The bush loves to throw a curveball out there every now and again. For the past few weeks there has been a mini fly epidemic and the little pests have been driving some of us to distraction and beyond. My automatic response to a buzzing fly is to swat it violently into another dimension but that doesn’t resonate so well on sunlit afternoons when waxing lyrically about the African bushveld.  As a result I’ve undertaken to educate myself on their usefulness and put some of my pteronarcophobia at rest whilst trying to ignore them on game drive. I’ve also exchanged my black Londolozi cap for a stone one (convinced that they prefer darker colours) and I avoid the sodic areas where they are so prolific at the moment. Jerry doesn’t subscribe to my colour theory and at least I’m drawing some satisfaction in watching the squadrons menace his black cap.

Jerry taking a bit of Tom's advice, eventually and donning his light cap!

Jerry taking a bit of Tom’s advice, eventually, and donning his light cap!

The basic question that is often asked about flies is – do they have any use? Quoting Jonas Salk (he famously developed the first polio vaccine):

“If all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on
Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth,
within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”

That’s a very philosophical way to address the basic usefulness of the fly but it’s sadly accurate when suggesting that flies are more purposeful on the blue marble than the average human. With over 120 000 species found on all 7 continents they are a critical part of the food web as well as key scavengers breaking down dead organic material. That they’ve bought disease and pestilence to man throughout our entire history should probably have them cheered on by every other organism that we’ve bought to the brink of disaster along with ourselves.

There is an amazing world of smaller beings right under our noses. Flies, wasps, butterflies and countless others are going about their daily lives, mostly overlooked. This bottle-green fly was investigating the carcass of a wildebeest and is seen here perched on its horns. We are not sure of the exact cause of death to the wildebeest, but it was not a large predator, as the carcass was untouched.

This bottle-green fly is investigating the carcass of a wildebeest and is seen here perched on its horns. We are not sure of the exact cause of death to the wildebeest, but it was not a large predator, as the carcass was untouched. Often a pest but rather beautiful at closer inspection.

The foodweb (and the grateful amphibians, spiders, birds etc) aside, I managed to find a few other interesting applications of the fly. Maggot therapy involves popping disinfected fly larvae (maggots) into human wounds for the purpose of eating away the dead flesh and disinfecting the wound. It’s been used like this for centuries by indigenous cultures such as the aboriginals, but in modern times found its’ way into medical uses from American Civil war surgeons to modern treatments for patients struggling with antibiotic resistant infections.

Vultures on giraffe carcass

Vultures, another addition to this foodweb, on giraffe carcass

Forensic entomology is also a science with applications in the solving of crimes. I’ve often joked that the trackers of Londolozi are like CSI, discovering grizzly carcasses and solving the riddle of whodunnit and when, but theoretically armed with the knowledge of blowfly larvae size, I could trump Jerry and leap off the LandRover with my maggot callipers, determine the size of the wriggly little thing and then comparing it against a chart of maggot size versus age make an accurate pronouncement of time of death. It would help if the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the crime wasn’t lying in the shade nearby.

Early Morning Tracking Leopard

The investigation begins early in the morning Tracking a Leopard

Searching for fly positives provided a few unexpected chuckles. I found one website selling ‘flypower kits’ which basically help you put together a model aeroplane that involves gluing bottle flies on special mountings to the lightweight wings. Apparently the crafts are attracted to light and ethics aside it would be a fairly remarkable exercise and an improbable hobby if I could actually catch one.

Anyway so much for the flies – they’ll be gone soon enough but it’s the other flying that’s a bit worrying. If I think carefully about the Januaries in my life I get the sense of them having been long languid months. Not this one; January 2014 scooted by like it was being chased by a pack of wild dogs. This apparently is an age related phenomenon and the adage about time getting faster as you get older may have something to it. At Londolozi it may also be true that ‘time flies when you are having fun’ and there hasn’t been a January in the lodge quite like this one for a long time.

Welcome February – try not to stick around!

Written by Tom Imrie

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Tom Imrie

Field Guide

Tom is the voice of wisdom, reason and logic on the Londolozi Ranging Team, as well as all the other facets that go hand-in-hand with being an intellectual far beyond the realm of most mere mortals. There are very few subjects under the ...

More stories by Tom

9 Comments

on January flies by
    anni says:

    I knew this was your article,very good Tom!

    Arden Zalman says:

    I’m sorry about the flies–but at least you are in Londolozi.

    Karin Mac says:

    I love your contributions to the blog Tom.

    Cinzia Carli says:

    Tom, as always beautifully written!

    Jill Grady says:

    Good article Tom, although not one you want to read while having dinner (ha-ha)!! Still, I’d give anything to be there at Londolozi right now, even with all the flies, and out of the extremely cold winter we are having in Toronto, Canada this year (-30 C)!!

    Kate Imrie says:

    Another out of the box article. Thank you

    Ryan James says:

    Need a “flypower” kit, stat. Nelspruit to JNB is becoming too expensive πŸ™‚

    Claire-M. Lepage says:

    Thank you, Tom, for sharing your thoughts and finds about the useful creatures that make our World a better living place. Reading your blog I was hearing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in my head.

    Claire-M. Lepage, QuΓ©bec, Canada

    P.S. I’d like to read a blog on Londolozi spiders and their web building skills (Bark spiders in particular, and orbs spiders, of course) from your talented pen.

    Jenifer Westphal says:

    I once had so much fun studying dung beetles at Londolozi, so thank you for your study on flies. There are times at the shore in New Jersey where the black flies are just awful, biting and leaving large welts that trickle with blood. There is nothing fun about being out on the water when the “flies are biting” but as you say, they are an essential part of our eco system. Thank you!

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