Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Doggers of Civilization

Of the world's pest insects, none are more prominent than flies.  These “two-winged” insects have been called “doggers of civilization.”  And for good reason.

Of the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt, two were flies.  Fly-borne diseases are said to have hastened the decline of ancient Athens and Rome.  Sleeping sickness, a disease transmitted by the tsetse fly, long delayed the civilizing of Africa.

Ancient Semitic people recognized a deity known as Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies.  It might have been wishful thinking, but these people thought that Beelzebub would defend them against flies.  The Philistines of the era apparently couldn't depend on Beelzebub.  They appointed a fly control officer.  No one knows how this first government-sponsored program for insect control worked out.

Songwriters have recognized the importance of flies as pests.  “The Blue Tail Fly” is about a species of horsefly that has a vicious bite.  The song became so popular that it was number one on radio's hit parade of songs in the late 1940s.

Many fold sayings exist that relate to flies and fly behavior.  Most people prefer not to have “A fly in the soup,” but other lessons can be learned through the less common sayings of our ancestors.  For example, a lesson on the value of even the smallest thing, “Every fly has its shadow”; on hard work, “Flies are busiest about lean horses”; on common sense, “Even flies won't light on a boiling pot”; on overdoing it, “Cover yourself with honey, and the flies will have at you”; on watching what you say, “No fly gets into a shut mouth”; and on watching your step, “If the fly flies, the frog goes not supperless to bed.

Flies also have a reputation as weather predictors.  Flies collect on the screen door just before a storm.  Flies, it is said, “bite sore when there is a good chance for rain.”

Modern civilization is still fighting flies.  Flies are annoying us and stealing our blood and that of our animals we can't entirely stop them.  To be sure, we have window screens, flypaper, and flyswatters.  We even have insecticides, but we still have flies.

The most common of all flies is the housefly.  Even its scientific name – Musca domestica – indicates how closely it lives with mankind.  While the housefly can't bite with its sponging mouthparts, it has been implicated in disease transmission.  These flies can carry germs that cause dysentery, diarrhea, and food poisoning.

The housefly, in spite of all its imperfections, appears polite.  The little beast always cleans every one of its six feet before tromping around in the mashed potatoes and gravy on your plate.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox