SEPTEMBER
2002

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

Download the audio files or subscribe to our podcast.

 

Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

9-26-02

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Common Names of Flies Represent Looks and Behavior


Scientists classify insects known as flies in the order Diptera. These insects have only two wings, thus their name Diptera: "Di" for two and "ptera" for wing. The other pair of wings, present in most other winged insects, is represented by tiny, knobbed protrusions called halteres.

Flies are very common insects and are associated with many insect-borne human diseases. However, flies are not as popular among entomologists and collectors as are butterflies, moths and beetles. There are reasons for this. Flies are not as large and beautiful as butterflies and moths. Beetles have a well-defined structure and are more easily preserved for collections than flies.

Nonetheless, flies are out there, and they have some interesting names. "The Insect Book," written by L. O. Howard in 1916, provides insight into the origin of some fly names.

Moth flies are very small, hairy and fragile, so they resemble tiny moths and are named after this group of insects. The larvae of moth flies feed in a variety of situations, including in water. They have been known to survive in the drain trap of a kitchen sink.

Most flies have large heads relative to their body size. That is not the case for one group of flies. These flies are little, fat flies with small heads, which are mostly eyes. Back in the late 1800s, J. H. Comstock called them the small-headed flies. The name is still used today.

Some flies are called bee flies. These stout-bodied flies superficially resemble bees. Not only do they look somewhat like bees, they also behave like bees. They can be found around flowers where they feed on nectar and pollen. Generally, bee flies are considered beneficial since their immatures feed on egg cases of grasshoppers and on caterpillars.

There is a group of small, active black-colored flies that Comstock called window flies. That apparently was because they were commonly found on the windows of houses. But Comstock was not the first person to notice this trait. The insect was first named by C. Linnaeus, who gave it the specific name fenestralis, which is based on the Latin for openings or windows.

Dance flies get their name because they are often seen flying up and down in swarms in a dance-like movement. Long-legged flies have unusually long legs relative to their body size. Hump-backed flies are, well, hump-backed. Big-eyed flies have large heads, composed mostly of eyes. The flat-footed flies might seem to be in need of a podiatrist, but they seem to get along quite well with their very broad and flat hind feet. The flat-footed flies live between the gills of toadstool, so maybe the flat feet come in handy there.

The food habits of flies are commonly reflected in their names. Dung flies are attracted to and breed in the dung of various animals. Fruit flies are associated with fruit, and grass-stem flies with stems of grasses. Flesh flies live in the bodies of dead animals where they feed on flesh.

The most widely recognized of the flies is the common house fly. It is found all over the world where it breeds in all sorts of decaying organic matter. Historically, though, its preferred breeding site was horse manure. This fly has been commonly associated with humans and homes so it was appropriately named Musca domestica--the domestic fly.

Yes, the common names of flies, like human nicknames, tell us a lot. Sometimes, more than we really want to know.

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox