Art of Catching Flies

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When Fu-Manchu was a boy he remembers summer days watching the houseflies turning lazy circles in the air under the chandelier. Precise evolutions relieved on occasion by sudden midair squabbles, with pauses to alight on the glass there rubbing their forelegs together, grooming their hairy bodies with their back legs while remaining attached to the glass with their middle legs. Musca domestica is known as a mechanical vector of diseases such as typhoid fever. This knowledge made removal and exclusion of flies an important means of promoting public health.


Popular mechanical remedy was to remove the fly with a flyswatter1, but it is a procedure that tends to be messy while putting delicate objet d'art more at risk of destruction than the fly.


Once a fly lands on flypaper it doesn't take off again. You can watch it's futile struggle until it dies from exhausted dehydration. Often flypaper is impregnated with insecticide to spare the fly by speeding it to the dungheap in the sky. Effective though they are, flypapers encrusted with the mortal remains of flies are not a pretty sight.


Fly-spray used to be deployed using a pump-action atomiser such as Flit, a device that looked like a bicycle pump with a soup-tin sized reservoir just under the nozzle at the end. In the Flit fly-spray any insecticide could be used to knock down flies. Often we discover that common use of a particular insecticide is poisoning much more than just flies.

Modern fly-spray is delivered in pressurised cans that discharge insecticide at the push of a button. Usually, the insecticide is pyrethrin, an oily ester derived from the flowers of chrysanthemums. Contact with pyrethrin seems to disrupt the nervous system of flies causing them to drop to the ground where they spend a long time buzzing and spinning around on their backs while waving their legs in the air before death takes over.

Waft of Death

Another nifty poisoner of flies in general use during the 1970s was the device Fu-Manchu calls the Waft of Death. It was a waxy substance impregnated with a volatile insecticide compound. When removed from its protective packet and placed on a shelf it would exude insecticidal fumes that would kill any flies in the room. Since then these articles have been withdrawn from the market, no doubt because they were found to be toxic to humans as well as flies.

Venus Flytrap

A venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, is a plant that likes boggy conditions in which to live. It gets its nutrients by digesting the bodies of flies unlucky enough to land on its attractive flowers that then close like clamshells on the hapless dipteran.

Pitcher Plant

Pitcher Plants, such as the family Sarraceniaceae, have leaves evolved into pitcher-like oubliettes containing secretions attractive to insects. Once a fly enters the pitcher it triggers a leaf lid that closes the entrance, trapping the fly within. Eventually, the fly drops into digestive juices in the bottom of the pitcher that help the plant absorb the fly's protein, after which the pitcher lifts its lid to entice the next meal.


A dog will snap at the fly buzzing around its head, but it is not a reliable means of control. Also, folklore says that a diet of flies will cause a dog to become thin2.


Yes, shooting. In this case with an air rifle firing blanks. As a boy, Fu-Manchu discovered his air rifle to be an effective weapon against flies. He waited for the fly to land then advanced the muzzle of his cocked but slugless rifle to within six inches of the resting fly. Squeezing the trigger discharged a blast of air that knocked the fly for six, inevitably killing it without making a mess.

Sleight of Hand

In his book Naturalist, EO Wilson describes a method he developed of catching flies by sleight of hand.

Let the fly alight, preferably on a level and unobstructed surface, such as a restaurant table or book cover. Move your open hand carefully until it rests twelve to eighteen inches in front of the sitting fly's head. Bring the hand very slowly forward, in a straight line, taking care not to waggle it sideways; flies are very sensitive to lateral movement. When your hand is about nine inches away, sweep it toward the fly so that the edge of the palm passes approximately one or two inches above the spot where the fly is resting. Your target will dart upward at about the right trajectory to hit the middle of your palm, and as you close your fingers you will feel the satisfying buzz of the insect trapped inside your fist. Now, how to kill the fly? Clap your hands together — discreetly, if you are in a restaurant or lecture hall.

EO Wilson,
Naturalist, Chapter-5 To Do My Duty;

(Warner Books, 1995).

It is possible to clap your cupped hands thereby causing a spike in air pressure to stun the fly sufficiently for it to drop to the floor, where it can be stepped upon without further ado. Doing this saves squashing out its guts between the palms of your hands.

Glass Trap

This method of catching flies Fu-Manchu developed. Take an empty glass tumbler in one hand and a piece of card in the other. Wait for the fly to alight. Slowly lower the upended tumbler vertically from about 12 inches directly above the fly. As the rim of the tumbler enters the fly's field of view, the fly will dart upward into the confines of the glass. As soon as the fly does this, slide the card under the rim. You now have the fly trapped, buzzing about in the tumbler. Take the tumbler outside and release the fly, it has work to do outside away from your habitation.

1Flyswatter: A device for killing insects that consists of a flat piece of flexible perforated material attached to one end of a stick with a handle at the other.2Fly diet: Don't tell Anorexia Nervosa.

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