Mayfly Nymph Mayfly nymph

Mayflies (Ephemeroptera)


Mayflies are common insects found in almost all freshwater habitats, as well as some brackish ones. There are over 2 000 named species in 200 genera and 19 families. The adults are soft bodied insects with very short antennae, vestigial mouthparts, two long cerci and usually a long caudal filament at the end of the abdomen. Most adult Mayflies have two pairs of wings however the second pair are considerably smaller than the first and in some species are absent altogether. Nymphs have much longer antennae, functioning mouthparts and are aquatic.



Mayflies date from the Carboniferous and Permian times and are the oldest of the extant (still living) winged insects, they are unique in being the only insect order to have a subimago (last non-adult life stage) with wings. Adult Mayflies do not feed and live very short lives, many species live only for one or two days but in others the adult life span may be as short as 2 hours or as long as 14 days. Nymphal life cycles can range between 3-4 week to 2.5 years depending on the species. Mayflies can be easily recognised because they are the only order of insects to hold their wings pointing straight up, they can not fold them down, they generally hold their abdomen curved upwards away from the substrate (what ever they are standing on)

Mayflies have attracted man's attention for a long time and one of the oldest accounts of Mayfly biology was published by Swammerdam in 1675, it is an unfortunate fact that the genus of Mayflies studied by Swammerdam Palingenia sp. is now extinct in the Netherlands and the rest of Western Europe, a consequence of the Mayflies general low tolerance for pollution.



In most species the female lays her eggs a few at a time into the water by dipping her abdomen into the water while in flight. However some species lay all their eggs at one go, some stand on a rock or stone to oviposit (lay eggs), and some species of Baetis actually climb under the water to find a suitable place to secrete their eggs. In most species the female lays between 500 and 3 000 eggs but some species of Palingenia can produce as many 12 000.

The eggs can hatch immediately or wait up to 11 months depending on the species and habitat with tropical species tending to have shorter life cycles and need less time for the eggs to mature or to wait for an optimum temperature or season. When a Mayfly nymph first hatches it is less than 1mm long and generally missing the middle tail.


Mayfly larvae are called nymphs and generally have 3 tails, gills on their abdomen and only one claw on each leg. Nymphs may go through as many as 50 instars (i.e. may moult 50 times) in some species though less is more usual. They breath through their gills which are usually on the abdomen but which may be at the base of their coxa. In many species the gills are moveable and may be vibrated in order to increase the amount of water moving over them (this is the equivalent of you panting when you are short of oxygen) they may also be used as swimming paddles in some species.

Many nymphs particularly smaller ones live among the aquatic vegetation i.e Cloeon dipterum but some species make small |___| shaped burrows in the substrate to live in i.e. Ephemera danica, while others are dorsventrally flattened to allow them to live clinging on to the underside of rocks in fast flowing streams i.e. Rhithrogena semicolorata. Most Mayfly nymphs are herbivores feeding on algae and diatoms and or are detritivores feeding on detritus (dead and decaying material). Some species are collectors, filter feeding on floating material while others are scrapers actively removing plant material from the rocks. Their are some omnivorous species in the genera Isonychia, Siphlonurus and Stenonema. There are even some carnivores in the genera Dolania, Spinadis and Raptobaetopus of which the first 2 at least feed on Chironimid larvae.

Some Mayfly larvae have symbiotic relationships with other animals i.e. Ephemera danica and the larva of the Chironomid Epoicocladius flavens which lives on the Mayfly larva's body and may improve its respiration through its cleaning activities, and Symbiocloeon heardi which lives a commensal existance in the gills of a freshwater Mussel in Thailand.

Adults or Imago and Subimago

In temperate regions Mayflies usually emerge at dusk but may emerge at dawn i.e.Caenidae or at midday i.e. Baetis and Leptophlebia sp. Emergence may occur onto the shore or a piece of vegetation particularly vegetation which reaches the surface of the water away from the bank. In Arctic and Temperate regions emergence is restricted to summer though in warmer climes emergence of Mayflies can occur all through the year. However individual species will use only 1or 2 months of each year for emergence. Emergence may also be rhythmical i.e. Povilla adusta which exhibits lunar rhythm to its emergence in several African lakes. Males and females tend to emerge at the same time

The creature that emerges has wings and looks very much like an adult, it is called a subimago and it lives only long enough to harden off its skin and fly to a nearby tree where it will moult again this time into a true adult. The subimago is distinguished from the adult by the presence of microtrichia (very very small hairs) on the wings, these are never present in the true adult. Besides this the true adult is generally slightly larger, has longer legs and tails and is brighter in colour, this is reflected in the names fishermen have for the two forms; the adult or imago is known as the 'Spinner' while the subimago is called the 'Dun' i.e. Paraleptophlebia cincta is the Purple spinner and the Purple dun respectively. Fishermen do give some Mayflies other names such as 'Angler`s curse' which is applied to all the members of the genus Caenis in Britain.

