Flies get a bad rep, but they are actually vital members of every ecosystem, says entomologist Bryan Lessard at TEDxCanberra. “Flies represent 10-15% of of all living life,” he says, and they play a role in decomposing organic material, pollinating crops and even helping human health. “If you were to walk in your local park in a world without flies, you’d be tripping over roadkill, rotting logs and stepping in any nasty surprise left by neighbor’s dog.”
And, according to Lessard, if you like chocolate, you should like flies. “The only known pollinator of the cacao plant is a tiny little midge fly, about the size of a pinhead,” he says. “This thing is the only thing small enough to crawl into the tiny flowers of the cacao plant … and if you think about it, this tiny little midge fly is generating 98 billion dollars each year — just from the chocolate economy alone.”
Other flies have big roles in ecosystems: Eucalyptus and the tea tree are pollinated by white flies, blow flies and hover flies, while blow fly larvae can be brought in to assist in the healing of human wounds, Lessard says. “The larvae will only eat rotting flesh and leave the living tissue alone,” he says, “[and] these larvae even have antibacterial saliva, so they can ward off secondary infection and the wriggling sensation of the larvae can help stimulate circulation.”
Flies matter, Lessard says, which is why he acts as a researcher and taxonomist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) .”It is an exciting time to be a taxonomist,” he says, “because every day we’re discovering new species.” At the same time, Lessard also worries about the future of these species.
Lassard hopes that more young people will join in studying insects before its too late for some endangered fly species — and so he does his best to do outreach to the public.
“To generate a bit of buzz about taxonomy, I described a new species of horse fly after a particular performer [Beyoncé],” he says. “These specimens were originally discovered over 30 years ago when they were collected, however no one at the time knew how to identify them because they didn’t have the knowledge of that particular group; so they sat in the Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra with the other 12 million insects … waiting for someone with the knowledge of that group to come along and identify [the fly].”
Lassard studied that group of flies, and when he came across the specimens in the insect library, he knew it was a species yet to be identified. “I named it Plinthina beyonceae,” he says, to honor the singer Beyoncé.
Plinthina beyonceae went viral and “started a global conversation on why flies are important,” Lessard says. And, according to him, that matters.
Learn more in Lessard’s talk below: