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Trillions of Flies Can’t All Be Bad

Her life among flies involves both museum work and field research. For her, this is a dream job. She recalled the first time she went behind the scenes at the museum, as a student, before she actually worked there.

“I’d been let into a building that had 34 million insects. I said, ‘Oh hello, I quite like you.’”

Dr. McAlister’s fascination began in childhood. “I used to catch the fleas off the cats,” she said, inspecting them with a microscope her parents had given her. But she soon gravitated toward more gruesome insects.

Decomposing carcasses of small creatures, also courtesy of the cats, were treasure troves of maggots, which she still delights in. “I quite like the darker side of nature,” she said, just before discussing the lives of spider-killing flies.

The larvae “hurl themselves at spiders” in order to land on them and burrow into the abdomen. They then eat the spider from the inside out. But if the spiders are immature, the larvae may go to sleep for a few years until the spider grows into a bigger meal.

Photo

A Holocephala, or robber fly, whose large eyes and keen vision help it prey on much smaller midges and springtails.

Credit
Natural History Museum, London

One of her few disappointments: “I’ve yet to get my own botfly.” She means that despite spending time in the tropics, no adult botfly has laid an egg on her arm or leg so that the larva could burrow under her skin and develop into the notoriously painful, itchy worm before it emerges.

Many flies do an enormous service for us and the planet by cleaning up all sorts of the biological world’s detritus, from dead wood to the slime in drainpipes. Drain flies, or sewer gnats, are actually cleaning up human mess. Occasionally, however, they may have a population boom that sends the adults into the air, which is annoying; if the bodies disintegrate into tiny particles in the air, they are potentially harmful to human health.

And, of course, there are the flies that feed on dead bodies — the 1,100 different species of blow flies, favorites of forensic detective shows. The maggots of these flies, like the very attractive bluebottle larva, devour corpses of mice and men and everything else.

Knowledge of which species lay eggs at which stages of decomposition can help determine how long ago a person turned into a body. (If it’s Tuesday, it must be a bluebottle.)

Photo

A colored electron micrograph of a bluebottle fly maggot.

Credit
Eye of Science, via Science Source

Within science, flies are one of the great subjects of laboratory study. Or rather, the fly: Drosophila melanogaster, commonly known as the fruit fly, although Dr. McAlister points out it actually belongs to a group called the vinegar flies.

They are easy to work with and share the same basic DNA as all life. Historically, they have provided much of the foundation for modern genetics. And now they may provide deep insights into neuroscience and other fields.

On Thursday, scientists at the Salk Institute reported that their studies of how the fly brain works can improve internet search engines. At the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Institute in Virginia, the search is on to develop a wiring diagram of the fly brain, and then figure out in the greatest detail how they think.

Inviting Flies Into the Newsroom

The Times’s James Gorman recently took reader questions on Facebook Live with Erica McAlister, a curator of flies at the National History Museum, London.

And they do think, according to Vivek Jayaraman, who runs a lab there, in the sense that flies don’t just react instinctively. Their brains make decisions based on several different inputs — smell, memory, hunger and fear, for instance. And that whole process is what he hopes to decipher, neuron by neuron. “You can go end to end, potentially, in the fly,” he said.

Dr. McAlister admits the importance of Drosophila, although a bit reluctantly. She is really interested in the countless other fly species, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, from predators that kill dragonflies on the wing to the tiny fungus gnats. There are 160,000 known species of fly, and entomologists can only guess at the number we don’t know — it’s somewhere between hundreds of thousands and millions.

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The common fruit fly is indispensable to the study of genetics — humans share 75 percent of disease-causing genes with Drosophila melanogaster.

Credit
Dominic Hart/NASA

Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota, as well as a decidedly pro-insect scientific popularizer, couldn’t agree more. Dr. Zuk, whose chosen study subject is a cricket, also studies a parasitic fly that lays its larvae in them.

I called her to talk flies. “Wow,” she said, “you never get asked what your favorite fly is.”

Dr. Zuk quickly came up with an unfavorite. “Flies are always cursed by Drosophila,” she said. “But flies are unbelievably diverse.” She mentioned the value to research of the blowfly and referred to a classic paper, and later a book, on hunger in the blowfly, by Vincent G. Dethier.

The paper showed the physiological process that signaled to a blowfly larva that it had eaten enough, for the moment, of whatever dead thing it was dining on. Dr. Dethier also wrote what might be described as a cult favorite, “To Know a Fly.” Assuming entomologists and their hangers-on can be considered a cult.

Flies are actually prolific muses, in addition to their other qualities. Consider “A Fly for the Prosecution,”The Life of the Fly,” and “Lords of the Fly” for the Drosophila crowd, among many others.

Dr. McAlister said that her work and her book have bemused and pleased her relatives, including an aunt who is quite delighted to have an author in the family. “My parents were a bit confused to start,” she said. “But I was a middle child and they let me do my own thing.” Eventually, she said, they realized, “Oh, she’s done all right.”

Flies can be startling in their appearance as well as their behavior. One Middle Eastern fruit fly has patterns on its wings that look something like spiders. No one knows why. Another fly, Achias rothschildi, must swallow air to inflate its eye stalks when it first emerges as an adult.

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