Gardening for flies, part 2

Having had my garden for about three months now, I can say that there is always something interesting to see and photograph in it. Regular visitors include many flower flies, commonest of which is the little blood red flower fly, Paragus haemorrhous, followed by Allograpta obliqua, Syritta pipiens, and a Platycheirus species. During the sunny parts of the day, there are ALWAYS flower flies.


Another group of frequent visitors are bees. Mostly, however, they are not the common honeybee; instead, they are native bees that are much more welcome, in my opinion. Native bees do not sting people unless severely provoked, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes from tiny little, almost gnat-sized bees to lumbering fuzzy bumblebees. They are generally faster moving than honeybees, and thus more difficult to photograph, but if you focus on a popular flower and wait, you can usually catch them eventually.

      Finally, there are the occasional visitors, that show up to feed on specific type of pollen. Among them are a couple of types of beetles, including dermestid beetles (shown below) that are occasional household pests, and the wedge-shaped tumbling flower beetles of the family Mordellidae.

all photos are copyright B. Brown, 2011. all rights retained

An extremely weird new phorid fly from Thailand

The group of flies that I work on is called the Phoridae. They’re one of the most diverse, yet poorly known groups of flies in the world. They have some crazy body forms and crazy life histories, some of which I’ll share in this blog.

This is a amazingly weird, probable new genus of phorid fly collected by a Malaise trap in Thailand. Mike Sharkey, from the University of Kentucky, and I had a 3 year grant from the National Science Foundation to inventory insects in Thai national parks. Among the material collected, as you might imagine, are many new species and new genera, since very little collecting this type has been done in Southeast Asia.

Look at the scutellum on this thing- it’s almost as big as the scutum! The wings look like those of some phorids that enter termite nests and tear off their wings, since they’ll be in the nest for the rest of their lives. The lack of large bristles, and the general shape of the body also implies that this fly lives in social insect nests. Unfortunately, we only have one specimen. It would be really interesting to see the female of this species!

Gardening for flies

 Brian Brown’s instant flower fly garden 

                It probably doesn’t occur to many people to collect plants specifically to attract flies to their garden, but during my work on flower flies, I started getting more and more interested in photography again. I could go to the Arboretum, or somewhere else with many flowers in order to photograph interesting flies, but I wanted something closer to home. Also, I started thinking about what would be an optimal garden or collection of plants to attract flower flies. I needed to do some research. 

A flower fly - Eupeodes fumipennis

Flower flies are generally considered a gardener’s friend. The larvae, or maggots, of the most common backyard species feed on aphids, scales, and other softbodied insects. By attacking the gardener’s worst enemies flower flies become a potent ally.

 In order to make these allies more welcome in our backyards, it is necessary only to plant a few, low-cost flowers. These provide the nectar and pollen that flower flies need to fuel their flight and mature their eggs, respectively. Not just any flower will do, however. Flower flies appreciate flat flowers whose pollen is easily reached. They also have different requirements than honeybees, so planting a garden for flower flies will not attract swarms of stinging invaders. It will attract native bees, though, which provide a welcome addition to the flower fly parade.

 I wanted to see which flowers would be best for attracting flower flies to my backyard, so I went to my local (Los Angeles area) nursery and just watched the activity in their displays. It quickly became apparent that flower flies were concentrating on just a few of the offered scores of plants available. Therefore I bought one plant or flat each of the flies favorites: Japanese Photinius, pink and purple cosmos, white “mini-margarite” daisies (Chrysanthemum paludosum), and yellow Argyranthemum. The total cost for my mini garden was $18. I brought them home, set them in the sun, and waited.

 Within half an hour I had flower flies coming to them. Instant success! Since then, I have had a continual parade of flower flies, native bees, and other interesting insects to enjoy and photograph. I also added a couple more plants: sweet alyssum, which is another flower fly attractive plant I observed in the nursery, and bog sage, something I’d seen attracting many flies at the Arboretum. I put the whole garden in four plastic pots for more maneuverability.

 This low-cost, minimal garden will bring a constant supply of colorful, beneficial insects to your yard, which will increase the number of predators attacking aphids and other pests, and boost your backyard biodiversity. It takes up so little space that it could even be put on a balcony or postage stamp lawn and still be successful. Of course, if you have more space, you can put out more than one of each plant, and you will probably attract even more interesting creatures.

Instant Flower Fly Garden

Next posting: what has been attracted to my instant garden, and which plants are best.