38. Asilidae – joy

There are a lot of flies in the world – about 17 million for each of us according to Erica McAlister’s quirky book The Secret Life of Flies. But I think it is safe to say that most of us don’t pay our quota of flies much attention, and when we do our feelings are mostly irritation, disgust or indifference. How different a world it could be.

Yesterday, I had the afternoon off at a work-related retreat / conference / jolly and instead of going clay-pigeon shooting or mountain biking, elected for a fly-catching meander along the banks of the Tay along with a select group of fly-curious colleagues. Because of the river there were stoneflies and mayflies but we held steady to our task and refused to be too excited by moths (last year’s target), beetles (too hard), bugs (also too hard) and spiders (next year’s target). Some ineffectual net waving was eventually replaced by more directed and vigorous sweeping of the sward, and the flies began to appear – a moth fly near the hotel drains, some empids with big front feet, some fat muscids and small dark anthomyiids, a cluster of drosopholids on a moist bracket fungus, some “interesting” acalypterates retained for further questioning, and then the star of the show, the talking point of fly-fanciers late into the night, the unexpected bounty of a monstrous, stylish, finger-friendly robber fly.

It has been a long time since I have seen one of these, but I was hoping one would turn up for the list of course, but also just for the pleasure of seeing one. The adults are predators, largely of hymenoptera, so that the alternative name of assassin flies seems more appropriate as they lurk about waiting for unfortunate passers by to pounce upon and suck dry. At any rate I was keen to get this magnificent beast into one of my collecting tubes so that I could inspect its distinctive features (saddle-shaped depression between the eyes, bristly mystax (beard), piercing mouthparts, mouth-wateringly complex venation) at my leisure. However, the fly-fans pounced on my entomological heartlessness and made touching pleas to spare the life of this fantastic beast. “You’re not going to stick it on a pin, are you?” So, not being a beast myself, I relented and, with much rejoicing, it was released to fly free. Oh that each of our allotted flies could bring us this much joy!

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