Musca domestica

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Geographic Range

Houseflies are found almost anywhere, especially in areas that humans also inhabit. They are believed to have originated in temperate regions of the Eastern Hemisphere. (Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Habitat

Houseflies live in both urban and rural areas, especially where humans are present. Because human garbage and feces are the most preferred source for larvae development, houseflies are most associated with urban areas. Specifically, dung heaps, garbage cans, and mammalian road kill are the best environments for larvae to develop. Other breeding mediums include rotten fruit and vegetables, old broth, boiled eggs, and even rubber. (Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Houseflies are primarily found in temperate regions. They are most abundant during the warm seasons, but some adults may survive through the winter season in temperate areas. They are most active and live longest in temperatures between 10 and 26.6 degrees Celsius. Adult houseflies are inactive at temperatures below 7.2 degrees Celsius and die when temperatures go below 0 degrees Celsius or above 44.4 degrees Celsius. Extreme temperatures are most dangerous to the life of houseflies when the humidity is high. Feeding larvae prefer temperatures between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius. (Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Physical Description

Adult houseflies have short antennae, a gray thorax with four darker longitudinal stripes, and a gray or yellow abdomen with a darker median line and irregular pale yellowish spot at the anterior lateral margins. The abdomen consists of 8 segments in males and 9 segments in females. In females, the first 5 segments are visible externally. The last 4 segments are normally retracted but they extend to make the ovipositor when the female lays her eggs. This allows females to bury the eggs several mm below the surface. Females are slightly larger than males. Like all flies (Diptera), houseflies have only one pair of wings. The second pair is reduced to halteres, which are used for balance. Their wings are translucent and fold back straight at rest. Houseflies are 4 to 8 mm long, and 6.35 mm long on average. (Borror, et al., 1989; Dahlem, 2003; Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Like many flies (Diptera), mouthparts of adults are sponge-like. Mouthparts are comprised of two fleshy, grooved lobes called the labella, which are attached to the lower lip, known as the labium. The lower surface of these lobes contains numerous transverse grooves that serve as liquid food channels. Houseflies can only intake food in liquid form. The mouthparts are suspended from the rostrum, which is a membranous projection of the lower part of the head. The larvae have mouth hooks used to filter-feed on masses of bacteria. (Borror, et al., 1989; Dahlem, 2003; Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Fully-grown larvae are 12 to 13 mm long and are a yellowish, white color. Their bodies are smooth and shiny. They have a pointed anterior end, a blunt posterior end, and two spiracles. A small patch of small spines lies ventrally between abdomen 1 and 7 but is absent on the thoracic segments. (Borror, et al., 1989; Dahlem, 2003; Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Average mass
    .012 g
    0.00 oz
  • Range length
    4 to 8 mm
    0.16 to 0.31 in
  • Average length
    6.35 mm
    0.25 in
  • Range wingspan
    13 to 15 mm
    0.51 to 0.59 in

Development

Houseflies undergo complete metamorphosis consisting of an egg, larva or maggot, pupal, and adult stage. Houseflies can complete their life cycle in as little as 7 to 10 days, so as many as 10 to 12 generations may occur in one summer. In North America and Europe, houseflies are common from July through September. In South America and Australia, they are most common from October to February or March. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kozielska, et al., 2006; Kozielska, et al., 2011; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

In warm weather, housefly larvae hatch within 8 to 12 hours. In cooler weather, hatching takes up to 24 hours. Once the larvae hatch, they burrow into feces with their two mouth hooks and take up nutrients from the material. It takes 5 days for the larvae to completely develop. Larvae survive best in compost mixtures of decaying vegetables enriched with dung or animal material. This is why larvae are commonly found in garbage. Larvae prefer pig, horse, and human feces as opposed to cow feces, which is preferred by face flies (Musca autumnalis). Prior to pupation, larvae migrate for up to 3 to 4 days to a dry area. Once the larva fully develops, it is a pupa for 4 days. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kozielska, et al., 2006; Kozielska, et al., 2011; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Egg and larva densities are important factors in determining where females lay their eggs. Females tend to lay their eggs in locations with many other larvae are present, because this signals that the medium is rich in nutrients. The more nutrients larvae are exposed to, the larger adults they will become. Areas with low larvae density signal low levels of nutrients, whereas too high of a density means that nutrients are depleted. Intermediate density is the most favorable growing condition for larvae. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kozielska, et al., 2006; Kozielska, et al., 2011; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Several mechanisms exist for sex determination in houseflies: male heterogamy (the presence of a Y chromosome makes an individual male), a dominant autosomal male determining factor, a dominant autosomal female determining factor, a maternal effect factor "Ag" (where Ag/+ females produce only sons, +/+ females produce only daughters, and Ag/Ag means the female will die), and also an epigenetic male determiner (the interaction between another gene and female genes of the egg can result in a male offspring). Sex determination also depends on the mother's age and temperature. Because houseflies exhibit many mechanisms for sex determination, geneticists and other scientists study houseflies to understand sex determination. The sex ratio of male to female houseflies is always roughly 1:1. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kozielska, et al., 2006; Kozielska, et al., 2011; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Reproduction

