Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lord Of The Flies

This is one for the entomologists among you.

It's a long story, one which I'll tell bit by bit in my leisurely fashion.  Be warned.

For many years now, oh, well over twenty I'd warrant, we've been using the same kind of paper shade on the lamp hanging in the middle of our bedroom. Do you know the kind?  It's a big round Chinese lantern style shade, a ball around 60 cm (two feet) in diameter with a hole in the top to introduce your light fixture and a corresponding small hole in the bottom for, well, your guess is as good as mine what that hole is for.  I suppose the little 6 cm (two inch) hole gives some ventilation. We'll come back to this hole later. I can stand under this lampshade and my head will just brush up against it. We replace the things every couple years or so at IKEA, when the paper seems to have gotten brittle and the dust leaves smudges and streaks when we try to clean it.

What does this all have to do with bugs? I warned you, didn't I?  We're getting there.  It's just that I like to set the scene, to give you the background gist. Yeh.

So the thing is, even in my first years of living over here in Berlin I started noticing something about that paper lantern shade.  In the summer I'd sometimes be aware of one or two little flies that seemed to favor the bottom surface of that big hanging ball. Of course in one's quotidian existence one has other things to think about so I took little mind of those little guys.

As the years went on however, they'd appear every summer, just slightly encroaching on the periphery of my attention. I'd give them a moment's thought, then go on to other things.

Over time though I realized that I had begun to expect them as one little element of summer, and that I actually watched them in the odd moment, noticing behaviors as I would in my birding hobby.  I certainly started wondering what they were, what species.  Perhaps they are the Common European Lampshade Fly, with an appropriate scientific name in Latin.

I definitely want to know.  This is beginning to sound like an obsession, isn't it?  Well, as I plumb my soul I can say I still don't spend much time thinking about the little denizens of the underside of our lampshade, but if I sit there at the end of the bed putting my socks on I may look up and can't help noticing them and their comings and goings. There seems to always be one or two there in the summer months, at the height of their season maybe three.

In the meantime I have seen them so often I could write a slim monograph about their natural history.

They first appear in the latter half of June usually, depending on the weather.  This year it was in the last week of June I think.  They are small  and black  -  about half or 60% the size of a normal housefly. They are quite innocuous,  never bothering people or going after food at all. I only see them in the one place I've described, although I grant that, being so small they'd be very easy to miss in other locations.

They have a very definite set of behaviors.  Usually they are seen at rest, clinging to the underside of the hanging paper ball lampshade. Above, I have described a small central hole at the bottom of this shade.  Nearly invariably the tiny flies hang onto the paper with their heads pointed downward, towards the central hole. In fact if they land they hitch themselves around once or twice so that they do point downwards.

Sometimes they feel like exercising their wings, and dropping from the paper shade they start a jerky sort of flight, back and forth, all straight segments and then sudden acute turns, around 60 °
each. They seem to concentrate around the bottom of the lampshade, back and forth, with  never much of a curve in their flight.

If there's a second one on the other side of the bottom hole, it may take off  and egage the first in a furious close-on dogfight before both break off and land again.  Either that or it's one of  their courtship rituals!

As I write this, early July, I still see only one hanging out there. Others will surely appear soon.  When evening comes, they disappear too, heading off to some unknown night roost.

There are so many mysteries about these little fellows.  What do they eat?  Do they die off in the autumn or hibernate in some hiding place?  They must also lay tiny eggs somewhere.  I imagine them like the horrible pulsing eggs of the Alien movies, in miniature: little dots probably placed on the paper of the lampshade itself.

Probably my second-biggest question about them is what they do out in the natural world?  Hanging paper lampshades have only been around for a splinter of the time needed for them to evolve. Do they find some hanging blossoms in the woods on which to congregate?

Question Number One for me is simply what are they?   After more than twenty years I  think I'm entitled to know.  Any professional entomologists out there reading this?


  1. Beautiful, bro! Another of your lovely quotidian natural history observations. Thanks! Have you tried searching online sources for the species ID?

    1. Yeh I've been thinking of finding some site in German like "Ask Mr. Entomology" or suchlike but haven't actually yet.