54 Bring in the swat team
Capable of carrying some six million bacteria and discharging acidic saliva to dissolve, then hoover up its food, the loathsome housefly is not as prolific as it once was, says a relieved David Profumo
Capable of carrying six million bacteria, the loathsome housefly is not as prolific as it once was, says a relieved David Profumo
It’s what you find in the ointment, paddling across your soup or squashed in a Garibaldi biscuit, but the housefly, in its teeming millions, is really no joke and has, for centuries, been a byword for filth, ephemerality and all that is paltry.
Musca domestica belongs to a vast, cosmopolitan order (the diptera) and is often grouped together with various cousins, such as the more garish bluebottle ( Calliphora vomitoria, a species of blowfly) and the yellow dung-fly ( Scathophaga stercoraria or faeceseating dirt lover—these muscids have some funky names). However, improvements in hygiene and refrigeration have actually reduced true housefly numbers and that irksome beastie hurtling around your lampshade is now more likely to be the male lesser housefly, Fannia canicularis.
For all its nuisance, the housefly is admirably engineered. Its reddish compound eyes each comprise 4,000 hexagonal facets and its six feet have a complex arrangement of claws and adhesive cushions that famously allow it to walk up glass. Attached by mighty muscles to the fuselage are two functioning wings plus a pair of stubby ‘halteres’ that act as gyroscopic stabilisers and combine to achieve vertiginous changes of direction with a response time of some 30 milliseconds.
Early microscopists considered such intricate details to be evidence of the Creator’s ingenuity. In 1665, Robert Hooke marvelled at the ‘crowns and blooms upon his head, against which anything possessed by the richest of men must pale’ and, indeed, the humble fly has enjoyed notable admirers. Poet ted Hughes memorably described him as a ‘freshly-barbered sultan, royally armoured’ and Virgil reputedly gave his pet fly a lavish funeral— possibly to circumvent some new Roman residency laws.
Grossly over-familiar, the fly is an emblem of the ubiquitous and is no respecter of persons— one medieval commentator suggested it ‘knew the defects of Helen’s posterior’—and, as a scavenger, it hobbles over rotting refuse (tasting with its feet) and has a penchant for excrement.
Its menu dégustation is truly disgusting: possessing no jaws, it discharges an acidic saliva to dissolve solids (sometimes regurgitating parasitic worms in the process), then hoovers up the noxious paste with a grooved and folding tongue. Along with its bristly preening habits and tendency to defecate every five minutes (‘fly-specks’), plenty of undesirable matter is soon being transferred to your jams, puddings and cheeseboard.
Even before the discovery of bacteria (of which an individual fly can carry six million), it was associated with disease and is now known as a vector of cholera, diptheria, dysentery and anthrax. It has long been a motif of death and the corruptibility of the body, a miniature anti-angel, a great leveller and a frequent memento mori, from Renaissance portraiture up until modern times— Damien Hirst’s grotesque tankful of putrefaction, A Thousand Years, being an especially lurid example.
Proverbially lustful (and with an attraction to booze), this creature copulates tenaciously, as Aristotle observed, and with zero conjugal fidelity. the reproductive cycle lasts just two weeks. About 500 eggs are laid in a warm, darkish place— a herbivore dung heap being ideal— and may hatch within hours, the saprophagous larvae being maggots (‘little white Michelin men’ in Hughes’s fond phrase). By dealing with decomposing material, these may actually prove beneficial; blowfly maggots are even used medically for the debridement of necrotic tissue.
After five days, these pupate in a hard case, emerging as the winged imago, which may survive for several weeks. theoretically, if all eggs hatched and survived and, in turn, reproduced every fortnight, by summer’s end, a single pair of flies would have generated 191 quintillion offspring— more numerous than the stars in the known universe.
However, the fly has had its celebrants, from Homer to John Clare (who revelled in ‘so many fairy familiars’. He died in an asylum). the Ancient Egyptians fashioned muscid amulets as an image of the afterlife. Ruskin championed their earthy independence—‘he rises with angry republican buzz’—and taking or sparing the life of the least of God’s creatures is symbolised in scenes from shakespeare’s gorefest Titus Andronicus and sterne’s Tristram Shandy, wherein releasing a fly is seen as proof of deranged Uncle toby’s clemency.
More common have been malignant or diabolical connections and, with the Philistine deity Ba’al-zebub (possibly an onomatopeic name), we have reached Peak Fly. satan’s sidekick, the inspiration for Golding’s astonishing, Manichean novel Lord of the Flies, is an archetype of fear and loathing. small wonder the tagline from that 1986 classic film remake The Fly was: ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’
American humorist Ambrose Bierce claimed that punctuation originated with fly-droppings on manuscript vellum and praised this insect for its services to literature— a theme reprised by poet Karl shapiro: ‘You dot all whiteness with diminutive stool.’ Perhaps we do owe it a debt of thanks, full stop.
Virgil reputedly gave his pet fly a lavish funeral