Houseflies exhibit a polygynous mating system. Males seek to mate with many females. The females generally seek to only mate with one male since this is sufficient to lay all the eggs in her life. In rare instances, females mate with more than one male. (Jalil and Rodriguez, 1970; LaBrecque, et al., 1962; Murvosh, et al., 1964; Tobin and Stoffolano, 1973)

Male and female adult flies are able to mate by the time they are 16 and 24 hours old, respectively. The mating process is mainly the responsibility of the male. The courtship ritual includes orientation, landing, wing-out, leg-up, head lapping, head touching, boxing, backing, genital orientation, genital contact, and copulation. The female may avoid the male at any time, specifically if she has mated before. The female’s main role is to decide whether to accept or decline the male’s mating request by extending her ovipositor to the male or not. (Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Murvosh, et al., 1964; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

The process of mating begins when the male strikes the female. One strike takes 1 to 9 seconds to occur. Striking may occur while both flies are in flight or while resting on the ground. A strike occurring on the ground involves the male jumping on the female. If the strike occurs in the air, both flies immediately fall to a surface. As the strike is occurring, the male forces the female’s wings open so they are horizontal, and her wings vibrate. This vibration is often accompanied by a loud buzzing sound. As the female’s wings come out, the male then strokes or caresses the head of the female. Females may avoid the strike by darting and flying away, and she can avoid the caress by shaking violently. (Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Murvosh, et al., 1964; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Females may then accept or reject copulation. A virgin female readily copulates and thrusts her ovipositor into the male genital opening. A female that has mated before will more likely be passive towards copulation or resist it. In both of these cases, the male leaves. Mating lasts 30 minutes to 2 hours. (Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Murvosh, et al., 1964; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Striking may also occur between two males because some male houseflies have incomplete sex recognition, and also because females exhibit low levels of sex pheromones. Males may also strike inanimate objects. This is possibly because dark toned objects trigger housefly courtship. The amount of sex pheromones in males does not affect how successful they are at mating. (Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Murvosh, et al., 1964; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Houseflies reproduce at an extremely high rate relative to other species of flies. Females lay oval, white eggs on moist animal feces, excrement, and garbage, preferably that is exposed to light. A female lays approximately 500 eggs throughout her life. The female will deposit these eggs in 5 to 6 batches of 75 to 150 eggs over the course of 3 to 4 days. Females can lay all of their eggs after fertilization by just one male. At birth, larvae weigh .008 to .02 g. (Hewitt, 1914; Marshall, 2006; Murvosh, et al., 1964; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

  • Breeding interval
    Females lay 5 to 6 batches of eggs over the course of 3 to 4 days.
  • Breeding season
    Houseflies can breed year-round, but most often in the summer from June through October. The peak breeding months are July, August, and September.
  • Range eggs per season
    75 to 150
  • Average gestation period
    24 hours
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    24 (low) hours
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    16 (low) hours

Female houseflies exhibit minimal parental investment by choosing a moist, nutritious material to deposit her eggs in. After depositing her eggs, the female does not care for or interact with her eggs or larva again. Males do not exhibit any parental investment. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Hewitt, 1914; Robinson, 2005)

Lifespan/Longevity

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    60 (high) days
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    15 to 25 days

Behavior

Adult houseflies are diurnal, and their activity peaks at the hottest and driest part of the day, between 2 and 4pm. Adults are inactive at night but move to artificial light during both day and night. (Hafez, 2005; Hewitt, 1914; Kelling, et al., 2002; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Houseflies are attracted to sources of food through their strong olfactory sense. Their sponge-like mouthparts require them to uptake food in either a liquid or dissolved manner. Houseflies cannot ingest particles larger than .045 mm. Liquids and dissolved foods are taken in through either the tiny grooves on the labella, known as the pseudotracheae, or through a channel between the upper and lower lips. To break down harder foods, houseflies deposit saliva and stomach contents from their crop onto their food, which makes it easier to digest. Straw-colored spots on food may indicate where the housefly regurgitated. Houseflies also leave feces on food, which show up as dark spots. Though houseflies intake food through their labella, they taste their food through their feet. This is why houseflies have a tendency to crawl on food. (Hafez, 2005; Hewitt, 1914; Kelling, et al., 2002; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Houseflies can fly in bursts up to 15 miles per hour. They can beat their wings up to 1,000 times per minute, which creates a buzzing noise. Houseflies exhibit a wide range of dispersal. They may disperse as little as 27 to 1080 m in urban habitats to 5 to 7 miles in rural habitats. This disparity is due to dense dispersal of humans in an urban area compared to wide dispersal of humans in rural areas. A housefly has been recorded to have flown 20 miles. (Hafez, 2005; Hewitt, 1914; Kelling, et al., 2002; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Housefly larvae exhibit migratory behavior in preparation for their pupal stage. They migrate to the cooler and drier parts of their breeding medium. Specifically, they prefer temperatures that are below 15 degrees Celsius, which is common at the edge of dung heaps or the ground immediately surrounding the dung heap. (Hafez, 2005; Hewitt, 1914; Kelling, et al., 2002; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

