There are approximately 2500 species of Mayflies throughout the world, over 600 of which live in North America alone. Mayflies are part of an ancient species of insect dating back millions of years and containing both Dragonflies and damselflies. While most of today’s mayflies are very tiny, fragile bugs that only live from a few hours to a few days (most adult imagos have no functional digestive system-they transform, mate and die!), the ancient ancestors of this group could grow as large as 18 inches (45 centimeters) across!
Mayflies belong to the order ephemeroptera which derive from the Ancient Greek word ephemeros meaning in a day and pteron meaning wing. The route that ephemeros takes to get to English is interesting: it arrived in early English in the 14th century as a medical term from medical Latin as ephemera (febris), the adjective here describing the length of the fever as a day. In Ancient Greek, ephemeros is itself a combination of two words, the prefix and conjunction epi- meaning at, near or around and (h)emera meaning a day. Today a majority of the order ephemeroptera live a day or less, rising out of their metamorphoses in giant clouds, mating and dying. As you shoo away mayflies this summer, consider their tiny lifespans! Or remember King Lear:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods,
They kill us for their sport.
While English knows them as Mayflies, most of the world knows them as Dayflies: German Eintagsfliege, Dutch eendagsvlieg, Slovenian enodnevnica, Swedish dagslända, Danish and Norwegiandøgnflue, Polish jętka jednodniówka, Finnish päivänkorento, Turkish birgün sineği, Russian подёнка,Bulgarian еднодневка, and Greek εφήμερος. The Greek name, transliterated efímeros, is the origin of the names in Romance languages: French éphémère, Italian effimera, Portuguese efêmera, Spanish efímera, and Romanian efemeride. In Korean harusarimok (하루살이목).
Image of a mayfly by Mick E. Talbot, used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.
Image of a mayfly fossil 300 million years old copyright Richard Knecht, read the full story here.
Foreign names courtesy Wikipedia, used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.