fare well if the lake is polluted.

Thousands of mayflies are never seen by the public. They're eaten by fish. Mayflies are a nutritious snack for both fish and birds. The bugs are so light they're capable of winding up on either the U.S. or Canadian side of Lake Erie, depending on the winds.



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