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The Bluebottle

To purge the earth of death's impurities and cause deceased animal

matter to be once more numbered among the treasures of life there are

hosts of sausage-queens, including, in our part of the world, the

Bluebottle (Calliphora vomitaria, Lin.) and the Grey Flesh-fly

(Sarcophaga carnaria, Lin.) Every one knows the first, the big,

dark-blue Fly who, after effecting her designs in the ill-watched

meat-safe, settles on our
indow-panes and keeps up a solemn buzzing,

anxious to be off in the sun and ripen a fresh emission of germs. How

does she lay her eggs, the origin of the loathsome maggot that battens

poisonously on our provisions whether of game or butcher's meat? What

are her stratagems and how can we foil them? This is what I propose to


The Bluebottle frequents our homes during autumn and a part of winter,

until the cold becomes severe; but her appearance in the fields dates

back much earlier. On the first fine day in February, we shall see her

warming herself, chillily, against the sunny walls. In April, I notice

her in considerable numbers on the laurustinus. It is here that she

seems to pair, while sipping the sugary exudations of the small white

flowers. The whole of the summer season is spent out of doors, in brief

flights from one refreshment-bar to the next. When autumn comes, with

its game, she makes her way into our houses and remains until the hard


This suits my stay-at-home habits and especially my legs, which are

bending under the weight of years. I need not run after the subjects of

my present study; they call on me. Besides, I have vigilant assistants.

The household knows of my plans. One and all bring me, in a little

screw of paper, the noisy visitor just captured against the panes.

Thus do I fill my vivarium, which consists of a large, bell-shaped cage

of wire-gauze, standing in an earthenware pan full of sand. A mug

containing honey is the dining-room of the establishment. Here the

captives come to recruit themselves in their hours of leisure. To

occupy their maternal cares, I employ small birds--Chaffinches,

Linnets, Sparrows--brought down, in the enclosure, by my son's gun.

I have just served up a Linnet shot two days ago. I next place in the

cage a Bluebottle, one only, to avoid confusion. Her fat belly

proclaims the advent of laying-time. An hour later, when the excitement

of being put in prison is allayed, my captive is in labour. With eager,

jerky steps, she explores the morsel of game, goes from the head to the

tail, returns from the tail to the head, repeats the action several

times and at last settles near an eye, a dimmed eye sunk into its


The ovipositor bends at a right angle and dives into the junction of

the beak, straight down to the root. Then the eggs are emitted for

nearly half an hour. The layer, utterly absorbed in her serious

business, remains stationary and impassive and is easily observed

through my lens. A movement on my part would doubtless scare her; but

my restful presence gives her no anxiety. I am nothing to her.

The discharge does not go on continuously until the ovaries are

exhausted; it is intermittent and performed in so many packets. Several

times over, the Fly leaves the bird's beak and comes to take a rest

upon the wire-gauze, where she brushes her hind-legs one against the

other. In particular, before using it again, she cleans, smooths and

polishes her laying-tool, the probe that places the eggs. Then, feeling

her womb still teeming, she returns to the same spot at the joint of

the beak. The delivery is resumed, to cease presently and then begin

anew. A couple of hours are thus spent in alternate standing near the

eye and resting on the wire-gauze.

At last it is over. The Fly does not go back to the bird, a proof that

her ovaries are exhausted. The next day she is dead. The eggs are

dabbed in a continuous layer, at the entrance to the throat, at the

root of the tongue, on the membrane of the palate. Their number appears

considerable; the whole inside of the gullet is white with them. I fix

a little wooden prop between the two mandibles of the beak, to keep

them open and enable me to see what happens.

I learn in this way that the hatching takes place in a couple of days.

As soon as they are born, the young vermin, a swarming mass, leave the

place where they are and disappear down the throat.

The beak of the bird invaded was closed at the start, as far as the

natural contact of the mandibles allowed. There remained a narrow slit

at the base, sufficient at most to admit the passage of a horse-hair.

