Commentary – Fruit flies don’t like bananas

Joe McWilliams

Time flies like an arrow, the saying goes. But fruit flies like bananas!

Except it turns out they don’t really like them. I’ve done the scientific research.

I never knew what a fruit fly was, but now I can’t escape them. Those little buggers are everywhere.

Fruit flies? I don’t know if that’s what they really are, but it’s as good a name as any. Maybe they should be called dirt flies, because they seem to make their home in the soil of houseplants. Sometimes there are more of them and sometimes less, but they are ubiquitous.

Although it’s been several years since they showed up in our house – and in the office, I should add – I don’t recall ever seeing them in earlier years. I’m pretty sure they weren’t around when I grew up. Noseeums, mosquitos and flies just about covered it.

But like some other species, they have come in from somewhere, set up shop and made themselves very much at home.

And there’s apparently no getting rid of them. They are the white-tailed deer of the insect world. While other species may be under threat and in retreat all over the globe, the fruit fly does nothing but advance.

Of course, there is any number of ideas about how to catch them. “Vinegar traps work!” some people insist. Like hell they do! Tried it. Didn’t work. A waste of perfectly good vinegar, if you ask me.

“Banana traps!” Ditto, which makes me suspect they aren’t really fruit flies.

The only thing I’ve seen that can give you the upper hand is sticky stuff to catch them when they land. So far, at least, they do not seem to have figured out that a bright yellow field with immobile members of their colony all over it represents a danger to be avoided.

Seeing the little *ers accumulate on sticky strips is more satisfying than squeezing blackheads. We’ve caught them by the hundreds in this fashion, but it never gets them all. A few will survive to create the next outbreak. When it happens, they’ll be landing on your food, on your computer screen, on the book you’re reading and [who knows?] flying into your mouth when you’re sleeping.

But, it turns out we owe quite a lot to the despised little fruit fly. For reasons not obvious to the layman, it lends itself to experiments in genetics. This led to great breakthroughs in scientific understanding of gene replication and such.

One benefit, I suppose, is that nobody gets too worked up about lab experiments on pesky little insects. So if some genetics lab is short of fruit flies, I’ve got lots. They can have the works, and do whatever they like to them. Or with them.

David Suzuki, the relentless campaigner against everything that many hardworking Albertans do for work or play, started out as a geneticist studying fruit flies. He did important and ground-breaking work in the field. Some may wish he had stuck with it and stayed out of environmental activism, but it looks as if we’re stuck with him.

Just like we’re stuck with the fruit fly.

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