No, not the operating system. I’m talking about physical windows in a building. If some doors, other windows, or even the whole side of the building are open, windows can be fantastic places to collect flies. Like most dipterists, I go right to the windows of any building I am in, to see what is there. Sometimes, people look at me as if I am crazy, but I forgive them because they just don’t realize how cool flies are yet (top to bottom, a ropalomerid, stratiomyid, and tababid).
Wendy Porras and I just got back from La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, where half of the dining room is wide open, while the other half has screened windows throughout. We found a lot of extremely photogenic flies, some of which I show here. We put them in a more pleasing background than screening, wrangled them to sit still, and got the shots we wanted. A little honey on the leaves helped, as some flies were apparently hungry after several hours of banging their heads against metal cables.
I know that this might be controversial; after all, people generally either don’t think flies have any redeeming qualities (never mind “beauty”), or more likely for readers of this blog, have their own ideas of what constitutes a gorgeous fly.
I submit, however, that this amazing silver male stratiomyid (soldier fly) from Costa Rica is the most beautiful fly in the world. It moves around on the underforest leaves like an animated drop of quicksilver, flashing in the tropical sun. It is not garish, like some of the gaudy calyptrates I have seen (see below), but has a pure beauty in its clean, sleek metallic cover. Just in case you find this boring, it also has a scutellum decorated with spines, like the crown of royalty.
The name of this creature is Artemita aurata (Macquart), and it was described in 1846, so it is not anything new, but it deserves “rediscovery” by lovers of biodiversity everywhere.
Don’t agree with me? Let’s hear your nominations!
A gaudy calliphorid from Australia: a runner-up to the world’s most beautiful fly
My new Olympus OMD EM1 camera with 60 mm macro lens. Look how small it is!
Insect photography can be demanding, time-consuming, and expensive. It can also be heavy, lugging around a big SLR camera, a couple of lenses, flash, batteries, and other equipment necessary to capture high-quality images. Often, when I am in the field, I carry a heavy backpack of camera equipment plus my collecting gear on the first day, but subsequently leave the camera at home because it is just too much stuff.
Honey bee – sharp!
On a recent trip, miserable because of the heat of the tropics and the weight of my camera gear, I vowed I was finished with full-sized SLRs. I decided I would follow my technician Wendy Porras in moving to Olympus micro four-thirds (mft) technology. After all, these mirrorless cameras are half the weight, size, and price of a SLR, but have amazingly good image quality. The attached photo of honey bee won’t win any prizes, but you can see how sharp the images can be (an exceedingly important consideration for those of us photographing small flies). My new camera also has in-body image stabilization, which gives me a higher percentage of successful, non-blurry images.
Best of all, the camera is small enough to fit in a much smaller bag, and won’t be left behind when I need it in the field.
From now on, it is mft for me.
A Brazilian pantophthalmid. Yes, it is real.
Some of the largest flies in the world belong to a family called (believe it or not) Pantophthalmidae. The tongue twisting nature of this name aside, the English name “giant wood-boring flies” seems less impressive. They are found only in the Neotropical Region (South and Central America), where they are uncommonly collected, usually at light or on freshly cut wood. Although frighteningly large, these flies are utterly harmless. Their larvae, however, bore into dying or dead trees eventually growing to a large enough size to produce the iconic adults.
I have seen exactly two living adults of these flies, but recently in Costa Rica, we came across evidence of many more. We were staying at a resort oriented towards birders called “Hacienda Baru” that is situated close to sea level on the Pacific coast near Playa Dominical. It was hot and humid there, and the biting midges were fierce, but we made it through a few days before fleeing to the highlands.
Along the trails were logs cut from tree falls, and in some of them were living and freshly abandoned pupae of pantophthalmids. In the log photographed here, I counted 65 exit holes alone, and some other trees in the vicinity had hundreds of holes drilled by the larvae of these flies.
empty pantophthalmid pupa
For those interested in encountering large numbers of giant wood-boring flies, Hacienda Baru should be the first place on your list!
log full of pantophthalmid borings
(I thank Kirk Fitzhugh for the first image).
