Sunday, September 9, 2012

Do the Flies Get a Bum Rap?

Musca Domestica, up-close view

Dear George,
It’s hard to believe that the flies are gaining control over our lives, but that’s what seems to be happening.  Katja was scheduled for shoulder replacement surgery shortly after we returned from our Lake Cumberland camping trip.  When we got to the hospital, she went through the intake procedure, changed into a hospital gown, got hooked up to IV tubes, and was ready to be wheeled into the operating room when the anaesthesiologist asked her a couple of last-minute screening questions.  One was whether she had any abrasions.  Katja said no, but she did have some fly bites from camping.  The anaesthesiologist looked over the dozens of fresh bites on her forearms and calves, then called in the surgeon for consultation.  The surgeon said it was probably safe to proceed, but there was a slightly increased risk of infection that could result from the bites.  He recounted one of his cases in which a patient had gotten an infection because of his chigger bites and had had to have his newly installed shoulder taken back out, a messy and painful complication.  Katja promptly decided to reschedule.  So, instead of three hours on the operating table, we had French Onion soup at Panera.  We didn’t know whether to thank our Lake Cumberland flies or be angry at them.   

Though flies have rarely affected our daily lives as much as changing a scheduled operation, we’ve had many thousands – maybe millions -- of human-fly encounters over the years.  Except for other human beings, I’d say we’ve had more contact with flies than any other species.  Certainly more than snakes, mice, worms, ducks, squirrels, opossums, moles, etc.  One memorable experience was when we were young marrieds spending the summer working on a research project in Maine’s White Mountains.  To save money, we decided to live in our pup tent at a free National Forest campsite.  We had to drive five miles over a rocky one-lane road to get to the campground, and we never saw another camper during our entire stay.  The site was idyllic, perched on the bank of a small mountain lake in the midst of a primal pine forest.  The only terrible thing was the nightly invasion of the Maine black flies, tiny vampire-like creatures that seek out and thrive on warm blood.  After days of nonstop swatting, itching, and scratching, we went to the hardware store and purchased an electric bug zapper.  The bug zapper contained a bright light that was astonishingly effective in attracting flies, moths, and other insects as soon as the sun went down.  Each time a bug entered the zapper’s innards, the machine would give off a loud ZAPPPP as it vaporized the intruder.  We’d sit at the campfire each evening, clapping and cheering every time another bug was electrified.  It was so absorbing that, when we returned to Cincinnati, we installed the bug zapper on our back porch, even though we had no real need for it, and spent many evening hours raptly watching the action.

I got pretty obsessive about trying to kill the flies on our most recent trip, and, in retrospect, I think this was an overly harsh and even immoral approach.  The more time I spent hunting the flies, the more I came to respect them as adversaries.  They seemed to have fabulous sense organs and perhaps great communication skills as well since they would descend from all directions in a matter of seconds as soon as we opened a jar or can at the kitchen table.  And they were so speedy and deceptive it was next to impossible to swat them.   I thought back to my father ‘s reverence for nature and all its living creatures.  When Katja screamed upon coming across a large brown spider in his bathroom sink, he explained that the spider was a welcome dweller in his house and every bit as much a guest as we were.  I think he probably regarded flies as equally worthy of respect and consideration.  Perhaps, I thought to myself, people are simply prejudiced toward flies.  Certainly we wouldn’t been so distraught if we’d been visited by flitting butterflies at our campsite.  

The common housefly

Confused and worried, I decided to explore the true facts about flies, using my most sophisticated technological skills (i.e., googling the word “fly”).  I soon discovered that flies have whole bunches of positive traits that I didn’t know about.  First, as the photo above illustrates, flies are handsome little devils.  We normally don’t get to appreciate this because they are too small and too quick to examine in detail.  They have fantastic eyes, their wings are elegant, and they often have aesthetically pleasing coloration.  Flies, it turns out, help to clean up the natural environment by gobbling up decaying waste, and they help keep the bird and spider populations healthy by offering their own precious bodies as food.  Flies are also terrific pollinators, pollinating more plants and flowers than almost any other creature except bumblebees.  Without flies, the birds and plants and flowers would be in serious trouble.  In fact, a contributor to asserts: “if flies become instinct who knows what could happen.  we could all die…”  That’s such a profound insight.  I think the author might have meant “extinct”, but his or her meaning is clear.

While flies’ attributes are undoubtedly natural and sensible to their fellow flies, not all of them are appealing to humans.  Flies breed, lay their eggs, and are born in feces, garbage, or rotting animal flesh (a practice that the more delicate among us would find offensive).  I never realized it, but flies lack teeth and can’t chew.  So when they’re eating human food, they vomit or defecate on it first to liquefy it so they can slurp it up with their little straw-like tongues.  Flies also have sticky pads on their feet, so when they walk around or land on something they leave behind little traces of dog poop or rotting filth.  Because a single fly carries about a million bacteria on its body and its hairy legs, flies have an impressive capacity for spreading illness.  Some favorite fly diseases are dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid fever, E. coli infections, and cholera.  

On the whole, then, we can conclude that flies are our good friends and allies, and we shouldn’t be trying to hurt them.  If you’re going to be scheduled for surgery, you should just avoid mingling with them for the time being.  Even when you’re perfectly healthy, of course, there is a risk of typhoid fever, cholera, etc.  However, since we would all be dead if our friends the flies didn’t exist, I’d definitely rather risk cholera than be instinct myself.

“Common Housefly (Musca domestica)”,
“Flies in the home,”
“Insects – Flies”,
“What good are flies?”,

G-mail Comments

-Linda K-C (9-10): David, even it causes me to become instinct I don't care, you can not convince me they should be allowed to live, they sit on shit and sit on our foot. I hate flies, good advocating on their behalf. 
-David L (9-11): Hey Linda,  You have a really clear attitude.  Hard to argue with your reasoning.  Dave
-Linda K-C (9-11): Personally I would jail them. Also foot was to be food which only enhances my argument.
-Jennifer M (9-9): This is a good one. I like the photos of the flies and your fly facts. I am also glad that we are not instinct! :-)

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