17th March 2019 – The Year of the Fly
Amongst those unfortunates attracted to the banana trap was a tiny, hunched fly that was too small to pick up with tweezers. With difficulty I transferred its tiny corpse to a drop of glue on a triangle of paper, where it dangled from one wing and eventually fell off leaving the wing and a bit of antenna behind. Under the microscope the fly was a hunched mass of hairs, too dark to see much detail apart – but the torn wing was delicate, shimmering silk with fine threads along the veins, and the fragment of antenna like feathered pearls on a string.
This was a member of the family Psychodidae, otherwise known as an owl midge or hairy-moth fly according to my boyhood copy of Colyer and Hammond’s “Flies of the British Isles”, or more prosaically elsewhere, as a drain fly, sink fly, bathroom fly, filter fly or sewer gnat. Relatives in warmer climates include the notorious sand flies (phlebtomine flies) that bite and suck blood and are capable of transmitting infections such as the parasite Leishmania and several viruses that sound like a strange holiday brochure – Naples virus, Sicilian virus and Toscana virus.
Where to begin with all these resonances? The genome of these viruses is split up into three segments, like tiny chromosomes, that have to be copied before they can be used to produce virus proteins, a bit like printing a photograph from a negative. I did my PhD on influenza virus which has a similar genome organisation, although instead with eight segments, and spread from person to person rather than by flies. As a post-doc I went to Australia to work on a parasitic worm spread by snails, but my friends in the next lab worked on Leishmania, a protozoan that causes skin lesions. Phlebotomy is the making of an incision in the skin, either to extract blood or to inject something in – that something sometimes including viruses such as hepatitis C virus, my next research topic. Not everything is work of course, and there was romance, marriage and holidays that echoed her Italian ancestry, to Naples and Tuscany. Most recently I have dabbled in moths, running a light trap in the back garden and being astonished at the diversity and beauty of these hitherto invisible visitors – and the eccentricity of more serious moth botherers, the blog of one of whom (https://whittingehamemoths.home.blog/) got me started on this on, where I am now back, full circle to flies.
Of course, the “Psycho” in the family name could lead us on to matters psychological – what is this need to collect, identify and order things really about? Why not enjoy these creatures in the flesh or lift my eyes to the wider world,
But the Greek root is “psyche” for which you have a choice of meanings – Psyche the mortal, abandoned on a riverbank by Eros and granted immortality by Zeus, or psyche the soul, for which I follow Wittgenstein “About what one can not speak, one must remain silent.” But psyche also means butterflies or moths, which is clearly the meaning intended, and so I am saved from further revelations induced by, what I hereby christen, fairy flies.