Something Smells Fishy in These Tony Michigan Towns
Millions of Short-Lived Insects Pile Up on Roads, Cars, Yachts; 'Pelting Our Face'
GROSSE POINTE, Mich.—This time of year, life in the part of Michigan known as Grosse Pointe is, well, pretty gross. Every year at the beginning of summer, the five tony communities that share the Grosse Pointe name and their neighbors along Lake St. Clair are invaded by millions of inch-long fish flies that live only about two days and then die—coating roads, sidewalks, yachts and cars in blankets of lifeless, crunchy bugs.
The worst part: The flies have little do to with fish. The name refers to the smell all those rotting bugs give off. (click below to read more)
This year's crop of fish flies—known as mayflies elsewhere—seems to have been magnified, locals say. At the many marinas along the lake, boats are covered with the bugs. Owners take dust bins and shovel out inch-deep piles of carcasses from their vessels. On the water at night, the flies get so thick it is difficult to see.
Tom Shimko, a policeman in Grosse Pointe Farms, said this year's invasion is about the worst he has seen in more than 30 years in the area. Just a few days ago, he was riding his moped along the lake shore and ran into a swarm. "I got one in my eye, kept my mouth shut," he recalled. "I didn't notice the slipperiness of it, but I definitely heard them crunching under my tires."
Ricky Engel, a 16-year-old from Grosse Pointe, wasn't so lucky when he was playing a round of golf at a local country club, and drove his cart under a tree, usually a hot spot for the flies.
"They got everywhere: covering the golf cart, on the golf bags, on our clothes, and I even got one in my mouth," he said, grimacing at the thought. "I spent the next five minutes rinsing my mouth with multiple beverages."
For about 50 years, fish flies all but disappeared from the western corner of Lake Erie because of pollution, said Don Schloesser, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has spent most of his career since 1978 studying the mayfly.
By the 1990s, the lake water was cleaner, and since then fish fly populations have been increasing, providing a buffet bonanza for fish and seagulls. "Pollution hit this little critter hard," Mr. Schloesser said.
The bugs thrive along Lake St. Clair, a large but shallow lake sandwiched between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. The insects live in a larval stage for up to two years on the bottom of the lake before emerging for a short life as an adult. They have "mouth parts" but don't bite and never eat, Mr. Schloesser said. As adults, they mate and then join the brown mass of dead bugs on the ground.
Their arrival each year provides a rare disruption to the upscale living many Grosse Pointe residents are accustomed to. The area is known for Tudor and Colonial-style mansions where wealthy auto industry executives typically make their homes. Some members of the Ford family still live in "the Pointes." Between the five communities, they boast two country clubs, an equestrian club and a yacht club.
On a recent night, Brooke Adams Bertolini, 49, was speeding home on her power boat at sunset. "The fish flies were like BBs hitting us," she said. "Stuck in our hair, pelting our face, gross and smelly."
This year, in a small downtown area of Grosse Pointe, known as "the Village," the bugs have been so numerous that store owners sweep up piles of dead bugs every morning. At night, thousands flutter around a single streetlight. Merchants try not to turn on their lights or they pull down heavy curtains to keep the bugs from piling up outside their businesses.
Patrina Gafa, 62, a shopkeeper at Pretty Things, a women's clothing store, said nearly every customer who walks in the door has at least one fish fly on them. She politely lets them know, or just plucks the flies off without asking. "This must be a bumper crop or something because there's a lot of them," Ms. Gafa said. "The dog comes in. He's got one on his head. It's funny."
The City of Grosse Pointe has workers using leaf blowers to push the mounds of dead fish flies into the street so a street sweeper can vacuum them up. "Sometimes the fish flies are so thick, it's like you are sliding on ice," said Stephen Morris, 48, who lives in Grosse Pointe Woods. "The funniest thing is when you go to a gas station and you see a woman with her hair all done up and ready to go out, and the fish flies are all over her."
Most people who live near the lake become accustomed to the bugs, except for the fishy stench. Kids pick them up by their long tails and dads joke about making fish fly burgers out of the piles on the street. As a prank, police officers sometimes shine their spotlights on a colleague's squad car, which quickly draws a blanket of thousands of bugs.
Last year, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had to cancel an outdoor concert midway through because the musicians were swarmed by the bugs. This year, the concert was moved to mid-July in hopes of avoiding them.
The flies gained some notoriety outside of Michigan after author Jeffery Eugenides featured them in his best-selling novel, The Virgin Suicides, which is set in Grosse Pointe:
"That was in June, fish-fly season, when each year our town is covered by the flotsam of those ephemeral insects. Rising in clouds from the algae in the polluted lake, they blacken windows, coat cars and streetlamps, plaster the municipal docks and festoon the rigging of sailboats, always in the same brown ubiquity of flying scum," the book reads.
New Baltimore, a town about 20 miles north of the Grosse Pointe communities, celebrates the bugs with an annual festival, which starts this weekend. It includes a beauty pageant, and contestants have been known to dress up as fish flies for the "nautical wear" competition.
"We just kind of embrace it," said Lisa Edwards, who has coordinated the pageant for the past nine years. "We've joked that we should have a fish fly eating contest, but we haven't had the courage to put it out there."