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Green bottle fly sitting

Don’t Fly Off the Handle


16th June 2022

Last Updated: 1st July 2022

Bumblebees definitely, ladybirds of course and butterflies obviously. The invariably positive responses received when discussing the mini beasts in our gardens. Yet, when I mention flies – yuck NO! Why the different response?

None of them are exactly good lookers, certainly not cute in the way of kittens or puppies. Bumblebees are round and fluffy, butterflies have beautifully patterned wings but that surely doesn’t give them license to be considered in a class above the other insects does it? I think all our insects are interesting, but I can’t select favourites based on looks alone. I’m not here to champion the fly but let’s give them some credit compared to their more popular cousins.

Flies and their larvae do us a tremendous service. They consume dung, rotting flesh and dead animals. Without them we’d be neck deep in do do! Paradoxically, it could be the wonderful work they do that gives them their bad reputation. Hospitals, including the NHS, to this day use maggot therapy as a way of removing dead flesh and preventing infection. If the association with dung and dead flesh makes your skin crawl, just bear in mind the butterfly landing on your finger will happily munch on dung and corpses too, so they’re no innocents in this regard.

Cabbage white caterpillar eating

In the larval stage, we all know the carrion fly’s larvae are maggots and well known for consuming dead animals. They clear up the mess and decaying flesh in a matter of days greatly reducing the risk of diseases spreading. Compare this active service to the butterfly larvae, or caterpillars. These by contrast like to chomp their way through huge quantities of vegetables, often the same ones we like to eat, in direct competition with us!

Another common moan about flies are the clouds of gnats gathering in sun kissed glades and pathways. These are non-biting male swarms and pose no menace to us, but they are a vital source of food for spiders, birds and bats. Swallows alone travel over 6,000 miles every summer to reap this feast! Even among the relatively few biting species, only the female bites and this is because she needs the protein our blood provides to mature her eggs. She’s not ‘biting’ but rather gathering food to provide for her family. She’d also rather be biting her preferred food targets, birds and rodents over us humans, so it’s the fly tolerating us, rather than the other way around.

Cloud of gnats in evening sunshine

With biting and stinging insects, it’s also worth noting that flies come second only to bees as vital pollinators, and in colder environments where bees can’t thrive, flies are often the sole pollinators. Additionally, flies are generally attracted by scent or nectar and do not steal the pollen in the way bees do, so from the plant’s perspective, flies are preferable to bees.

Now the warmer weather’s here and the odd fly urgently careers about buzzing and clattering, I shall open the window and wish it well, rather than reaching for the swatter.

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