It never fails. Whenever we have any fruit in the house, not five minutes following the missus pouring herself a glass of her favorite pinot, I hear her utter a mild oath under her breath and notice that she’s playing lifeguard to a floundering Drosophila melanogaster. “Why do these things have to exist?” she exasperatedly exclaims – rhetorically, or course, as she knows perfectly well I could very easily (and with more than just a little enjoyment) launch into a short disquisition on the ecological and scientific importance of the species. Nevertheless, her frustration is understandable, as is the emotion behind her question – being one that the vast majority of the planet’s human population has at one time or another uttered in earnest.
Let’s face it; for the majority of people, flies – at least as they are perceived in the limited awareness most have of them – are nothing more than a nuisance at best, or the set-up for a corny old family of jokes (“Waiter!…), and at worst an absolute bane and perhaps even a threat to one’s existence. The problem is that just-mentioned “limited awareness.” Most of us – myself included – are woefully under-informed about just what flies are, or what, and how many different, important ecological roles they play in the world we all share; which is why the publication of Erica McAlister’s new book The Secret Life of Flies is such an important milestone in contemporary popular natural history.
McAlister – Dr. McAlister to give her the professional respect she has earned and most certainly deserves – is Senior Curator for Diptera and Siphonaptera at The Natural History Museum, London. She is also an exceptionally skilled science communicator with an enthusiasm for her subject that is both inspirational and captivating. Therefore, if anyone could take a topic that many might find a bit, well, “unappealing” – such as, to be honest, flies – and make it sparkle with all the energy that its diversity and wonder deserves, it should be her. From the first discovery of the book’s impending publication I had high hopes that it would be something special, and I am very pleased to report that my hopes were exceeded.
Beginning with the basics of the Diptera, progressing on to an engrossing overview of the immature stages of some in the Order, and then moving forward through an essentially “you are what you eat” (detrivores, copriphages, fungivores, etc.) chapter organization, McAlister fills page after page with fascinating explanations of the life histories, ecological roles, and other information about species both familiar and exotic (and in a few instances, bordering on unimaginable).
However McAlister’s point with this book is certainly not to offer up a “Gee whiz!” collection of curiosities, but rather to bring to a wide audience a better understanding of the truly remarkable number of very important roles dipterans play in the global environment. Take, for example, the variety of plants for which species of flies are key pollinators: mango, chili pepper, black pepper, carrot, fennel, and, in the case of one particular midge, Theobroma cacao, without which we would not have that most delightful of foods – chocolate.
Of course, there are other activities performed by flies that are not quite so laudable as pollination. A few species are vectors for some truly horrific afflictions, and the parasitic behaviors by which other species reproduce are the stuff of nightmares. Even so, McAlister presents this “dark side” – if you will – with all the straight-forward honesty expected of an experienced and respected scientist. Of course, she does add a bit of common humanity from time to time by interjecting comments that her readers are likely also thinking at just about that point.
Indeed, it is this skillful coupling of erudition and enthusiasm that makes The Secret Life of Flies such a worthwhile book. It takes what for many readers is a known (flies) but not a well-understood (their astonishing diversity in form and ecological roles) subject and presents it in a manner that is both enlightening as well as entertaining. Such an accomplishment is deserving of high praise indeed, and it is very much hoped that Dr. McAlister’s book will find its way onto the reading tables of avid naturalists as well as the casually curious alike.
Title: The Secret Life of Flies
Format: laminated hardcover
Pages: 248 pp., with 90 full color photographs and illustrations
Publication Date: September 2017 (Canada & U.S.A.); April 2017 (U.K.)
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.