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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.