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Mayfly Mayday

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Are you as worried as I am about the disappearance of the mayflies? June is a poor thing along the Upper Mississippi River without the swarms of those three-inch insects who used to emerge from the river, live for a single night, and then decorate every front porch, store window, streetlight, and sidewalk inches thick with their bodies.

As recently as twenty years ago, on a given night in June, the mayflies swarmed so thick in our river towns that it was impossible to see across the streets. Their gossamer wings supporting thick, two-inch abdomens and long, thread-like tails, swirled in the air like a blizzard. Fifty years ago, streets were so greased with mayflies that streetcars could not climb the slightest incline without slipping, and automobiles spun out on bridge spans as if on ice. Often, snowplows were called out at dawn to clear the streets, leaving tall stacks of mayflies at corners.

Those were great years to be a boy (girls in those antique days being afraid of bugs). We had contests to see how far we could skid bicycles on a layer of mayflies.

Mayflies brought the whole community together in an orgy of sweeping and shoveling. Had city fathers had their wits about them, they might have declared Mayfly Days and attracted tourists. Visitors come to Rock Island today to watch some 300 bald eagles, which hardly compares to the spectacle of three million mayflies. Think of the possibilities for games, contests, sandwiches and sales. Think of postcards of Aunt Emma beside a ten-foot pile of mayflies. “Greetings from Rock Island: Wish You Were Here!”

But our chance has passed. Most of the 800 species of mayflies are still around, but only by the thousands rather than the millions. Biologists can only guess as to whether this is due to river pollution destroying the mayfly larva who live underwater for two years, or an increase in the number of fish who eat them, or the natural pattern in Nature's long clock.

We do have machines that make artificial snow. I'm wondering if we could adapt one of those and bring back the good old Junes we used to have.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.