Once mature male Mayflies swarm, generally over water though not always so, and generally at dusk. Female Mayflies then visit the swarm and choose a male, having made her choice she then leaves with him to mate. Most Mayflies have the normal two sexes but parthenogenesis (where females lay unfertilsed eggs which hatch into more females) is known from a few species i.e. Ameletus ludens, Baetis hageni, Baetis macdunnoughi and Cloeon triangulifera from North America and Caenis cuniana from South America.





Book Reviews

Mayflies, by Malcom Knopp and Robert Cormier
Biological atlas of Aquatic Insects by W. Wichard, W. Arens and G. Eisenbeis
Aquatic Insects of Northern Europe Vol. 1. a taxonomic handbook by, Anders Nilsson (Ed.)
Aquatic Insects of Northern Europe Vol. 2. a taxonomic handbook by Anders Nilsson (Ed.)
Naturalists' Handbook Vol. 13 Mayflies by J. Harker (Very UK oriented)
Fauna of New Zealand No.36. Leptophlebiidae (Insecta: Ephemeroptera) By D.R.Towns and W.L. Peters



[1997 - 1993]     [1992 - 1987]     [1986 - 1984 and some of 1983]
A more extensive bibliography at FAMU

Brittain, J.E. (1982). Biology of Mayflies Annual Review of Entomology27, pp 119-147.

Edmunds Jr, G.F. (1988). The Mayfly Subimago Annual Review of Entomology33, pp 509-527.



Elliot, J.M. and Humpesh, U.H. (1983). A Key to the Adults of the British Ephemeroptera with notes on their Ecology. Scientific Publications of the Freshwater Biological Association No 47.

Harker, J. (1989). Mayflies (Naturalists' Handbooks No13). Richmond Publishing Co. Ltd. Slough England.

Maccan, T.T. (1979) Nymphs of the British Species of Ephemeroptera with notes on their Ecology. Scientific Publications of the Freshwater Biological Association No 20.
Insecta Helvetica, Fauna Band 9: Ephemeroptera (German Edition) Edited by D Studemann et al.

Mayflies of the World A Catalog of the Family and Genus Group Taxa (Insecta: Ephemeroptera) by MD Hubbard.

A Review of the Scarcer Ephemeroptera and Plecoptera of Great Britain by JH Bratton.

Zoological Catalogue of Australia, Volume 6: Ephemeroptera, Odonata, Megaloptera, Plecoptera, Trichoptera.

Insecta Helvetica, Fauna Band 9: Ephemeroptera (French Edition) by D Studemann et al.

The Mayflies, or Ephemeroptera, of Illinois by Burks (1975 reprint with a new preface by George F. Edmunds).

Bestimmungsschlüssel für die Osterreichischen Eintagsfliegen: (Insecta Ephemeroptera), 2 (Key to Austrian Mayflies).

Aquatic Insects of North Europe, Volume 1: Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, Heteroptera, Neuroptera, Megaloptera, Coleoptera, Trichoptera, Edited by Anders Nilsson.

Checklist delle Specie della Fauna d'Italia, Parts 34-40: Ephemeroptera, Odonata, Blattaria, Mantodea, Isoptera, Orthoptera, Phasmatodea, Ed Calderini.

Economic Insect Fauna of China, Volume 48 Ephemeroptera You Dashou et al.

Ephemeroptera and Plecoptera Biology-Ecology-Systematics Edited by Peter Landolt and Michel Sartori.

Fauna of New Zealand, No 36: Leptophlebiidae (Insecta: Ephemeroptera) by DR Towns and WL Peters.

Efermerotti (Ephemeroptera) by C Belfiore.

Preliminary Guide to the Identification of Nymphs of Australian Baetid Mayflies (Insecta: Ephemeroptera) Found in Flowing Waters by Philip J Suter


Order Ephemeroptera

Superfamily Heptagenioidea
Superfamily Leptophlebioidea
Superfamily Ephemeroidea
Superfamily Caenoidea
Superfamily Prosopistomatoidea

Mayflies on the Web

Mayfly Central at Perdue University
Ephemeroptera Genomics
Mayflies at FAMU Includes papers on-line
Tree of Life - Ephemeroptera
Mayflies Fly Fishing at Yellowstone National Park
International Conference on Ephemeroptera and Plecoptera August 1998.
Checklist of the Ephemeroptera of South America
Ephemeroptera holdings At the Californian Academy of Science
McKenzie River mayfly photos by D. Mason
Ephemeroptera of South Africa
Montana Ephemeroptera List Summary
Mayflies of Sri Lanka
Mayflies and Lake Erie
Leptophlebiidae of New Zealand
Mayflies An introduction
Mayfly Database For Fishermen
Ephemeroptera UD Insect Database
Ephemeroptera An Introduction
Some color drawings of nymphs
Some B/W drawings of nymphs
An Introduction From Oregon University


The images eph-nym1.jpg and eph-nym2.jpg are used at the top of this page courtesy of the :-
Department of Entomology of the University of Queensland Australia.



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