Ecolunch: Undergrad research on flies

by Jayne Yerrick

From left to right: Mitch Duffner, Evelyn Blakeman and Madeline Sudnick. Photo by Jayne Yerrick

One of the most hated bugs is flies. They can be irritating pests that never seem to go away, however, flies offer more to the world than just an annoying buzz. Flies present both advantages and disadvantages to the environment. Three OU undergrads explored the behavior of flies and their impact on the environment at the Ecolunch seminar. Each Wednesday, professors and students gather for Ecolunch, a seminar dedicated to science education. This past week’s Ecolunch showcased OU undergraduate research.

The first presenter was Evelyn Blakeman, a sophomore majoring in Plant Biology and Marine, Freshwater and Environmental Biology. She shared her research project on fly pollination, fittingly called, “Are Flies ‘Pollen’ Their Weight? Data mining social media for information on fly pollinators.” Blakeman is well aware of the stigma associated with flies, and she made sure to address it right away. 

“Flies are notorious for their less than socially acceptable resources,” she said with a small smirk. 

This bias people tend to have against flies feeds into what Blakeman calls an “anti-fly mindset.” Whereas bees are commended for their pollination abilities, flies are rarely recognized as pollinators. 

  Even though flies are the second top pollinator, after bees, there has been little pollination research on flies, especially compared to research on bees and butterflies. Blakeman sought to change this through her research on the relationship between flies and flowers. 

Studying fly pollination presents a pretty hefty challenge, however, because flies are very quick and don’t return home like bees do. So to investigate flies’ relationship with flowers, Blakeman says that she crowdsourced over 900 photographs of flies on flowers. The photos were taken from social media and they were photographed all over the world. 

After examining each photo closely, Blakeman found that the flies in the photos tended to prefer white and yellow flowers, as these types of flowers were the one that flies were photographed frequently pollinating. However, Blakeman also discovered that flies do not limit themselves to pollinating a select few types of flowers; flies were pollinating all over the place and they pollinated a diverse group of flowers.

She concluded her presentation by calling for more researchers to overcome their anti-fly mindset. 

“We’ve already lost 40 percent of our insect species in the last 10 years,” she said. “We really need to be more efficient with restoration projects because we are seeing a lot of bias. People are focusing on socially acceptable pollinators like bees and butterflies, but flies are not accounted for. “

The next student to present was Madeline Sudnick, an HTC junior studying Biological Sciences. Like Blakeman, she also conducted research on flies. But instead of research on pollination, she focused on bird blow flies in her research titled, “Identification of oviposition resources by bird blow flies.”

Blow flies are native to Appalachia, and the key to their survival is feeding on the blood of young, nestling birds. These young birds are completely dependent on their parents, so much so that they are not able to remove their own parasites. Blow flies take advantage of this vulnerability and can cause anemia, reduced growth, deformed beaks and death of the birds they target. 

Sudnick points out that parasitic flies are a major issue in the Galapagos right now because they are not native to the area. These parasitic flies are harming the bird populations there, so Sudnick was interested in learning about the communication between these flies and how they forage. Hopefully the information she learns can help restrict the populations of the harmful flies in the Galapagos. 

To study blow fly behavior, Sudnick monitored 40 tree swallow and eastern bluebird nests. She studied the nests by examining the height, composition and mass of the nests. She also monitored temperature and looked for the presence of blowflies by checking for scabbing on the birds’ legs or beak.

After making these observations, she found that as the height of the nest increased, the probability of the blow fly decreased. 

“We found that nest structure, at least nest height, was related to parasitism rate of blowflies,” she said.

Sudnick continued her research on blow flies by constructing three types of boxes to contain bird nests: boxes with foil on the inside, boxes with foil on the outside and a control group of boxes with no foil. 

The experiment revealed that the 10 boxes with foil on the outside had no sign of parasitic flies. Sudnick notes that this wasn’t quite significant, but she is eager to continue this type of test. 

“We will be repeating this experiment in the upcoming summer,” she said. “Possibly with more boxes to see if we could work that out more.”

The final presenter was Mitch Duffner. Like Sudnick, Duffner is also an HTC student, and is currently a senior majoring in Biological Sciences. Duffner shared his research on midges with the Ecolunch audience. 

Midges are pesky insects that cause numerous issues. Duffner explained that they can clog filters, cause asthma, make it difficult to purify water and even cause spider blooms (midges are an ideal food source for spiders). The harm that midges cause inspired Duffner to research environmentally friendly ways to fight midges in a research project titled, “Flash-mobbing and polarized pickiness: exploring novel visual cues for the control of nuisance non-biting midges.”

During his research on midges, Duffner noticed that when the lights were turned on, midges would swarm together. This observation led Duffner to discover that midges have a flashing wingbeat frequency. This means that it almost looks like midges are flashing a light as they beat their wings due to the reflection of light off the wings of midges. Duffner also noted that this flashing wingbeat is likely useful for midges when they want to detect potential mates while on the fly. 

To study this flashing wingbeat frequency more closely, Duffner created his own laser tachometer. He then programmed it at a frequency to see if the midges were attracted to the lights, all with the help of OHIO’s Physics Department. 

“This study was significant because flashing wing frequency as a mate-recognition signal has never been identified in midges before,” Duffner said. 

Duffner hopes to use this information to figure out how to interrupt the midge life cycle. He mentioned that midges are attracted to water’s reflection of light, and they want to lay their eggs on the water surface. By using polarized light, Duffner hopes to develop “a more attractive water” that will attract midges.  

All three of these students are certainly deserving of the buzz they created. Each of them brought new information to the forefront and made discoveries that will open doors for future researchers. 

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