Mayday for mayflies, manna from heaven

'For miles, the surface of the river was white with mayflies as they hung over it on gauzy wings'

Last week I went to visit Kelmscott Manor, which isn't a fishery but was the holiday home of the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement and his wife and their friend, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It sits just on the banks of the Thames (although it's known as the Isis in them there parts).

Last week I went to visit Kelmscott Manor, which isn't a fishery but was the holiday home of the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement and his wife and their friend, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It sits just on the banks of the Thames (although it's known as the Isis in them there parts).

The mayflies were out and what a beautiful sight they were, flying up and down in a straight line. Almost like pole dancing. I was with my friend Valerie, a New Yorker, who once called out Rentokil to liberate a squirrel stuck in her bedroom ("£160 well spent"), and who makes high-pitched "help me" phone calls to friends, when there's a "fuzzy bee" trapped in her house.

"Urgh! Look at those bugs," she shuddered as we went through a biblical swarm of them. I tried to tell Valerie the story of the mayfly and hopefully instil some love in her for these magnificent creatures - "See them dancing now, they're at the disco, looking for a mate"- but to little effect. When I told her they only lived 24 hours after a two-year gestation, she said, "That's the best thing I've heard about them so far".

Mayflies mark the start of spring for me and certainly the start of some bloody good fishing. Seeing them in such large numbers is privilege indeed. Entire generations of mayflies have been wiped out in some rivers due to pollution. It's more common to see big groups of them in warmer climates. There have been tales (going back some years now) of "swarms of incalculable numbers so as even to weigh down the shrubbery upon which they rest". In the late 19th century, fishermen in France actually thought the mayflies descended from heaven (bless 'em), and called the "living cloud" manna.

This was as nothing to a 1895 description of the mayfly hatch on a river in New Guinea: "For miles, the surface of the river, from side to side, was white with them as they hung over it on gauzy wings; at certain moments, as if obeying some mysterious signal, they would rise in the air and then sink down anew like a fall of snow." A hundred years before that, records show they were so abundant in certain parts of the world, the dead mayflies "were gathered by the cartload and used as fertiliser".

Insects are very delicate little creatures; an act of pollution that may not affect fish or fowl can wipe them out. But if the layman doesn't notice the decline of fish until it's on TV, he notices the decimation of insects less. But when there are no insects to feed upon, fish numbers invariably decline too. We now have a quarter of the fly population we did in the 1930s, and in just the last two years it has declined by a third. We only have 40 per cent of the mayflies we had before the Second World War, which actually seems like a lot when you compare it to a fly called the Iron Blue, whose numbers are down by 80 per cent. Reasons for this decline include the aforementioned pollution, climate changes, changes to the way farming is conducted and water abstraction. All impact on the ecosystem of rivers.

Last year, a colony of mayflies was lovingly hand-reared by a freshwater biologist, Cyril Bennett. Eggs from the Test in Hampshire were gathered and put into the south Wey in Surrey, to try to restore the community of invertebrates to that river. But someone, somewhere, in an act of staggering ignorance and laziness, poured some household or garden insecticide down the drain to get rid of it. And a million mayflies were wiped out.

It wasn't concentrated enough to kill the fish, but the mayflies and other invertebrates in the river were just too delicate to withstand it and perished.

Mayflies date from the Jurassic period at least. They've outlived dinosaurs, I wonder if they'll outlive us.

a.barbieri@independent.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Smart phones, dumb reading: Rebecca and Harry from ‘Teens’
tv
News
people
News
Amazon's drones were unveiled last year.
business
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Life and Style
Worth shelling out for: Atlantic lobsters are especially meaty
food + drink
Sport
Gareth Bale
footballPaul Scholes on how Real Madrid's Welsh winger would be a perfect fit at Old Trafford if he leaves Spain
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Motor Mechanic / Technician / MOT Tester - Oundle

£11 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Small friendly Ford dealership based i...

Recruitment Genius: Development Worker

£18300 - £20300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - New Business - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The flat management structure a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss