How Scientific Studies of the House Fly in the 20th Century Influenced Language and Culture: The Rise of Filthy Flies, Flyswatters, and Barflies

Thursday, July 13th, 2023
May Berenbaum

Center for Advanced Study
Levis Faculty Center, Room 210
919 W. Illinois, Urbana

Event Description

Watch the video here

Among the multitudes of free-living insects closely associated with insects, there has arguably been no more constant human companion than the aptly named house fly Musca domestica L. As humans have modified their living spaces over time, house flies have readily colonized them; in turn, as the nature of the relationship between humans and house flies has changed, based in part on the acquisition of scientific knowledge, cultures and languages have changed to reflect these altered relationships. At the turn of the 20th century, an unusual confluence of events exacerbated the longstanding bifurcation of attitudes toward M. domestica, historically spanning the continuum from reviling them for their association with filth to drawing inspiration from them for their remarkable biological abilities. The discovery of their role as disease vectors led to increased efforts to eradicate them at the same time scientific tools (including cameras) captured behaviors leading to admiration and (often strange) bio-inspired applications.

May Berenbaum

CAS Director and Professor of Entomology

In her research, Professor Berenbaum explores the chemical interactions between phytophagous insects and their host plants and the function of these interactions in the organization and structure of natural communities. Her work is distinctive in that it addresses insect/plant coevolution at multiple hierarchical levels. On the physiological level, she investigates mechanisms of toxicity of plant chemicals as well as molecular and biochemical adaptations of insects to these toxins; on the ecological level, she examines patterns of insect hostplant use as a function of the distribution and interaction of plant chemicals. Professor Berenbaum is interested in the practical as well as basic aspects of research and has actively promoted the application of ecological principles to pest management and agriculture. Moreover, she has a passion for fostering scientific literacy and has written four books and many magazine articles for the general public.