• Nicole Lupton

The Fight And Flight Of The Mayfly

In the name of progress, we remove trees and vegetation, change how we use land, and keep increasing paved areas. All these not only affect the soil ecology, but also the water balance. Increased urbanization also requires more water to feed the city's population and industry, often requiring deeper and deeper wells to be drilled or water to be moved from even more distant locations. Such problems have escalated over recent years with unprecedented population growth and urbanisation since 1920, resulting in increased human impacts not only on individual species but also on whole ecosystems.

A prime example of the lose and notable decrease of population is insect species, which have a major effect on natures ecosystem. Studies have found that the flying insect's population has plunged by 75% in 25 years in UK rivers alone. Mayflies are a good example as they are very sensitive to pollution and are a good indicator of the quality of our rivers and lakes. The populations of mayflies are significantly declining every year. To get a better understanding of the decrease in the population it's a good idea to understand the lifecycle and ecosystem of the mayfly.

Mayflies start life as an egg on the bed of the river, before hatching into a nymph. The nymphs feed on algae and other vegetable matter on the bed for up to two years in some species, before emerging to the surface of the water as an adult. Mayflies are unusual in that they shed skin 14 to 50 times, depending on the species. After emerging from the water they fly to the bank where they shelter on the underside of leaves or in the grass. They then shed their skin again, leaving behind their drab ‘dun’ skin to reveal their shiny ‘spinner’ skin. They fly back to the water and form mating swarms dancing above the surface. Mayflies were one of the first winged insects, with fossils dating back over 300 million years – long before the dinosaurs! There are 51 species of mayfly known from the British Isles today.

So what and how is pollution affecting the mayfly? Researchers found that even the modest levels of pollution found in many English rivers are having a devastating impact on mayflies. Fine sediment and phosphate pollution found in our rivers are washed off farmed fields and from untreated sewage. Research suggests that this pollution kills about 80% of all Mayfly eggs.

“The young life stages are the most vulnerable, just as with human babies,” said Nick Everall, at the Aquascience Consultancy. “Experiments in the laboratory found that the fine sediment settles on the eggs and suffocates them, by preventing oxygen transferring into the egg. The sediment can also allow the fungus to grow and kill the eggs, while phosphate is known to affect the development of eggs.”

All is not lost for the Mayfly as groups of conservationists and avid fishermen across the UK spend hours collecting mayfly spinners to collect their eggs as part of a repopulation program to ensure a much higher survival rate of mayfly eggs and nymphs in our UK rivers. Though this too is under threat due to the pollution levels in our rivers and does not solve the problem of our polluted waters. The government, however, is taking measures to decrease pollution in our rivers with its new farming and agriculture regulations, sewage controls, decrease in plastic usage and increase in pollution fines. Nevertheless, the WWF says “If the government continues at this snail’s pace, it will take nearly a century to get most of our rivers healthy. This will be devastating for both the people and wildlife that rely on these special places, ministers have squandered a huge opportunity. The government’s own data shows that getting three quarters of rivers, lakes and wetlands to good health would boost the economy by £8.5 billion”.

I completely agree with the WWF and I hope you do to, so here are some helpful tips on ways we can all lower water pollution and help save our wildlife:

Don’t pour fat from cooking or any other type of fat, oil, or grease down the sink.

Don’t dispose of household chemicals or cleaning agents down the sink or toilet.

Don’t flush pills, liquid or powder medications or drugs down the toilet.

Avoid using the toilet as a bin. Most tissues, wrappers, dust cloths, and other paper goods should be properly discarded in a wastebasket.

Make a compost pile from vegetable scraps.

Install a water efficient toilet.

Run the dishwasher or clothes washer only when you have a full load.

Use the minimum amount of detergent and/or bleach when you are washing clothes or dishes.

Use only phosphate-free soaps and detergents.

Minimize the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers

And finally use water sparingly.


Down in the depths of our waters the mayfly nymphs fight to survive. Casting its infante light on the event below the moon shines brightly in the darkness sending its hope into the deep. The transformation from nymph to Mayfly is long fought with the shedding of up to fifty skins, before finally revealing their true self. They float to the surface, spreading their wings to dry off before, soaring high with their new found beauty.

For information about this piece and more photos check it out on my website at


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