It was through this that the laying was performed. Lengthening her

ovipositor like a telescope, the mother inserted the point of her

implement, a point slightly hardened with a horny armour. The fineness

of the probe equals the fineness of the aperture. But, if the beak were

entirely closed, where would the eggs be laid then?

With a tied thread I keep the two mandibles in absolute contact; and I

place a second Bluebottle in the presence of the Linnet, whom the

colonists have already entered by the beak. This time the laying takes

place on one of the eyes, between the lid and the eyeball. At the

hatching, which again occurs a couple of days later, the grubs make

their way into the fleshy depths of the socket. The eyes and the beak,

therefore, form the two chief entrances into feathered game.

There are others; and these are the wounds. I cover the Linnet's head

with a paper hood which will prevent invasion through the beak and

eyes. I serve it, under the wire-gauze bell, to a third egg-layer. The

bird has been struck by a shot in the breast, but the sore is not

bleeding: no outer stain marks the injured spot. Moreover, I am careful

to arrange the feathers, to smooth them with a hair-pencil, so that the

bird looks quite smart and has every appearance of being untouched.

The Fly is soon there. She inspects the Linnet from end to end; with

her front tarsi she fumbles at the breast and belly. It is a sort of

auscultation by sense of touch. The insect becomes aware of what is

under the feathers by the manner in which these react. If scent lends

its assistance, it can only be very slightly, for the game is not yet

high. The wound is soon found. No drop of blood is near it, for it is

closed by a plug of down rammed into it by the shot. The Fly takes up

her position without separating the feathers or uncovering the wound.

She remains here for two hours without stirring, motionless, with her

abdomen concealed beneath the plumage. My eager curiosity does not

distract her from her business for a moment.

When she has finished, I take her place. There is nothing either on the

skin or at the mouth of the wound. I have to withdraw the downy plug

and dig to some depth before discovering the eggs. The ovipositor has

therefore lengthened its extensible tube and pushed beyond the feather

stopper driven in by the lead. The eggs are in one packet; they number

about three hundred.

When the beak and eyes are rendered inaccessible, when the body,

moreover, has no wounds, the laying still takes place, but this time in

a hesitating and niggardly fashion. I pluck the bird completely, the

better to watch what happens; also, I cover the head with a paper hood

to close the usual means of access. For a long time, with jerky steps,

the mother explores the body in every direction; she takes her stand by

preference on the head, which she sounds by tapping on it with her

front tarsi. She knows that the openings which she needs are there,

under the paper; but she also knows how frail are her grubs, how

powerless to pierce their way through the strange obstacle which stops

her as well and interferes with the work of her ovipositor. The cowl

inspires her with profound distrust. Despite the tempting bait of the

veiled head, not an egg is laid on the wrapper, slight though it may


Weary of vain attempts to compass this obstacle, the Fly at last

decides in favour of other points, but not on the breast, belly, or

back, where the hide would seem too tough and the light too intrusive.

She needs dark hiding-places, corners where the skin is very delicate.

The spots chosen are the cavity of the axilla, corresponding with our

arm-pit, and the crease where the thigh joins the belly. Eggs are laid

in both places, but not many, showing that the groin and the axilla are

adopted only reluctantly and for lack of a better spot.

With an unplucked bird, also hooded, the same experiment failed: the

feathers prevent the Fly from slipping into those deep places. Let us

add, in conclusion, that, on a skinned bird, or simply on a piece of

butcher's meat, the laying is effected on any part whatever, provided

that it be dark. The gloomiest corners are the favourite ones.

It follows from all this that, to lay her eggs, the Bluebottle picks

out either naked wounds or else the mucous membranes of the mouth or

eyes, which are not protected by a skin of any thickness. She also

needs darkness.

The perfect efficiency of the paper bag, which prevents the inroads of

the worms through the eye-sockets or the beak, suggests a similar

experiment with the whole bird. It is a matter of wrapping the body in

a sort of artificial skin which will be as discouraging to the Fly as

the natural skin. Linnets, some with deep wounds, others almost intact,

are placed one by one in paper envelopes similar to those in which the

nursery-gardener keeps his seeds, envelopes just folded, without being

stuck. The paper is quite ordinary and of middling thickness. Torn

pieces of newspaper serve the purpose.

