The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

Dear Readers, this isn’t exactly a book review (yet) because I am only up to page 57 of this rather splendid book. However, it is so full of interesting factoids that I wanted to share a few with you, even though I am in the middle of year end and things are a bit on the frantic side (understatement). So, please forgive me for a few quick bullet points. There are more fly-related things to be said in the future, I’m sure.

First up, McAlister estimates that there are 17 million flies for every single human being currently walking about on the planet. They are a hugely diverse family, from craneflies and hoverflies to bluebottles and horseflies. But, as she puts it ‘The question you still want answering is: what have all those flies ever done for us?’

The obvious first answer is that we would be up to our ears and above in waste if it wasn’t for flies, but flies are extremely undervalued as pollinators. For example, there is only one group of tiny flies that can pollinate Theobroma cacao, otherwise known as the chocolate plant. These are known in the Caribbean as No See Ums, and I remember my Dad talking about how badly some members of this family of midges could bite. The chocolate midge (Forcipomyia sp.) manages to pollinate the flowers of the chocolate plant, but it is a very particular little creature, preferring damp, shady woodlands and moist soil or a pond to raise their youngsters. The cutting down  of forests to plant larger and larger chocolate plantations is, ironically, destroying the habitat preferred by the crop’s only pollinator. Could this be the end of the Curly Wurly? Only time will tell.

A chocolate midge (Forcipomyia sp.) (Photo by© Christophe Quintin Via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Like many pollinators. flies and flowering plants have evolved alongside one another, and this has led to some most intriguing designs, none more so than that of Moegistrorhyncus longirostris, a fly which has a proboscis eight times longer than its body. If a human had a tongue of equal ratio, it would be over six metres long. Why the long tongue? Well, eight species of plants on the Cape in South Africa can only be pollinated by this fly or one that’s closely related, because they have such long tubes that only the longest-tongued can reach their pollen.

Just the kind of flower that longirostris feeds on…

And so I am very much enjoying this book, as you would expect from someone with a name like Bugwoman (though flies are not bugs in the technical sense of course). I am sure there will be more highlights later!

2 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

  1. Amanda Scott

    I never paid much attention to flies until I ‘met’ my first bee-fly, and gained far more respect for them! Moegistrorhyncus longirostris with its long proboscis sounds fascinating, dwarfing even that of my bee-fly…I’ll look forward to more highlights from the book on your blog.


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