Mayflies (also known as Canadian soldiers in the United States, and as shadflies or fishflies in Canada and the upper Midwestern U.S.; also up-winged flies in the United Kingdom) are aquatic insectsbelonging to the order Ephemeroptera. This order is part of an ancient group of insects termed the Palaeoptera, which also contains dragonflies and damselflies. Over 3,000 species of mayfly are known worldwide, grouped into over 400 genera in 42 families.
Mayflies are relatively primitive insects and exhibit a number of ancestral traits that were probably present in the first flying insects, such as long tails and wings that do not fold flat over the abdomen. Their immature stages are aquatic fresh water forms (called “naiads” or “nymphs”), whose presence indicates a clean, unpolluted environment. They are unique among insect orders in having a fully winged terrestrial adult stage, the subimago, which moults into a sexually mature adult, the imago.
Mayflies “hatch” (emerge as adults) from spring to autumn, not necessarily in May, in enormous numbers. Some hatches attract tourists. Fly fishermen make use of mayfly hatches by choosing artificial fishing fliesthat resemble the species in question. One of the most famous English mayflies is Rhithrogena germanica, the fisherman’s “March brown mayfly”.
The brief lives of mayfly adults have been noted by naturalists and encyclopaedists since Aristotle and Pliny the Elder in classical times. The German engraver Albrecht Dürer included a mayfly in his 1495 engraving The Holy Family with the Mayfly to suggest a link between heaven and earth. The English poet George Crabbe compared the brief life of a daily newspaper with that of a mayfly in the satirical poem “The Newspaper” (1785), both being known as “ephemera”.