These sheaths with the corpses inside them are freely exposed to the

air, on the table in my study, where they are visited, according to the

time of day, in dense shade and in bright sunlight. Attracted by the

effluvia from the dead meat, the Bluebottles haunt my laboratory, the

windows of which are always open. I see them daily alighting on the

envelopes and very busily exploring them, apprised of the contents by

the gamy smell. Their incessant coming and going is a sign of intense

cupidity; and yet none of them decides to lay on the bags. They do not

even attempt to slide their ovipositor through the slits of the folds.

The favourable season passes and not an egg is laid on the tempting

wrappers. All the mothers abstain, judging the slender obstacle of the

paper to be more than the vermin will be able to overcome.

This caution on the Fly's part does not at all surprise me: motherhood

everywhere has great gleams of perspicacity. What does astonish me is

the following result. The parcels containing the Linnets are left for a

whole year uncovered on the table; they remain there for a second year

and a third. I inspect the contents from time to time. The little birds

are intact, with unrumpled feathers, free from smell, dry and light,

like mummies. They have become not decomposed, but mummified.

I expected to see them putrefying, running into sanies, like corpses

left to rot in the open air. On the contrary, the birds have dried and

hardened, without undergoing any change. What did they want for their

putrefaction? simply the intervention of the Fly. The maggot,

therefore, is the primary cause of dissolution after death; it is,

above all, the putrefactive chemist.

A conclusion not devoid of value may be drawn from my paper game-bags.

In our markets, especially in those of the South, the game is hung

unprotected from the hooks on the stalls. Larks strung up by the dozen

with a wire through their nostrils, Thrushes, Plovers, Teal,

Partridges, Snipe, in short, all the glories of the spit which the

autumn migration brings us, remain for days and weeks at the mercy of

the Flies. The buyer allows himself to be tempted by a goodly exterior;

he makes his purchase and, back at home, just when the bird is being

prepared for roasting, he discovers that the promised dainty is alive

with worms. O horror! There is nothing for it but to throw the

loathsome, verminous thing away.

The Bluebottle is the culprit here. Everybody knows it, and nobody

thinks seriously of shaking off her tyranny: not the retailer, nor the

wholesale dealer, nor the killer of the game. What is wanted to keep

the maggots out? Hardly anything: to slip each bird into a paper

sheath. If this precaution were taken at the start, before the Flies

arrive, any game would be safe and could be left indefinitely to attain

the degree of ripeness required by the epicure's palate.

Stuffed with olives and myrtleberries, the Corsican Blackbirds are

exquisite eating. We sometimes receive them at Orange, layers of them,

packed in baskets through which the air circulates freely and each

contained in a paper wrapper. They are in a state of perfect

preservation, complying with the most exacting demands of the kitchen.

I congratulate the nameless shipper who conceived the bright idea of

clothing his Blackbirds in paper. Will his example find imitators? I

doubt it.

There is, of course, a serious objection to this method of

preservation. In its paper shroud, the article is invisible; it is not

enticing; it does not inform the passer-by of its nature and qualities.

There is one resource left which would leave the bird uncovered: simply

to case the head in a paper cap. The head being the part most menaced,

because of the mucous membrane of the throat and eyes, it would be

enough, as a rule, to protect the head, in order to keep off the Flies

and thwart their attempts.

Let us continue to study the Bluebottle, while varying our means of

information. A tin, about four inches deep, contains a piece of

butcher's meat. The lid is not put in quite straight and leaves a

narrow slit at one point of its circumference, allowing, at most, of

the passage of a fine needle. When the bait begins to give off a gamy

scent, the mothers come, singly or in numbers. They are attracted by

the odour which, transmitted through a thin crevice, hardly reaches my


They explore the metal receptacle for some time, seeking an entrance.

Finding naught that enables them to reach the coveted morsel, they

decide to lay their eggs on the tin, just beside the aperture.