  • Range territory size
    27 to 9000 m^2
  • Average territory size
    400 m^2

Home Range

Houseflies exhibit a wide range of dispersal, ranging from 20 m to 27 miles. The home range depends on the availability of resources, specifically human garbage. Housefly populations are dense where human populations are dense. (Robinson, 2005)

Communication and Perception

Perception channels in houseflies include olfactory, tactile, vision, and chemical signals such as pheromones. Olfactory senses are used extensively to find food. Chemical sensations from their olfactory system create an electrophysiological response on the antennae. Researchers observe the electrical spikes in the stimulation of olfactory cells on their antennae to determine if the housefly under study is attracted or repelled by an odor. Humans have taken advantage of this trait, developing commercial repellents with odors they find unpleasant. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kelling, et al., 2002)

Houseflies taste food through taste hairs, many of which are located on their feet. Other hairs used to sense air flow are located all over their body. This sense allows them to avoid obstacles while flying. Compound eyes also give them a keen sense of sight and the ability to recognize lights and motions. In mating, houseflies communicate through pheromones. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kelling, et al., 2002)

Adult houseflies are attracted to soil or animal feces that has chemicals called metabolites in it from other larvae. This signifies a high concentration of nutrients, so larvae in those locations are likely to survive. In this way, females are capable of perception of larval density. (Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kelling, et al., 2002; Bryant and Hall, 1999; Kelling, et al., 2002)

Food Habits

The main food sources of houseflies are milk, sugar, blood, feces, and decaying organic matter such as fruits and vegetables. Houseflies also require a source of water. Larvae also eat paper and textile materials such as wool, cotton, and sacking if it is kept moist and at suitable temperatures. (Hewitt, 1914; Kelling, et al., 2002; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

  • Animal Foods
  • blood
  • body fluids
  • carrion
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit
  • Other Foods
  • dung

Predation

Several species of beetles and mites are predators of houseflies, including histerid beetles Carcinops pumilio and Dendrophilus xavieria, muscid flies, and the macrochelid mites Glyptholapsis confusa and Macrocheles muscaedomesticae. Macrocheles muscaedomesticae is attracted to the odor of manure found on houseflies. (Ceden, et al., 1988; Jalil and Rodriguez, 1970)

Ecosystem Roles

The primary ecosystem role of houseflies is decomposition and recycling of organic material. Houseflies are closely associated with humans, drawn to urban areas and high densities of human waste and garbage that is their food. They do not associate with many other species. They avoid competition with other species of Muscidae by feeding on feces from different types of animals. Houseflies are loosely associated with dung beetles (xxxx xxxx). Dung beetles disturb dung and disturb housefly larvae living in the dung, limiting reproduction. (Dahlem, 2003; Lam, et al., 2009; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Housefly larvae compete with fungi for nutrients because both grow in manure. A particular strain of bacteria, Klebsiella oxytoca, is known to reduce fungi growth in manure. This bacteria competes with the fungus for other nutrients in the manure and also releases antifungal chemicals that inhibit the growth of fungi. Thus, K. oxytoca makes more nutrients available to the houseflies. Studies have found K. oxytoca on the surface of housefly eggs. (Dahlem, 2003; Lam, et al., 2009; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Several species of beetles and mites feed on houseflies. Humans may use housefly larvae or pupae to feed domesticated animals. In China, the larvae and pupae of houseflies can be used as food for fish, poultry, pigs, and farm-grown mink. The use of insects as food for domestic animals is a cost-effective alternative to other conventional fish diets. (Dahlem, 2003; Lam, et al., 2009; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Mutualist Species
  • bacteria (Klebsiella oxytoca)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Houseflies decompose decaying matter. (Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Houseflies are perhaps the most widespread insect pest and are especially pervasive pests to humans. They may lay their eggs in human feces, where the maggots can filter feed on nutrient rich waste material. The feces of houseflies can spread typhoid fever, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, pinworm, tapeworm, hookworms (Necator americanus and Ncylostoma duodenal, yaws, anthrax, Cryptosporidium parvum, and some forms of conjunctivitis. Houseflies do not bite. (Dahlem, 2003; Marshall, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Swan and Papp, 1972)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease
  • crop pest
  • household pest

Conservation Status

Houseflies are highly abundant and not threatened or endangered.

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Contributors

Jonelle Doctor (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

biodegradation

helps break down and decompose dead plants and/or animals

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coprophage

an animal that mainly eats the dung of other animals

cosmopolitan

having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

metamorphosis

A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

scavenger

an animal that mainly eats dead animals

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

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Ceden, C., R. Stinner, R. Axtell. 1988. Predation by Predators of the House Fly in Manure: Effects of Predator Density, Feeding History, Interspecific Interference, and Field Conditions. Environmental Entomology, 17, 2: 320-329. Accessed March 25, 2012 at http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/esa/envent/1988/00000017/00000002/art00030.

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