I was upstairs a moment ago, checking on the fly lab. The students’ first fly cultures are looking good, we’ve got swarms of flies in bottles thriving, and soon we’ll be able to go on to the next phase of the experiment. I got to thinking, though, about flies and destiny. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a fruit fly.
You live in a thriving fly metropolis, surrounded by a mass of your peers buzzing and jostling each other, with your children frolicking under foot, burrowing through the tasty medium. Although it’s somewhat crowded, there’s plenty of food, and no predators. It’s a pleasant enough environment.
Then one day, a giant comes along and turns your city upside down, shaking all of the residents into a barren, empty bottle, nothing to eat, no offspring, just sterile glass all around. Your confusion is only brief, fortunately, because there’s a sickly sweet smell in the air, and everyone loses consciousness. One of three outcomes await you.
A. You awaken in a pristine paradise on a nice smooth bed. There’s plenty of food, and no overcrowding. You’re not alone, but it’s only a few of your peers around you. There’s room to dance and court and have sex! Your conditions are vastly improved. Bless you, kind giant.
B. You never wake up. Shortly after losing consciousness, your body slides into a vat of nearly pure alcohol, and you simultaneously drown and are poisoned, completely oblivious to your fate.
C. You stir back into consciousness to find yourself in a cluttered cavern, empty of food, but all around you are the dead husks of your fellow flies. You are tangled in a bit of silk, and you begin to struggle and flap your wings to escape. Little do you know, but the monster in the cave was ignoring you when you were motionless, but now your exertions have caught her attention, and you see eight eyes approaching and two needle-sharp fangs…you are paralyzed. You can feel your organs liquifying. Death is a relief.
Very, very few flies end up in A, and even there, the respite is temporary — they’ll meet their end in a few weeks. Right now, as the fly production ramps up, most are going to C, but later as populations get really large, most will go to B, since even now I’m getting as many flies as the spiders can eat.
It’s also almost entirely about luck. Flies that have obvious abnormalities or developmental issues or injuries don’t get picked for paradise, usually, but among the swarming majority of normies, it’s pure chance whether you get the reprieve — the overwhelming majority get either the poison bath or the chelicerae. It’s not fair. The universe is not fair. I imagine the flies in A consider themselves deserving of their good fortune, but they’re not — they just got lucky. For a little while.
You little Mengele, you. Or playing god? (Not that it makes any difference.)
bcw bcw says
Sounds a lot like the academic faculty promotion track.
Ray Ceeya says
I used to work in a winery that had bats in the rafters and they loved the fruit flies during harvest season. TEAM BAT FTW!
PZ Myers says
Mmm. Guano-flavored wine.
Consider their chances in the wild. At least with you they get some days or weeks of total security.
Walter Solomon says
This story could use some fan fiction. After centuries (in fly years) of being at the mercies of a cold, uncaring, colossal tetrapod tyrant, their seemingly bootless cries are answered when one of their own is born with extraordinary powers.
Instead of killing the devouring, rampaging beast (spider) like Luke does to the the rancor, he is sacrificed by the giant in a vat of alcohol. A fly religion develops around Him worshipping Him as a god.
It’s believed His soul returned to The Smooth Beds of Paradise where all the souls of the faithful flies go and He will return in some indefinite time to deliver all flies who have accepted Him into their thorax as their Lord and Savior into The Smooth Beds of Paradise. The faithless will be thrown into the Vats of Drowning Poison where the giant will also be and there is much weeping and gnashing of mouth parts.
Ray Ceeya says
I’m not saying guano made it into the wine but if you’ve ever seen what fresh grapes from the vineyard look like a little guano is the one of the least disgusting thing I’ve seen go through the crusher-stemmer. We refer to that stuff as MOG (material other than grape) in the industry. Don’t think it’s just the wine industry though. Any place that produces fresh produce has a whole team of people trying to sort out the gross wiggly bits from the stuff you want to sell. Rats, bats, spiders (especially with bananas), caterpillars, worms the occasional dead bird. Most folk would be pretty horrified if they say where their food actually comes from.
R. L. Foster says
@7, Ray Ceeya
My brother had a similar experience. Many years ago, when he was right out of high school, he worked at a tomato canning plant somewhere in southern California. He was working on the catsup line. One day he saw a mouse fall into the churning vat of steaming tomato puree. In a near panic he ran to tell a foreman, but he just received a shrug. It’s allowed, was the reply. Since that day he has sworn off catsup. Just the thought of eating it makes him feel nauseous.
At least with wine there’s the alcohol aspect. I do love a good California cab, so short of learning that there’s a human corpse floating in the vat, I’m good to go.
Ray Ceeya says
I only saw a human almost drown in a vat of wine twice. Food processing is crazy dangerous. I can’t count the number of OSHA violations I’ve seen. Not exaggerating, I could write a book about the dangers of mass food production. Crushing hazards, engulfment hazards (that’s the one that almost got me two years ago), toxic gas environments, total disregard for safety by people who are supposed to be in charge. Never saw anyone die but I’ve seen hundreds of close calls. I cringe when ever I see someone who refuses to take off their wedding ring for work. That ring isn’t going to be very important when there’s no finger to attach it to.
What can you say about chocolate covered manhole covers?
John Morales says
Not much different.
I was, for a season, a grape receival officer for a winery.
Truckloads of machine-picked grapes (more premium varieties are sometimes hand-picked, but not generally), with snails, slugs, frogs, mice, spiders etc. in the mix. The odd possum, believe it or not.
The alcohol comes in much later in the processing chain.
So, yeah. Drink up.
chigau (違う) says
You must be old.
We humans are not exactly flies. We are more like the replicants in Blade Runner.
Except we do not even get flying cars during our brief lives.
Fruit flies were actually the very first living animals in space – although I have seen them described as “wine flies” too. Not sure if that’s the same species with a different common name or separate species. See :
I wonder what they would have made of that in a similar description here!?
Also, PZ Myers, what ultimately happens to the flies in scenario B? Dissection and study?
PZ Myers says
Been trying to post about a book called Tropical Nature,it won’t let me post.
In it it has a chapter titled Jerry’s Maggot,about the time a certain humourless
Jewish scientist had a bot fly lay a egg on his head,
@9 I did read somewhere that a Scotsman fell into a vat of whisky,everytime they dragged him out he jumped back in again.
@15.PZ Myers : Thanks.
I guess there are reasons you can’t give away or sell the excess flies for use in other projects or simply release them into the wild to serve as food for birds etc..?
My dad’s father worked in a ice cream factory for awhile. Based on his descriptions of what went into chocolate ice cream, I’ve never eaten that flavour since (and mostly during) University. My friends find that a bit weird, as I’ll eat chocolate bars (insisting, nowadays, on ethical & sustainable growing / production), and some other ice cream flavours, but never never never chocolate ice cream. Never.
Dad worked several years as the engineer at a winery, responsible for the production and farming equipment and facilities (all but the vineyards and offices, basically). I have no clear memories of any stories about, or of seeing, anything “disgusting” whenever I visited him there, but do recall the tons of safety gear — and smells. Whew! Sulfurous (e.g., as I now recall), anyone?
“that was really delightful. What are eyes?”
asked the baby nematode.