Giant 'Bugnado' Swarms In America's Heartland

Aug 20, 2011
Originally published on August 20, 2011 7:04 pm

In the American Corn Belt this year, the weather has already felt apocalyptic at times. In the last six months, the Midwest has seen record-breaking floods, devastating twisters, unseasonable cold snaps and late heat waves. Now, add insect swarms to these forces of nature.

Last month, a cloud of insects the size of a tornado swept across flooded corn fields in Iowa. The eerie, vortex shape earned it the name "Bugnado." A video on YouTube claims to show the bug swarms in action.

The phenomenon caught the attention of Joe Keiper, an entomologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. He told Weekend Edition Saturday guest host Jacki Lyden that the aquatic insects, known as midges, are relatively harmless and not biblical, crop-destroying creatures.

"Fortunately, they really don't do us much harm [though] they can be a nuisance," Keiper says. "You don't want to ride your motorcycle down the road through them with your mouth open."

Keiper says one of the only things known about the midge that poses a danger is what it can do to roadways in large numbers.

"When they are in great numbers like this, as the bodies litter the road," he says, "there are reports that the roadways become slick just from their presence."

Those bodies on the road are typically males that have finished mating, Keiper says. When the midges form these large swarms, much like other insects, they are in mating mode and it is all part of a huge reproductive situation.

"The males are essentially nothing more than flying sperm packets, and they will fertilize a female and shortly afterward will die and fall to the ground," he says. "Once the female has mated she's going to go and find a body of water within which she can drop her eggs."

The recent flooding in the area turned the corn field into an aquatic habitat, Keiper says. The organic matter from the corn plants fertilized the water, making the perfect bug food for the midges and their offspring.

"So really, it jazzed up the bug populations to such a high level that I'm predicting that's why we saw the huge numbers that was produced," he says.

So despite the nuisance of the bug swarms and the potential for bug-slicked roadways, Keiper says the swarms don't pose a real threat and were actually lovely to watch.

"They were almost surfing on invisible waves of the atmosphere. It was not only a very fascinating sight from a scientific standpoint, but also quite beautiful."

Photo and video provided by Mike Hollingshead at extremeinstability.com.

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

In the American Corn Belt this year, the weather has already felt apocalyptic. In the last six months, the Midwest has seen record-breaking floods, devastating twisters, unseasonable cold spells and late heat waves. Add to these forces of nature - this phenomenon.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSECTS BUZZING)

LYDEN: Last month, a cloud of insects the size of a tornado swept across flooded fields in Iowa. The eerie vortex shape earned it the name bugnado. The bugnado caught the attention of Dr. Joe Keiper, an entomologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. He joins me on the line now. Welcome to the program.

LYDEN: Good morning, Jacki.

LYDEN: So, looking at this sort of pulsating tornado, these giant rings in the air, what kind of bugs are we talking about?

KEIPER: Well, these are midges, and they're aquatic insects. And it created these beautiful patterns in the air. They were almost surfing on invisible waves of the atmosphere. And it was just not only a very fascinating sight from a scientific standpoint but it was also quite beautiful.

LYDEN: A good experience for them but kind of scary for us. I mean, are these biblical crop-destroying creatures or much more harmless?

KEIPER: Well, fortunately, they really don't do us much harm. They can be a nuisance. You know, you don't want to ride a motorcycle down the road through them with your mouth open. About the only thing that's known about these midges that could really be considered dangerous is when they are in great numbers like this, as the bodies will litter the road, there are reports where the roadway becomes slick just from their presence lying across the roadway that way.

LYDEN: What are they doing? Why are they there?

KEIPER: Well, the midges, when they form these swarms, as a lot of insects do, they're actually in mating mode. The males are essentially nothing more than flying sperm packets. And they will fertilize a female and very shortly afterwards will die and they fall to the ground. And once the female has mated, she's going to find a body of water within which she can drop her eggs. So, that's really what it's all about; it's a huge reproductive situation when you have these bug swarms.

LYDEN: Do they have anything to do with the unusual weather patterns we're seeing in the Midwest this year?

KEIPER: Well, I think it's going to be connected. My understanding is that this area that was flooded was a cornfield at one point. And so the cornfield from the severe floods now is suddenly an aquatic habitat. What makes the situation even more special is that all of this organic matter from the corn plants essentially fertilizes the water and that's perfect bug food. So, really it jazzed up the bug populations to such a high level that I'm predicting that's why we saw the huge numbers that was produced.

LYDEN: The bugnado after-effect.

KEIPER: In a way, that's true.

LYDEN: Dr. Joe Keiper is an entomologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Thank you so much for joining us.

KEIPER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.