Friday, 4 June 2004

Where have all the flies gone?

This is an article I first published on the Birdsofbritain website in November 2002. I was very interested to see that the RSPB have launched this month a survey of insects. Perhaps they will be able to answer some of the questyions raised in my article.

Naturalists are all conscious of the decline in species of birds, such as spotted flycatchers, marsh tits and skylarks, but there has been very little comment on the disappearance of flying insects. Of course it is difficult to be objective so I start from a purely subject point of view. Twenty or more years ago I recall often having to clean my windscreen because there were so many squashed insects on it when driving around at dusk. I also recall cycling to the local pub on a summer's evening and on arrival having my beard literally pale green with aphids trapped in it. And when I first moved to Suffolk full time in 1978, I recall buying the nasty old sticky flypapers to hang in my study, and they soon became the ghoulish graveyard of countless flies. I grew up in an era, when most houses still had net curtains, which were not, as is so often assumed today to conceal the goings on inside, but to keep the flies from flying through a window open for ventilation.

As I write, I have before me a book entitled: Fighting The Fly Peril: a popular and practical handbook, published in 1915, at a time when horses were still a major form of transport, and consequently manure still a major source of breeding grounds for flies, even in towns. Now even in the wider countryside, flies are a rarity, and along with them it appears that numerous other insects are disappearing.

If this entirely subjective, anecdotal evidence is remotely true it is very worrying since so much wildlife is dependent on insects. It would certainly help explain the dramatic drops in numbers of birds. But where is the data on insect numbers? Years ago I often dabbled in entomology, but do not recall ever keeping records of sweep net catches - we just picked out the interesting specimens and shook the rest free. The same at light traps for moths. Presumably someone, somewhere has some quantitative data. If so I would very much like to know about it. I have tried finding references on the internet, but failed. A lead or two would be very useful.

1 comment:

  1. On realising that in the Wiltshire countryside this year, there'd been few birds, hardly any butterflies, and seemingly no flies at all, I entered into Google the words: "Where have all the Flies Gone".
    Up came your article, and it's all true.

    Back in the 1950's there were flies everywhere. They settled on lampshades, even when the light was not on.
    But by the 1960's, there seemed to be literally just one or two flies in a room that would previously have had thirty or sixty. Also, the occasional large and totally fascinating moth that might appear one night per year, was absent.
    Strangely, no one seemed to notice the reduction in flies. Seems that when things get "better", people don't always notice . . . only when things get worse.
    Anyway, I asked one or two people in the 1960's where all the flies had gone. The answer was: "maybe it's all that DDT".

    Flies now. Us later.