Collecting flies while they are mating is a surefire way to establish conspecific identity. Many female phorids are extremely different in appearance than the males (search this site for lots of examples), and linking the two together can be almost impossible, based on morphology.
In this case, we have a pair of Borgmeieriphora collected in a Malaise trap by Wendy Porras in Costa Rica. The females are wingless, reduced creatures, which however have a sharpened, parasitoid type ovipositor. They lived in army ant colonies, but are rarely collected. The only large series of specimens known is a group that I caught over such ants at La Selva Biological Station many years ago. The males were flying over the ants, carrying the females, as many phorids do. Since then, males have shown up frequently in trap samples, but until now females almost never. This new capture was surely a huge stroke of luck, because most mating pairs separate before they die in the alcohol.
I recently witnessed and photographed an incredible assemblage of insects. They were on flowering female plants of Baccharis ‘Centennial’, a widely available hybrid of a plant commonly known around here as “coyote bush”. It was used extensively in what we call the 1913 Garden at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where I work.
For the last couple of weeks, the plants have been swarming with insects, including many Diptera. In fact, I was first alerted to the situation by Richard Hayden, our Head Gardener, who described a swarm of flies in the area. We went to check it out, and I had my first view of the seething mass of insects on and around the plants, apparently feeding on nectar.
The following photos are only a few of the flies on this swath of Baccharis in downtown L.A. I suggest using this plant in any insect-friendly landscape.
a female bibionid
little blood-red flower fly
Steve Marshall’s new book “Flies: the natural history and diversity of Diptera” is the best book ever on flies. It is so stuffed with amazing photographs and interesting information that I literally cannot tear my eyes away from it.
I showed it with my hand for scale because it is HUGE. Steve could have written a book half this size and it still would have been the best book ever on flies, but he really overshot the mark here. The number of photos of flies in this book is absolutely insane. I mean, there five pages of photos of sphaerocerids (lesser dung flies), never mind the page after page of more photogenic groups!
Steve was my MSc advisor and has remained a good friend through the years since. We’ve even traveled together and I’ve seen him clicking away with his camera while collecting at the same time, but I had no idea that he had THIS in him. Simply a remarkable book from a remarkable guy. If you are even slightly interested in Diptera, don’t stop to think, just buy this book as reflexively as you take your next breath. Its that good and I can’t imagine anyone writing one that is better.
Here are a few photos from Los Osos, California.
Next week, I’ll be reporting from Costa Rica, where we will be setting up our big fly inventory project.
When ant-decapitating flies have endangered hosts, they become endangered, too. Today in the journal Zootaxa, I describe three new species of phorids found by my co-authors Marcos A. L. Braganca, Diego S. Gomes, Jarbas M. Queiros, & Marcos C. Teixeiras. The three flies attack Atta robusta, a species of ant found only in restinga (sandbank) vegetation in a small area in Brazil. Two of the flies are Eibesfeldtphora species, while the other is a Myrmosicarius; all are parasitoids developing in the ant’s head. We don’t have photos, but I am taking the opportunity to show a couple of fabulous photos of another Eibesfeldtphora attacking leaf cutter ants in Costa Rica by Wendy Porras.
Eibesfeldtphora curvinervis about to attack a leaf cutter ant. Photo by Wendy Porras.
The fly laying an egg into the ant’s head through the occipital foramen (neck). Fabulous photo by Wendy Porras.
Terrifying photos. If these flies were the size of crows we’d never leave our houses!
The world’s smallest fly (0.40 mm long) was collected at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand, the country’s largest.
It is a beautiful place with hot lowlands and misty highlands where the forests are crawling with land leeches.
There are many large mammals in this park, including leopards.
We conducted a training course for the Thai parks staff who would be helping us; here is Mike Sharkey leading the group on how to properly use a Malaise trap. The fly, Euryplatea nanaknihali, was collected by one of the many traps placed in this field.