By Ryan Badham
Most people think flies are disgusting but many don’t realise how fascinating they are. Did you know they can taste with their feet and breathe through their bottoms? You can even study flies at university. Here are fourteen incredible things you probably didn’t know about them…
- Flies are the only insects with 2 wings; all others with wings have 4. They are known as Diptera (di-ptera” = two wings in Greek) or ‘true flies’ and include blue bottles, house flies, mosquitoes and midges.
- A fly has a 4-stage lifecycle: egg, larva, pupa and adult. This means it undergoes complete metamorphosis (like a butterfly).
- Flies are found all over the world except Antarctica.
- Larvae (commonly known as maggots) clump together to keep warm. This helps them develop faster.
- Maggots can breathe through their bottoms, allowing them to continue eating without pausing for breath.
- Maggots have been used in medicine since ancient times to help heal wounds by eating dead tissue and killing bacteria to fight nasty infections. They’re still used in some hospitals today.
- A fly feels with the hairs on its body. Those on its mouth and feet are used for tasting, so they taste what they walk on. If they step on something yummy, they put down their mouth and slurp it again.
- A fly can hover, fly backwards, land upside down and beat its wings up to 200 times per second.
- Flies have sticky pads on their feet that act like glue and help them stick to glass and ceilings.
- Flies don’t bite (they suck, spit or stab) and can only feed on liquids. They sip nectar from flowers, drink liquefied dung (animal poo), or spit saliva on their food (which has enzymes to liquefy it) and suck it up. Female mosquitoes’ pointed mouthparts pierce skin and they drink blood.
- Flies have compound eyes containing many facets. The house fly has 4,000 facets in each eye and can see a light flickering nearly seven times faster than we can. Flies don’t have eyelids, so rub their eyes with their feet to keep them clean.
- Flies help solve murder cases by establishing time of death, and DNA has been extracted from maggot guts to identify badly burnt or decomposed victims.
- Whilst some flies are pests that spread disease, others are beneficial. They prey on other pests; pollinate plants; are food for other animals; and help break down organic matter, recycling it back into the soil.
- There are over 100,000 species (about 1 in every 10 animals is a fly); with at least 5000 in Britain and more being discovered every year. So, next time you see one, don’t dismiss it is as ‘just a fly‘, it could be one of thousands of possible varieties.
Entomology is the scientific study of insects.
Forensic entomology uses insect biology to help us with the law, including crime.
Ryan studied forensic biology as a degree at university, followed by a research based Master’s in Forensic Entomology (*A Master’s is more specialised study after your degree) using blue bottle fly genes to try to estimate how long someone has been dead. He likes insects because there are so many different kinds and even closely related species can be dramatically different and unique. Caddisflies are Ryan’s favourite (even though they’re not true flies) because their protective casings can be used to make jewellery.
Here’s Ryan (standing furthest to the right) with some of his university colleagues, showing how interested they are in flies!