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Good Reads  Insects & other Invertebrates  Insects  Flies (Diptera)

The Secret Life of Flies

Popular Science Nature Writing
By: Erica McAlister(Author)
248 pages, colour photos, colour illustrations
The Secret Life of Flies reveals the tiny dramas that are normally largely invisible to us.
The Secret Life of Flies
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  • The Secret Life of Flies ISBN: 9780565094751 Paperback Apr 2018 In stock
  • The Secret Life of Flies ISBN: 9780565093365 Hardback Apr 2017 Out of Print #230952
Selected version: £9.99
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About this book

Enter a hidden world of snail killers, silly names and crazy sex in The Secret Life of Flies. Entomolologist Erica McAlister dispels many common misconceptions and reveals how truly amazing, exotic and important these creatures really are. From hungry herbivores and precocious pollinators to robberflies, danceflies and the much maligned mosquito, McAlister describes the different types of fly, their unique and often unusual characteristics, and the unpredictable nature of their daily life.

She travels from the drawers of wonder at the Natural History Museum, to piles of poo in Ethiopia, via underground caves, smelly latrines and the English country garden. She discovers flies without wings, rotating genitalia and the terrible hairy fly, while pausing along the way to consider today's key issues of conservation, taxonomy, forensic entomology and climate change.

Combining her deep knowledge and love of flies with a wonderful knack for storytelling, Erica McAlister allows us to peer – amazed and captivated – into the secret life of flies.


Introduction   7
1. The immature ones   23
2. The pollinators   43
3. The detritivores  63
4. The coprophages   85
5. The necrophages   105
6. The vegetarians   123
7. The fungivores   143
8. The predators   163
9. The parasites   185
10. The sanguivores   213
The end   237

Further reading    242
Index   245
Picture credits   248
Acknowledgements   248

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Reveals the tiny dramas of flies
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 19 Aug 2020 Written for Paperback

    Few people would count flies as their favourite animal, but, luckily for you and me, there are exceptions. Erica McAlister, the senior curator for Diptera at the Natural History Museum, London, has been enamoured with them since childhood and in 2017 wrote the very successful The Secret Life of Flies. In preparation for reviewing her new book The Inside Out of Flies, I (finally) read the book that started it all to see what the buzz was all about.

    The Secret Life of Flies is one of those books you wish that more scientists would write. There must be many more entomologists and other biologists that are treasure troves of knowledge who can give you a renewed appreciation for the mundane. In this handsome and very giftable little book, McAlister takes you on a ramble through the order Diptera – the flies, midges, mosquitoes etc. – with each chapter themed around a certain fly diet and lifestyle.

    Your first surprise might be to learn that flies are important pollinators. Bees are the flamboyant movie stars of the insect world who get all the attention, but it is the small Theobroma cocoa fly that exclusively pollinates the cacao trees, giving us chocolate. And, as McAlister tells us here, flies are key pollinators of, for example, mango, chilli pepper, black pepper, carrot, fennel, and onion. But just as some flies make plants grow, plenty of others feed on them. Yes, there are vegetarian flies too, but we tend to be a lot less fond of those because of the global economic impact they have on our crops.

    It is a fly-eat-fly world out there, though, and a recurrent theme in this book is that of biological pest control. Not infrequently, there are other fly species that will parasitize the pest species we are bothered by. Another unusual food source for flies are fungi. Colour me surprised, for I did not know this. Some of these are obviously the scourge of mushroom farms. But you will find flies feasting on anything from large forest mushrooms to slime moulds, and some even infiltrate termite nests to plunder their underground fungus gardens!

    Of course, a large part of this book delights in its yuck-factor. The flies feeding on decaying matter (the detritivores), poo (the coprophages), dead bodies (the necrophages), blood (the sanguivores), and the brutish world of predators and parasites. McAlister recounts some amazing findings here. The adults and larvae of Mystacinobia zelandica that live in sticky guano and groom each other to stay clean (how sweet!), a behaviour barely seen in flies. Or the scuttle flies that manage to get into sealed coffins six feet under to munch on desiccated corpses.

    But there are quite a few passages that made even the biologist in me cringe or cry out; the treatment of gangrene with live maggots who munch necrotic tissue (still an option today, though somehow not very popular). The scuttle flies who use blade-like ovipositors to pierce the back of ants to insert eggs. The hatched larvae then crawl into the ant’s head and slowly eat the contents while they walk around alive until their heads drop off. Death by a thousand cuts? How about exsanguination by 55,000 black fly bites? (The victim in question was a cow.) Or the bumblebee robber fly who have a hardened proboscis surrounding a long, slender tongue-like structure called the hypopharynx, which they use to hunt. By stabbing their prey. In the eye.

    Despite being a little shop of horrors in place, McAlister’s goal is foremost to show you how flies, which we often ignore or just swat, are fascinating creatures in their own right. Their tiny dramas may be largely invisible to us, but they are no less intriguing for it, and no less deserving of our curiosity and attention. And in some ways, this is a little book of gratitude – we would be knee-deep in corpses and excrement if it was not for these industrious little insects.

    McAlister opens the book admitting that this is not a book on the taxonomic arrangement of flies, which is forever in flux, nor on their structure or workings. Luckily, she is now making up for the latter with The Inside Out of Flies, to which I will turn next.
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Erica McAlister is Curator of Diptera at the Natural History Museum, London. All through her life Erica has been interested in the little things – as a child she kept dead mammals to watch the maggots emerging from them and picked fleas off cats to watch them jumping under a microscope. Erica has studied in France, Australia and Costa Rica and her work with diptera has taken her all around the world. She recently presented the popular BBC Radio 4 series Who's the Pest?.

Popular Science Nature Writing
By: Erica McAlister(Author)
248 pages, colour photos, colour illustrations
The Secret Life of Flies reveals the tiny dramas that are normally largely invisible to us.
Media reviews

"A short, rich book by turns informative and humorous [...] a hymn of praise to her favourite creatures and a gleeful attempt to give readers the willies."
The New York Times

"What really makes the book so engrossing is the weird and let's be frank occasionally horrifying behaviours that flies exhibit. The most compelling parts of McAlister's book are gruesome tales [...] after reading her book it is obvious: flies rock."
The Spectator

"I would love to find antler flies sparring; or a bat fly 'swimming' through the fur of its host; or a giant Texan robberfly feeding on a hummingbird. Instead, if I can keep up with Erica's infectious verve, I will vicariously drink down her rich enthusiasm."
– Book of the Month  – BBC Wildlife

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