Sometimes, when the width of the passage allows of it, they insert the

ovipositor into the tin and lay the eggs inside, on the very edge of

the slit. Whether outside or in, the eggs are dabbed down in a fairly

regular and absolutely white layer.

We have seen the Bluebottle refusing to lay her eggs on the paper bag,

notwithstanding the carrion fumes of the Linnet enclosed; yet now,

without hesitation, she lays them on a sheet of metal. Can the nature

of the floor make any difference to her? I replace the tin lid by a

paper cover stretched and pasted over the orifice. With the point of my

knife I make a narrow slit in this new lid. That is quite enough: the

parent accepts the paper.

What determined her, therefore, is not simply the smell, which can

easily be perceived even through the uncut paper, but, above all, the

crevice, which will provide an entrance for the vermin, hatched

outside, near the narrow passage. The maggots' mother has her own

logic, her prudent foresight. She knows how feeble her wee grubs will

be, how powerless to cut their way through an obstacle of any

resistance; and so, despite the temptation of the smell, she refrains

from laying, so long as she finds no entrance through which the

new-born worms can slip unaided.

I wanted to know whether the colour, the shininess, the degree of

hardness and other qualities of the obstacle would influence the

decision of a mother obliged to lay her eggs under exceptional

conditions. With this object in view, I employed small jars, each

baited with a bit of butcher's meat. The respective lids were made of

different-coloured paper, of oil-skin, or of some of that tin-foil,

with its gold or coppery sheen, which is used for sealing

liqueur-bottles. On not one of these covers did the mothers stop, with

any desire to deposit their eggs; but, from the moment that the knife

had made the narrow slit, all the lids were, sooner or later, visited

and all, sooner or later, received the white shower somewhere near the

gash. The look of the obstacle, therefore, does not count; dull or

brilliant, drab or coloured: these are details of no importance; the

thing that matters is that there should be a passage to allow the grubs

to enter.

Though hatched outside, at a distance from the coveted morsel, the

new-born worms are well able to find their refectory. As they release

themselves from the egg, without hesitation, so accurate is their

scent, they slip beneath the edge of the ill-joined lid, or through the

passage cut by the knife. Behold them entering upon their promised

land, their reeking paradise.

Eager to arrive, do they drop from the top of the wall? Not they!

Slowly creeping, they make their way down the side of the jar; they use

their fore-part, ever in quest of information, as a crutch and grapnel

in one. They reach the meat and at once instal themselves upon it.

Let us continue our investigation, varying the conditions. A large

test-tube, measuring nine inches high, is baited at the bottom with a

lump of butcher's meat. It is closed with wire-gauze, whose meshes, two

millimetres wide (.078 inch.--Translator's Note.), do not permit of the

Fly's passage. The Bluebottle comes to my apparatus, guided by scent

rather than sight. She hastens to the test-tube, whose contents are

veiled under an opaque cover, with the same alacrity as to the open

tube. The invisible attracts her quite as much as the visible.

She stays awhile on the lattice of the mouth, inspects it attentively;

but, whether because circumstances failed to serve me, or because the

wire network inspired her with distrust, I never saw her dab her eggs

upon it for certain. As her evidence was doubtful, I had recourse to

the Flesh-fly (Sarcophaga carnaria).

This Fly is less finicking in her preparations, she has more faith in

the strength of her worms, which are born ready-formed and vigorous,

and easily shows me what I wish to see. She explores the trellis-work,

chooses a mesh through which she inserts the tip of her abdomen, and,

undisturbed by my presence, emits, one after the other, a certain

number of grubs, about ten or so. True, her visits will be repeated,

increasing the family at a rate of which I am ignorant.

The new-born worms, thanks to a slight viscidity, cling for a moment to

the wire-gauze; they swarm, wriggle, release themselves and leap into

the chasm. It is a nine-inch drop at least. When this is done, the

mother makes off, knowing for a certainty that her offspring will shift

for themselves. If they fall on the meat, well and good; if they fall

elsewhere, they can reach the morsel by crawling.

