Sam Wrench, desert fly (Simpson)

The Short History Of Flies


It’s hard to draw fascination from that which is commonplace and repulsive. But if people can write about federal politics there’s no reason I can’t write about flies.

Born in the inland cow pats and carried to the cities and coasts by hot summer winds, the common housefly (Musca domestica) is a scavenger that feeds on manure and decaying vegetation. You knew that. Its wings beat 200 times per second, which is why they buzz. You probably knew that, too. But how about this: because of the way they walk, they like to use corners and edges or thin objects to rest on. See? Now you’re going “Oh yeah, they do too…”

The house fly is the most dangerous bug on earth, jet-setting as it does between poo, rubbish, food and the corner of your mouth. It can carry a million bacteria on each foot, along with duty-free treats including the eggs of parasitic worms, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, bubonic plague, leprosy, hepatitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, anthrax and amoebic dysentery. Think about that next time you swallow one.

On that topic, try spelling the sound people make when they ingest a fly. Is it HEEYACGK!! Or SCHLORRUPH!!? The instinct not to have that thing in your guts overwhelms the resources of the English language. Just practising the noise can make you feel nauseous.

It remains a mystery why houses are full of blowflies and the outdoors are full of houseflies.

In warm weather, flies hatch in 12 to 24 hours, and live for less than a month. The problem, of course, is that every other fly decides to live for the same month. There’s an epoxy rip-off version of the housefly, called the Lesser House Fly (Fannia canicularis – sorry Mick) It flies continuously in well-lit areas, never landing. Watch their flight path: corner, corner, corner… it’s mesmerising. My brother calls them “square flies”. On that note, when houseflies are caught in a photo, it turns out they actually hang diagonally in the air, tail-down like a Cessna with Los Lobos in the back seats.

Illustration by Nanda Ormond.

If you’re tired of adult colouring books, a more dissociative state can be achieved by sexing flies: the eyes of the male almost touch, whereas the females are widely separated (fans of Puppetry of The Penis will also recognise “Flies’ Eyes” as one of their early signature moves).

Flies have a different relationship to surfing than they do to ball sports. A fly in a batting helmet is a sure path to bodily injury. For surfers, it’s more amazement than clear and present danger. Surfing behind a sheep farm, the flies get so thick you’ll trap two or three under a steamer as you pull it on. You don’t know you’ve done it till you feel some intimate buzzing in the line-up.

Similarly, when the flies are frothing as hard as you are, it’s possible to wax a couple into the deck of the board in your haste. Out at sea, you can’t believe they’ve followed you through 19 duckdives. So you submerge under the board for a minute, denying them a host. They know the trick: you come up, they’re waiting on the board, wondering why you’re puffing.

Flies in a car can be even more deadly than flies with gonorrhoea on their feet. Swiping at windscreens isn’t the answer. Behold the sheep farmer: one mystic sweep of a cupped hand and the little bastards are herded into a corner and then out the driver’s window. And without interrupting the lament about school fees at Geelong Grammar.

Catching them remains a summer joy, like Miyagi with chopsticks. And is there anything better than watching a dog snapping at ’em until the move actually works, and the canine face shifts from happy mischief to hang on, this thing tastes like shit!

Here’s the bit that’s going to really hurt. We brought them on ourselves. Houseflies are introduced. You can almost see the little bastard buzzing around Joseph Banks’s cabin on the Endeavour and Banks swatting at it once or twice, muttering, really must deal with that thing…

Jock Serong