Without flies, there would be no chocolate. Birds, bees and butterflies get all the pollination press, but according to biologist and ethologist Jonathan Balcombe, flies are the unsung heroes of the pollen-transfer game. The cacao tree is “one of the most devilishly difficult plants to pollinate,” and teeny-tiny midges are the only creatures that can accomplish the task. Flies are important to lots of other foods, too, from mangoes to coriander to carrots.
These pollination revelations are just a few among many fascinating facts in the edifying and entertaining Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects. Balcombe makes a convincing argument that yes, flies can be annoying—and their fondness for the “putrid flesh of a rotting carcass” is certainly disgusting—but they’re also misunderstood.
Balcombe hopes readers will consider “the range of critical beneficial services [flies] perform, including pollination, waste removal, natural pest control, and being a critical food source for scores of other animals.” From wound-healing maggots to flies that helped overturn wrongful convictions, there’s much to learn about the heroism of these tiny creatures.
The author, who’s written four previous popular science books (including the 2016 bestseller What a Fish Knows), has done impressively extensive research for Super Fly, interviewing experts and scrutinizing studies to make his case for a more charitable view of the order Diptera. His insatiable curiosity and his gift for making the esoteric understandable are on full display—in addition to his wry sense of humor. The occasion of his body being temporarily invaded by African skin maggots is handled with resigned aplomb; he also quips that “fly sex comes in 50 shades of brown.”
But Balcombe is quite serious about flies’ impact on humanity and the Earth, urging more attention to flies' massive evolutionary success. (One expert “estimates there are about 17 million flies for every human.”) He asks, “How closely, then, are flies’ fates enmeshed with our own?” For those who wish to learn the answer, Super Fly is an excellent and compelling start.