This confidence in the unknown factor of the precipice, with no

indication but that of smell, deserves fuller investigation. From what

height will the Flesh-fly dare to let her children drop? I top the

test-tube with another tube, the width of the neck of a claret-bottle.

The mouth is closed either with wire-gauze or with a paper cover with a

slight cut in it. Altogether, the apparatus measures twenty-five inches

in height. No matter: the fall is not serious for the lithe backs of

the young grubs; and, in a few days, the test-tube is filled with

larvae, in which it is easy to recognize the Flesh-fly's family by the

fringed coronet that opens and shuts at the maggot's stern like the

petals of a little flower. I did not see the mother operating: I was

not there at the time; but there is no doubt possible of her coming,

nor of the great dive taken by the family: the contents of the

test-tube furnish me with a duly authenticated certificate.

I admire the leap and, to obtain one better still, I replace the tube

by another, so that the apparatus now stands forty-six inches high. The

column is erected at a spot frequented by Flies, in a dim light. Its

mouth, closed with a wire-gauze cover, reaches the level of various

other appliances, test-tubes and jars, which are already stocked or

awaiting their colony of vermin. When the position is well-known to the

Flies, I remove the other tubes and leave the column, lest the visitors

should turn aside to easier ground.

From time to time the Bluebottle and the Flesh-fly perch on the

trellis-work, make a short investigation and then decamp. Throughout

the summer season, for three whole months, the apparatus remains where

it is, without result: never a worm. What is the reason? Does the

stench of the meat not spread, coming from that depth? Certainly it

spreads: it is unmistakable to my dulled nostrils and still more so to

the nostrils of my children, whom I call to bear witness. Then why does

the Flesh-fly, who but now was dropping her grubs from a goodly height,

refuse to let them fall from the top of a column twice as high? Does

she fear lest her worms should be bruised by an excessive drop? There

is nothing about her to point to anxiety aroused by the length of the

shaft. I never see her explore the tube or take its size. She stands on

the trellised orifice; and there the matter ends. Can she be apprised

of the depth of the chasm by the comparative faintness of the offensive

odours that arise from it? Can the sense of smell measure the distance

and judge whether it be acceptable or not? Perhaps.

The fact remains that, despite the attraction of the scent, the

Flesh-fly does not expose her worms to disproportionate falls. Can she

know beforehand that, when the chrysalids break, her winged family,

knocking with a sudden flight against the sides of a tall chimney, will

be unable to get out? This foresight would be in agreement with the

rules which order maternal instinct according to future needs.

But, when the fall does not exceed a certain depth, the budding worms

of the Flesh-fly are dropped without a qualm, as all our experiments

show. This principle has a practical application which is not without

its value in matters of domestic economy. It is as well that the

wonders of entomology should sometimes give us a hint of commonplace


The usual meat-safe is a sort of large cage with a top and bottom of

wood and four wire-gauze sides. Hooks fixed into the top are used

whereby to hang pieces which we wish to protect from the Flies. Often,

so as to employ the space to the best advantage, these pieces are

simply laid on the floor of the cage. With these arrangements, are we

sure of warding off the Fly and her vermin?

Not at all. We may protect ourselves against the Bluebottle, who is not

much inclined to lay her eggs at a distance from the meat; but there is

still the Flesh-fly, who is more venturesome and goes more briskly to

work and who will slip the grubs through a hole in the meshes and drop

them inside the safe. Agile as they are and well able to crawl, the

worms will easily reach anything on the floor; the only things secure

from their attacks will be the pieces hanging from the ceiling. It is

not in the nature of maggots to explore the heights, especially if this

implies climbing down a string in addition.

People also use wire-gauze dish-covers. The trellised dome protects the

contents even less than does the meat-safe. The Flesh-fly takes no heed

of it. She can drop her worms through the meshes on the covered joint.

Then what are we to do? Nothing could be simpler. We need only wrap the

birds which we wish to preserve--Thrushes, Partridges, Snipe and so

on--in separate paper envelopes; and the same with our beef and mutton.

