2. Chironomidae – dancing for joy

January 2019 – The Year of the Fly


Midges have a bad press in Scotland, the cause of much summer irritation on what should otherwise be blissful balmy evenings. But there are also non-biting midges with unthreatening mouthparts that are incapable of irritating anyone. Mid-January, when little else was stirring, I came across a hardy band of them taking advantage of a slither of low sun and the protection of the lane to dance ephemerally. With a flourish of the net I ploughed through them and extracted an unlucky individual for my laurel pot. My secret is out – I kill flies.

The “how” of this harks back to my boyhood when I was first introduced to the power of laurel leaves. In those days I had to walk a mile or so to the nearest supply, but now I can just hop the garden fence to the estate woods where they linger as evidence of the planned shrubbery and genteel walks. I was taught to remove the tips and stalk, fold the leaves about the midrib and snip them with scissors into 1mm slices. Squash them in a pot, cover over with a piece of tissue paper, and the killing jar is complete. Depending on the size of the fly, in a few seconds the fly succumbs, though it’s best to leave them an hour or two to prevent unwanted resurrections.

The “why” is more difficult. For insects like moths and butterflies, and indeed some flies, you can identify them easily from a photograph. But for many flies this is impossible since you need to know how many segments there are in the antennae or palps, which way the bristles on the head point or whether there is a bend in a particular vein in the wing. A pinned specimen is necessary, as is a good microscope, and so I have become more heartless than most in the killing of flies. Or perhaps I worry about it too much – most people wouldn’t give a thought to whacking one with a thoughtless hand. Not William Blake who was inspired by a summer cousin of my unfortunate chironomid:

Little Fly / Thy summer’s play, / My thoughtless hand / Has brush’d away.

Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?

For I dance / And drink & sing; / Till some blind hand / Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life / And strength & breath; / And the want / Of thought is death;

Then am I / A happy fly, / If I live, / Or if I die.

Who then had I murdered? A shockingly green gentleman sporting Christmas tree antennae, a hunched back with crisp black go-faster strips, and a tangle of angular legs, the greenest thing about that day, a dancing, joyous thing. A chironomid.

2 thoughts on “2. Chironomidae – dancing for joy

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