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Burrower Mayfly (Hexagenia spp.)

Detailing the physical features, habits, territorial reach and other identifying qualities of the Burrower Mayfly

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The short-lived adult Burrowing Mayfly can be a useful bioindicator for the cleanliness and health of the Great Lakes and connected waterways.

Updated: 09/29/2022; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.InsectIdentification.org
Due to their sensitivity to pollution in the early stages of life, the presence of Burrowing Mayflies has long been used as a means of judging the purity of the Great Lakes ecosystem. Before pollution and sewage were allowed to pour into the Great Lakes, swarms of Burrowing Mayflies would inhabit the area creating a nuisance for residents. After pollution was allowed into the waterways and lakes, the Burrowing Mayflies all but disappeared. Their return to the region would be a sign of improved cleanliness in the waters their juveniles call home.

Burrowing Mayflies have large yellow wings with a net-like vein pattern on them. Their bodies are yellow with brown diagonal stripes on each segment of the abdomen. A long neck separates the head from the tubular abdomen. Two large eyes flank the sides of the head. The front pair of legs may be lifted like antennae. Female Burrowing Mayflies lay fertilized eggs in water (lakes, streams, creeks, ponds). The offspring lives underwater for a few years and is called a nymph. Even small traces of contaminants in the water they live in can kill them. Gills along the sides of their bodies allow them to 'breathe' under water. They feed on aquatic plant matter and hide in the sediment to avoid being eaten by fish or larger naiads. They will molt several times over the course of a year or more before finally leaving the water to finish metamorphosis.

Once the larva crawls out of the water, it molts and its first wings appear. This first rendition of maturity is called the subimago stage and is eventually followed by another molting. A second molt will generate a brighter body color. The full adult is called an imago and they are fertile, but short-lived. In fact, the lifespan at the imago level may be one day at best. They live only long enough to mate and deposit eggs for a future generation.

Burrowing Mayfly larvae are a major food source for fish and are used as live bait by fisherman. Artificial lures mimicking their body shape and color are also used by anglers to catch fish. Adults are also a major food source for birds, insects and spiders. Because both life stages are eaten by a variety of other creatures, survival of the species depends on mass reproduction which can lead to those annoying swarms seen decades ago. Nowadays, such a sight around the Great Lakes region might be greeted with delight and curiosity.

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General Characteristics

Capability, Shape, Texture/Pattern, Benefits, Dangers
Flying insect icon
Striped or banded insect icon

Taxonomic Hierarchy

Species Breakdown
Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Arthropoda
    Class: Insecta
      Order: Ephemeroptera
        Family: Ephemeridae
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          Genus: Hexagenia
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            Species: spp.

Identifying Information

Size, Colors, Features
Scientific Name: Hexagenia spp.
Other Name(s): Common Burrower Mayfly, Golden Mayfly, Michigan Mayfly, Great Leadwing Drake, Green Bay Mayfly
Category: Mayfly
Size (Adult; Length): 10mm to 30mm (0.39" to 1.18")
Colorwheel Graphic Colors: yellow; brown; black; white
Descriptors: flying; large; striped; arms

Relative Size Comparison

Typical Size Between 10mm (0.4in) and 30mm (1.2in)
Lo: 10mm
Md: 20mm
Hi: 30mm

Territorial Map*

U.S., Canada, and Mexico
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Prince Edward Is.  
* MAP NOTES: The territorial heat map above showcases (in red) the states and territories of North America where the Burrower Mayfly may be found (but is not limited to). This sort of data is useful when attempting to see concentrations of particular species across the continent as well as revealing possible migratory patterns over a species' given lifespan. Some insects are naturally confined by environment, weather, mating habits, food resources and the like while others see widespread expansion across most, or all, of North America. States/Territories shown above are a general indicator of areas inhabited by the Burrower Mayfly. Insects generally go where they please, typically driven by diet, environmental changes, and / or mating habits.
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