This defensive armour alone, while leaving ample room for the air to

circulate, makes any invasion by the worms impossible; even without a

cover or a meat-safe: not that paper possesses any special preservative

virtues, but solely because it forms an impenetrable barrier. The

Bluebottle carefully refrains from laying her eggs upon it and the

Flesh-fly from bringing forth her offspring, both of them knowing that

their new-born young are incapable of piercing the obstacle.

Paper is equally successful in our strife against the Moths, those

plagues of our furs and clothes. To keep away these wholesale ravagers,

people generally use camphor, naphthalene, tobacco, bunches of

lavender, and other strong-scented remedies. Without wishing to malign

those preservatives, we are bound to admit that the means employed are

none too effective. The smell does very little to prevent the havoc of

the Moths.

I would therefore advise our housewives, instead of all this chemist's

stuff, to use newspapers of a suitable shape and size. Take whatever

you wish to protect--your furs, your flannel, or your clothes--and pack

each article carefully in a newspaper, joining the edges with a double

fold, well pinned. If this joining is properly done, the Moth will

never get inside. Since my advice has been taken and this method

employed in my household, the old damage has no longer been repeated.

To return to the Fly. A piece of meat is hidden in a jar under a layer

of fine, dry sand, a finger's-breadth thick. The jar has a wide mouth

and is left quite open. Let whoso come that will, attracted by the

smell. The Bluebottles are not long in inspecting what I have prepared

for them: they enter the jar, go out and come back again, inquiring

into the invisible thing revealed by its fragrance. A diligent watch

enables me to see them fussing about, exploring the sandy expanse,

tapping it with their feet, sounding it with their proboscis. I leave

the visitors undisturbed for a fortnight or three weeks. None of them

lays any eggs.

This is a repetition of what the paper bag, with its dead bird, showed

me. The Flies refuse to lay on the sand, apparently for the same

reasons. The paper was considered an obstacle which the frail vermin

would not be able to overcome. With sand, the case is worse. Its

grittiness would hurt the new-born weaklings, its dryness would absorb

the moisture indispensable to their movements. Later, when preparing

for the metamorphosis, when their strength has come to them, the grubs

will dig the earth quite well and be able to descend: but, at the

start, that would be very dangerous for them. Knowing these

difficulties, the mothers, however greatly tempted by the smell,

abstain from breeding. As a matter of fact, after long waiting, fearing

lest some packets of eggs may have escaped my attention, I inspect the

contents of the jar from top to bottom. Meat and sand contain neither

larvae nor pupae: the whole is absolutely deserted.

The layer of sand being only a finger's-breadth thick, this experiment

requires certain precautions. The meat may expand a little, in going

bad, and protrude in one or two places. However small the fleshy eyots

that show above the surface, the Flies come to them and breed.

Sometimes also the juices oozing from the putrid meat soak a small

extent of the sandy floor. That is enough for the maggot's first

establishment. These causes of failure are avoided with a layer of sand

about an inch thick. Then the Bluebottle, the Flesh-fly, and other

Flies whose grubs batten on dead bodies are kept at a proper distance.

In the hope of awakening us to a proper sense of our insignificance,

pulpit orators sometimes make an unfair use of the grave and its worms.

Let us put no faith in their doleful rhetoric. The chemistry of man's

final dissolution is eloquent enough of our emptiness: there is no need

to add imaginary horrors. The worm of the sepulchre is an invention of

cantankerous minds, incapable of seeing things as they are. Covered by

but a few inches of earth, the dead can sleep their quiet sleep: no Fly

will ever come to take advantage of them.

At the surface of the soil, exposed to the air, the hideous invasion is

possible; aye, it is the invariable rule. For the melting down and

remoulding of matter, man is no better, corpse for corpse, than the

lowest of the brutes. Then the Fly exercises her rights and deals with

us as she does with any ordinary animal refuse. Nature treats us with

magnificent indifference in her great regenerating factory: placed in

her crucibles, animals and men, beggars and kings are 1 and all alike.

There you have true equality, the only equality in this world of ours:

equality in the presence of the maggot.