Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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The Month of March Has Ides, Madness and Flies

The month of March is upon us. Weather-wise, March is a bit fickle. To be sure, the first day of spring hits our calendar on March 20. But that doesn't guarantee that winter is over. At least in the heartland of the continental United States, weather in March can range from very winter-like to almost summer.

Indeed, the old saying about March is that "If it comes in like a lamb, it goes out like a lion." Or visa versa. Either way, the saying reflects the variable weather conditions that accompany the third month of the year.

While it doesn't have anything to do with the weather, most of us are aware of the sinister nature of what is known as the ides of March. This is because the Roman emperor Caesar was murdered by his enemies on March 15. On the Roman calendar, the middle day of a month -- in the case of March the 15  -- was known as the ides. So, because of Shakespeare's plays, we know that Caesar was warmed to "Beware of the ides of March." Caesar didn't, and, hundreds of years later, we still repeat the unheeded warning.

In modern times, sports fans participate in the annual ritual known as March Madness. During this time, college basketball determines a national champion by a single-elimination winner-take-all tournament. In the march to the final four, ardent sports fans die a thousand deaths as one by one the teams, like Caesar, are eliminated.

In temperate climates, the month of March also brings the first insects. Cold-blooded creatures that they are, insects tend to be out of sight and out of mind during the winter. But the warm days of March are certain to be accompanied by insect activity. Of the insects seen in early spring, flies probably attract the most attention. This is for at least two reasons. First, some common flies are active insects zooming from place to place. And, as they go, they produce sound. The result is that we notice them!

One of the earliest flies seen in spring is a fly that is similar in size and color to the well-known house fly. It is known as a cluster fly or attic fly, because of how it spends the winter. This fly is similar to the well-known Asian lady beetle in that both insects seek sheltered places to spend the winter. One such place is in human structures, such as barns and houses. A favorite place for these flies is the attic, hence the reason for the name. They also congregate is little groups as they snooze away the winter months. Such groups of insects are known as clusters, which is the basis for the second name.

By either name, these flies show up inside our houses during the sunny days of March. They fly to the lighted windows in an attempt to get outside. Outside, the flies will seek out earthworms on which to deposit their eggs. These flies, in their immature stages, are parasites on earthworms. Of course, spring is a good time to find earthworms, so the cluster fly is active during this season.

Their habit of finding sheltered places to spend the winter gets cluster flies in trouble with more than desperate housewives trying to keep their houses insect free. For instance, Dr. Ed Raffensperger of Cornell University reported a situation where hundreds of flies were invading surgical suites in a New York hospital. As it turned out, the flies were cluster flies that had gotten into the building seeking wintering sites. The heat of the building caused the flies to crawl around and many found their way into lights in the surgical suites. The flies were falling from the lights onto the patients and doctors. This activity did not set well with the hospital.

So noticeable is fly activity in the spring, that Holmes included these insects in his poem "Spring."

            "The housefly stealing from his narrow grave,

            Drugged with the opiate that November gave,

            Beats with faint wing against the window pane,

            Or crawls, tenacious, o'er its lucid plain."

The insect is actually a cluster fly and not the house fly, but the description is accurate. It's about a fly that goes into hibernation in the attic of a house with the onset of winter in November. As the spring sun warms the attic spaces, the fly finds its way into the house and tries to get out of the window. Under these conditions we must ask, as poets sometimes do, "Can spring be far behind?"



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox