There is a fly in my car

Although the larvae of bluebottle flies (Calliphora vomitoria) feed on decaying flesh, adults are often attracted to flowers and feed on nectar.

Although the larvae of bluebottle flies (Calliphora vomitoria) feed on decaying flesh, adults are often attracted to flowers and feed on nectar.

“Honey, what died in my car?” I called my wife a few days ago, after the stench had become overwhelming. For a few days after returning from a long trip to Mozambique I had tried to pretend that the god-awful smell in my car was just a figment of my imagination. Alas, opening windows or cranking up the radio wasn’t helping, and it was time to face the reality. On the other end of the line my wife softly cleared her throat and in the tone of voice that I was hoping never to hear (“That kid of ours – your son – well, he isn’t yours”) she whispered “I kind of, sort of, hit a bird. He might have been sucked in under the hood.”

That explained a lot – the vile reek, the blowflies in my car. I decided to investigate it further, but found nothing. There was no decaying corpse stuck to the grill of the car, and no feathers anywhere I looked. And yet the stink was still lingering, and more and more flies were thrashing against the windows of my car.

I have nothing against blow flies. As a matter of fact, I like them a lot. One species of these insects, the greenbottle fly (Lucilia sericata), has recently become important in treating wounds infected with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus, especially in cases where antibiotic treatment or surgery are ineffective. Fly maggots applied to wounds help clean (debride) the dead tissue, speeding up recovery; they are also great at treating wounds infected with Gram-negative bacteria.

But the blow flies that were happily spawning inside my vehicle are known as the bluebottle flies, whose enchanting scientific name – Calliphora vomitoria – speaks volumes about both their appearance (in Greek “Calliphora” means “the one who carries beauty”) and lifestyle. I thought that they were pretty cool, but it was becoming difficult to breathe while driving, and the poor flies were  desperate to find food and water, and I was getting slightly annoyed with them trying to obtain both ingredients from my eyeballs. Something had to be done.

A jumping spider (Phidippus audax) with its blowfly meal.

A jumping spider (Phidippus audax) with its blowfly meal.

I followed my nose and zeroed in on the trunk of the car. Cringing in the anticipation of what I would find I gently lifted the lid, and a thick wall of funk hit my nostrils – the trunk was full of dog food. About 20 pounds of loose kibbles, originally dry but now wet and soggy, covered every surface. Now, some people say that processed food has little real animal protein in it, and that dog food is mostly ash and ground-up horse hooves, but the army of wiggly fly maggots in my car’s trunk proved them wrong. Bluebottle flies are carrion specialists, and if they found happiness in a pile of wet dog food that means that its animal protein content must be very high. It also must smell to them like a rotting corpse, which it certainly did to my unsophisticated, human olfactory organs.

I spent the next two hours scooping the dog food goo full of maggots from the car, spraying every surface with Lysos, vacuuming, and wiping. “Do you know anything about the dog food in the trunk?”, I inquired when I was done. “Oh, that thing”, my wife shrugged dismissively and walked away to tend her garden.

7 thoughts on “There is a fly in my car

  1. I’m really nervous about sticking my neck out here because your ID skills are undoubtedly more expert than mine, but are you sure the flies are C. vomitoria? They look too shiny and too green to me, plus the bend in the main wing vein is not sharp enough and no hint of red beard on the genae. I think they are certainly Calliphoridae, but probably something like Bellardia sp. Terry Whitworth is your man if you want a definitive ID.

    Absolutely fantastic blog, btw, from which I have gleaned a lot of fascinating information and your photos are always a joy.

    • Susan, you might be right, calliphorids are definitely not my speciality. They didn’t appear so shiny in the real life, and seemed to have reddish hair on the genae, hence my ID, but I will send these out for a confirmation.

  2. Hello! I’d love to get permission (and a larger image) of your photo at the top of this page… the bottlefly on the yellow bloom. My organization is producing our Biennial Report with a pollinator theme, and I’m seeking out great photos to use. We’d credit you, of course. I’m on a super tight deadline, though! Please email me at kwerner@natlands.org or call 610-353-5587 ext. 267. Thank you!!

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