The dance of the mayflies: imagine a life of just one day

It is a still day by the riverbank. The water meadows are strewn with tall, creeping meadow buttercups reflecting a soft, shimmery haze. It feels hot and sultry.   I kneel amidst the yellowness and watch for a while…

It is the month of May; summer is just around the corner when the hawthorn is in bloom and the mesmerising mayflies appear.  They are, to me, one of the most elegant of insects with tall transparent, lace-like wings, a curvy body and a long feathery tail that angles gracefully up towards the sky.

Their Latin name is ephemera, meaning something that lives only for a short time.  In this case, for just one day.  Although they first appear at the end of April and the beginning of May, our 51 different species can be seen throughout the summer.  But it is usually now that I relish them the most.  Sat here, today, I feel a part of their world; a passer-by stopping to notice their beauty.

It seems ironic that although they are so short lived, they are actually one of the first winged insects to ever exist and have been adorning our rivers for over 300 million years.  An existence that predates even the dinosaurs.

Like many insects, a mayfly has several life-stages.  Its journey begins as an egg on the river floor.  Here it stays for anything between two or three days to a week.  At which point it hatches into a nymph and forages amidst the current.  Two years later, it produces wings and emerges from the surface of the water from where it makes the short flight to the riverbank.  This is where the final transformation occurs and it moults its nymph coat, unravels its fine wings, stretches out its tail and takes to the air.

What I love the most about them, apart from their fairylike appearance, is how they dance in vertical lines above the buttercups, briefly landing and then launching skywards again; displaying their flying finesse to attract the perfect mate.  From where I am sat, I can see hundreds of them bobbing up and down. 

In a single, fleeting moment, a pair find each other, embrace mid-air and separate.  He lets go of her so that she can fly back to the surface of the river to lay her eggs that will sink slowly and gently to the bottom of the river to begin the next generation.  He descends to the buttercups, weakens and dies whilst she floats lifeless on the surface. 

Reminded of Romeo and Juliette, I gather my belongings and walk on amidst the swarm, feeling glad that, God willing, our flights of freedom are not so brief.