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Flies: The Fascinating Lives of the Most Successful Insects

A new fact-filled book shows why flies deserve respect for who they truly are.

Key points

  • We can learn a lot about ourselves by peering into the remarkable lives of flies and other maligned and marginalized animals.
  • Flies are remarkable complex beings who play critical roles in diverse ecosystems.
  • In "Super Fly," a fact-filled and easy to read book, Jonathan Balcombe clearly shows why all animals matter.
ROverhate, Pixabay free download.
Source: ROverhate, Pixabay free download.

I'm always looking for new books that deal with nonhuman animals (animals) with whom I'm unfamiliar. A few months ago I learned about a book by Dr. Jonathan Balcombe called Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World's Most Successful Insects—and other than being occasionally bothered by their incessant and annoying buzzing around my head, I knew little about the complex behavior or ecological significance of these diverse little critters as pollinators, waste-disposers, predators, and food sources.1,2 I also began looking for more information about flies and learned that some species have a special hindwing that allows them to take off rapidly to avoid being swatted.3

By reading Super Fly, I learned a lot about these amazing insects, and I'm pleased that Jonathan could take the time to answer a few questions about his latest book that focuses on these fascinating winged beings who are intimately involved in countless webs of life on our magnificent planet. Here's what he had to say.

MB: Why did you write Super Fly?

JB: I’ve always been fascinated by insects, but they are such an enormous and hugely successful group of animals that writing a book about all insects seemed a project more worthy of an encyclopedia than a single book. So I decided to focus on one group, the flies (order Diptera). I did this for several reasons, not least that flies are worthy contenders for the most successful group of animals on the planet. Flies’ astonishing constellation of lifestyles finds them inhabiting deserts, oceans, polar regions, even petroleum deposits. There are over 160,000 described species (plus perhaps five times that many yet to be discovered), and some 20 quadrillion flies living at any moment on Earth.

Penguin Books, with permission.
Source: Penguin Books, with permission.

Another reason is that flies are omnipresent, and they personally affect practically everybody. For example, very, very few of us, I suspect, can claim never to have been bitten by a mosquito. But pesky mosquitoes are just a tiny slice of the fly pie. Through a combination of science and storytelling, Super Fly [aims to] present a glittering extravaganza of the improbable, audacious, and miraculous ways that flies get on in a world that otherwise only seems to be run by humans.

Most importantly, flies play an indispensable role in the functioning of healthy ecosystems. If they were to disappear from the face of the Earth, life as we know it would collapse and we would fall in its wake.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

JB: I'm ever curious about how other animals might experience their worlds. As an ethologist—like you, Marc, a biologist who studies animal behavior—observing what animals do in different situations is an exciting window into their inner lives.

We may never know exactly what it feels like to be a hungry housefly exploring a used dinner plate, an amorous male cactus fly squaring off against a rival male, or a tiny chocolate midge pollinating a cocoa flower. But by studying and watching them, we can gain insights into how they sense, think, and feel.

Researching a book like this is full of surprises and rewards. In addition to sleuthing out gems of knowledge and discovery from the published scientific literature, I especially enjoyed meeting and interviewing experts in the field.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

JB: Anybody with an affinity for animals, and certainly those with any interest in the lives of insects, will enjoy this book. Although flies are generally not popular with us, the fact that we all have experiences with flies may generate wide reader interest in this book. Flies are among nature’s most resourceful entrepreneurs. Their ways of living may generate wonderment, disgust, admiration, and in some cases even a dash of envy. In Super Fly, you will find plenty of sex and violence, and even some celebrity.

MB: What are some of the topics that are woven into your book and what are some of your major messages?

JB: I’ve organized Super Fly into three main themes:

  1. what flies are
  2. how they make a living
  3. their relationship with humans

The first of these includes fly senses, their brains and mental capacities, and their athleticism—such as wings that beat >1,000 times per second, and feet that can walk on a ceiling.

In the second theme, we explore flies as parasites and predators, blood-seekers, pollinators, waste-disposers, and lovers. If you’ve ever wondered how to make yourself less attractive to a mosquito, how certain flowers use pornography to manipulate flies, and why some flies have sperm several times longer than their bodies—this is a book for you.

The third theme gets into flies’ angst-inducing roles as disease vectors and agricultural “pests,” their beneficial roles in genetics, and as crime-solvers and wound-healers.

The core and final message of Super Fly is that our planet is a complex ecosystem and that flies are an indispensable part of that whole. Love them or hate them, we would perish without them.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

JB: All of my books have the overarching goal of advocating for animals and improving our relationships with them. I do this principally because I adore animals and I fiercely believe in their right to have places to live and be themselves. I want future generations—of my fellow humans and other species—to inhabit a more compassionate, livable planet.

MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

JB: The coronavirus pandemic reminds us that we humans are a part of this planet, not apart from it. It’s time to show a little humility and stop acting like we own the place. We don’t run the show here, and we ignore that at our peril. Whether or not we get our act together, we are just temporary inhabitants. A million years after the last human is gone, a fly will be perched on a leaf, rubbing her front legs together.



By Marc Bekoff in conversation with Jonathan Balcombe.

1) Jonathan Balcombe was born in England, and has lived in New Zealand, the United States, and Canada where he currently lives. He is a biologist with a PhD in ethology, the study of animal behavior. His books include Pleasurable Kingdom, Second Nature, The Exultant Ark, and What a Fish Knows, a New York Times best-seller available in fifteen languages. In addition to writing books, Jonathan does professional editing for aspiring and established authors, and he has taught a course in animal sentience for the Viridis Graduate Institute. Formerly Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, and Department Chair for Animal Studies with Humane Society University, in Washington, DC, Jonathan has also served as Associate Editor of the journal Animal Sentience.

2) The book's description reads: For most of us, the only thing we know about flies is that they're annoying, and our usual reaction is to try to kill them. In Super Fly, the myth-busting biologist Jonathan Balcombe shows the order Diptera in all of its diversity, illustrating the essential role that flies play in every ecosystem in the world as pollinators, waste-disposers, predators, and food source; and how flies continue to reshape our understanding of evolution. Along the way, he reintroduces us to familiar foes like the fruit fly and mosquito, and gives us the chance to meet their lesser-known cousins like the Petroleum Fly (the only animal in the world that breeds in crude oil) and the Chocolate Midge (the sole pollinator of the Cacao tree). No matter your outlook on our tiny buzzing neighbors, Super Fly will change the way you look at flies forever.

3) For more information about other fascinating insects see: Empire of Ants: Their Extraordinary Lives and Hidden Worlds; Ants Rescue Sibs From Spider Webs and Surprise Us Once Again; Lonely Ants Die Young: They Don't Know What to Do When Alone; Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect; Some Truths About the Fascinating Lives of Wasps; Happy Bees: Bumblebees Show Dopamine-Based Positive Emotions; The Birds and the Bees and Their Brains: Size Doesn't Matter; and Insect Brain Capable of Conscious Subjective Experiences.

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