Life and death on the Tisza

‘It’s started. They’re flowering. Catch the next train to Subotica and someone will meet you at the station.’ I’d been waiting for this particular phone call for twelve months and when it came, I was ready. I was going to see something miraculous – the tiszavirág (or as it’s known in Serbia, tiski cvet).

Every year, for a day or two in June, a particular species of mayfly hatches on the Tisza River in what is known as tiszavirág (the Tisza blooming). The species, Polingenia longicauda, spends three years underwater, coming to the surface to frenetically hatch and mate for about two hours before dying. Its short life is dedicated totally to reproduction. Watching these flies mate in mid-air, the male’s long legs wrapped around the female, is quite something. There is no time for niceties. It’s a case of now or never with gangs of males chasing down a lone female. Some of the more eager males lie in wait on top of the female who has yet to shed her skin.

Clouds of them hover above the water, more cover the trunks of the riverbank trees, others gather on the drift wood – each trying to shed its cocoon and get down to the business of mating. So frantic are they in their race against time that I want to reach out and help the process. But I remember what I’d learned in Kruger, South Africa – do not interfere with nature. Instead, I stand, riveted, watching the brightly coloured insects gradually emerge from a diaphonous white coocon. One lands on my knee and there, oblivious to me and to the feel of cotton, he  goes about  his business. I am mesmerized and for the first time in my life, I have some small insight into what it might be like for a father to watch the birth of his child.

A flight of fancy

We take a skiff up the river and seem to fly with them – hundreds and thousands of them. Fishermen are out with their nets; this particular fly is liked by all species of fish, so it makes good bait. Given that the flies live just for two hours above water, it seems a little heartless to cut their short life even shorter and I feel some irrational degree of resentment at this display of what I perceive as human insensitivity. Surely the fishermen could wait a little. Photographers with their zoom lenses get up close and personal and I briefly wonder whether this counts as voyeurism. Waiting three years to mate and then having it all immortalised on film to be screened around the world as soon as the images are uploaded to the Internet? A little too close to the human condition for comfort. It’s hot. I know I am getting a little ridiculous, a little too fanciful, so I sit for a while on some driftwood and reflect on what exactly is bothering me.

Which life?

To spend three years underwater and then to surface for just two hours begs the question: which part consistutes life? Is what goes on underwater the mayfly’s version of living, and the ritual that goes on above water, its version of dying? The female mayfly lays her eggs on the surface of the water. After about 45 days, the eggs drift to the bottom of the river and hatch into larvae. The larvae then dig tunnels into the riverbed and stay put for three years after which they surface. The females shed once; the males twice: they first have a very brief ‘teenage’ stage and then in a matter of minutes, turn into adults. While the entire mating period lasts for about two days, each mayfly lives for about two hours. To see the process of death and regeneration in action simultaneously, is quite the experience. Like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, I wonder if the the tiszavirág are mentally prepared to die?

Changing times

Locals recall times 50 years ago when you couldn’t see the other side of the Tisza for the 2-meter-high wall of insects swarming over the water. Sadly, this is no longer the case. I catch the action on Sunday evening; the previous evening, there had been a lot more to see. Like every other miracle in this world of ours, this one, too, seems to be waning. Yes, there are people watching but nothing like the crowds that I’d expected. I wonder briefly whether we have we lost our ability to marvel at what is natural? Has technology replaced nature as our chief source of wonder? Are we now immune to the simplest pleasures in life, spoiled as we are with great discoveries and scientific advancement?

The simple mayfly could teach us a lot about life and how fragile, fleeting, and fascinating it really is.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 June 2012

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  1. […] the sleep of the innocent at the Hotel Mozart. We walked the banks of the Tisza and remembered the mayflies and got some great people-watching in. It was a lovely summer evening and there was plenty going on […]

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