Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Flies Have Families, Too

Most people are not surprised to learn that there are lots of flies in this world. In fact, the insect order Diptera, the flies, is one of the largest orders of insects. Flies can be found almost everywhere.

All flies are not the same, and to help keep track, scientists divide these insects into groups called families. Sort of like the Hatfields, the McCoys and the Smiths and Browns. Most of these scientific names are larger than the insects themselves. For instance, one family of flies is named Lonchopteridae and includes flies less than 5 mm in length. It would take at least a dozen of these little flies placed end to end to be as long as their scientific name!

Many flies also have common names — names that are a bit more understandable to most people. The Lonchopteridae are also called spear-winged flies because their wings are somewhat pointed at the end.

Sometimes common names, like spear-winged flies, are descriptive of the insect. For instance, the small-headed flies have unusually small heads, even for flies. On the other hand, one might assume the big-headed flies think they are socially better than other flies, but they actually have really big heads for flies. There are also thick-headed flies, which might be a little difficult to teach new tricks. There are long-legged flies, stilt-legged flies and stalk-eyed flies. Some flies are called picture-winged flies because it looks as if someone has attempted to paint their wings.

There are flies called dance flies because they have the habit of doing a rather elaborate mating dance. It just might be that some flies overdid this dancing a bit, because one group is known as the flat-footed flies.

Some flies are known by their general appearance, such as the bee flies that resemble bees and louse flies that look more like lice than flies. Snipe flies have a head with a long proboscis that faintly resembles that long-beaked bird called a snipe. Rust flies are so named not because they were left out in the rain, but because they are the color of oxidized steel.

Other flies take their common names from where they are found. Such is the case with the stable fly and the house fly. Flower-loving flies can be found around, you guessed it, flowers. Bat flies are associated with bats, and face flies hang around the faces of cattle. Deer flies feed on deer and other mammals, and horse flies are pests of horses.

Soldier flies and robber flies are named more for their behavior than their looks. Seaweed flies, marsh flies and small dung flies have names that describe their habitat or hangouts.

A fly is not just a fly any more than all humans are Joneses or Walgenmuths. Some people really don't care to know the difference, but then the same can probably be said for a biting fly that looks at a human as just another warm blooded meal!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann