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Are flies the unsung heroes of our planet? Well, if you like chocolate, and a world that’s not covered in dung, you have flies to thank! So, set everything you think you know about flies aside—you’ll never swat one away the same again.
Whether you’re shooing a housefly from your food, avoiding being bitten by black flies and mosquitoes to enjoy a walk through the woods, or coming up with creative ways to rid yourself of the fruit flies that now call your kitchen home, these insects seem to be a constant nuisance. They are everywhere, they are terrible, and they are 100% one of the planet’s coolest group of species.
You don’t have to believe that last statement right now, but spend some time with Dr. Erica McAlister of the Natural History Museum of London, and you might be convinced.
So, come along with us to catch a glimpse of the miraculous world of flies!
Let’s start simple: what is a fly?
Scientifically, flies are in the order Diptera. These are insects that have two wings and include mosquitos, house flies, gnats, and midges. 1 They can take on a wide array of body shapes, from tiny and delicate to large and leggy—there are even some that look like other species, like bees and spiders! They are found around the globe in an impressive array of habitats and climates; a few even find their homes in the water.
Suffice it to say, flies are everywhere. They make up 13% of all known insects—around 125,000 species! (And that’s probably still an underestimate of how many different insect species are out there.) Unsurprisingly, because flies lack the beauty and grace of moths and bees, less study has gone into them. So there could still be many more species living their fabulous lives out there! 2
Alright, so what makes flies so cool?
Well, let’s just start with what they can do for us.
Imagine a world without flies and you imagine a world with far fewer avocados and no chocolate. They are incredible pollinators for crops like carrots, avocados, and cacao trees!
But what about the unsavory things they do, like creating maggots, and buzzing around poo? Well, you can thank flies for being some of the world’s best cleanup crew members. Without flies, we would lose one of the best ways our planet has found to get rid of all things rotting and made of dung!
When it comes to finding a niche, flies are just remarkable! Some species are so unique, their life cycle is dependent on the intestines of the rhinoceros!
I could keep nerding out about all things flies–really, I’m a convert now–but the best person to get you excited by the fly world is Dr. Erica McAlister. She met up with the brilliant biologist and science educator Lucy Cooke–who you may remember from our sloth article. Together they ventured into the Natural History Museum of London’s insect collection to check out a few of their 4.1 million fly specimens.
It’s a wild adventure! Take a look:
The Natural History Museum of London has one of the best YouTube channels out there. They do an amazing job creating fun, engaging, and educational content on all things natural history. It’s one of my favorite places to go on the internet when I want to explore a little of the world’s wonder from the comfort of my own laptop.
To dive deeper into this magnificent world of flies, along the way in my research I stumbled across a talk Erica gave at the Ratio Science Forum. In the talk, she goes through an even deeper look at some of the world’s most incredible fly species. It’s a little long, but if you have time I highly recommend you take a watch. She’s hilarious, and her enthusiasm is contagious! It’s well worth a watch! You can check that out by clicking here.
As for Lucy Cooke, you can check out the article we wrote about her work with sloths and the amazing accompanying TED Talk. It’s an absolute delight, and will have you asking yourself, “Should I live more like a sloth?”
The Abundance of Our Natural World
Think about the amazing diversity of life on our planet. Every niche is home to a creature, plant, or microbe that has found a way to call it home. It is a true wonder that we live on a planet so full of life.
The astonishing array of species we walk alongside here on Earth is something we very often forget to stop and celebrate. But, if you have a little time and want to celebrate right now, here are a few of the articles I recommend to get you started:
There is nothing boring about the planet we live on. Life is so diverse, it always finds a way!
And that can be a lesson to us humans, too. We can turn to the natural world for inspiration to solve some of the world’s greatest problems and for motivation to save species that have been driven to the brink of extinction by our past behaviors.
This all starts with us knowing more about the world and becoming more curious about what’s happening around us.
So, the next time you find yourself swatting at a fly, let it be a reminder to get curious, pause, and recognize how remarkably rich life on this planet is!
Stay curious & keep laughing!
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- “Dipteran | Definition, Life Cycle, Habitat, & Classification | Britannica.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2020, www.britannica.com/animal/dipteran. Accessed 21 Jan. 2020. ↩
- Ratio BG. “Dr. Erica McAlister: The Secret Life of Flies.” YouTube, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=habhJeP6BtI. Accessed 21 Jan. 2020. ↩
- Natural History Museum. “Lucy Cooke Explores Weird and Wonderful Flies at the Museum | Natural History Museum.” YouTube, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytiYGERU_Fc. Accessed 21 Jan. 2020. ↩