The Loss of the Flies

It’s deep autumn, and maybe we feel like a holiday to where it’s high spring.  So here is a view from New Zealand, just in case you are able to fly down there in time for tomorrow morning.

The southern starry sky is confusing for us, since we’re accustomed to maps with north at the top.  The constellations are upside down.  Crater, the Cup, for instance, stands on its rim, as if it’s not on the table but on the drying rack after use.  And the major, recognizable constellations are few.  You can see Crux, the Southern Cross, compact and brilliant; Corvus, the Crow, and Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle, are nearly as compact and bright, so that it’s surprising they are not more familiar.  The two great stars of Centaurus, which point at the Cross, are 3rd and 11th brightest in the whole sky, but the rest of Centaurus is a large indefinite ramble.  And around and between these constellations are silly little ones, created in recent centuries by mapmakers or by navigators who sailed to the south.  Some are boringly named for technical instruments (for instance Octans the Octant – the constellation that contains the south celestial pole).  Some are inserted into spaces that didn’t need constellations and consist of a few faint stars, so that they are just about unrecognizable in practice.

For instance, Musca, the Fly, a vague string of stars immediately south of Crux.  It was in the notes made by Dutch sea captains, and was first put into a map, or actually a globe, in 1597 by Pieter Platevooet, who Latinized his name as Petrus Plancius.  With a will, you can see the half dozen stars, of about magnitudes 3 to 6, as a triangular wing and a long tail, though that’s the shape of a kite rather than a fly.  In another old depiction, the fly is about to become food for the outstretched tongue of the next constellation to the south, Chamaeleon.

Musca is the only constellation named for an insect.  Yet insects are – numerous.  (“De flies so num’rous dey did swarm…”)  There are more than a million known and described insect species, not counting those yet to be discovered – more than half of all species of life on Earth – even though the class Insecta is just a division of the arthropods, which are just a division of the Animalia, which are a division of the Eukaryotes, and that is leaving out many intermediate levels of classification.  Insects aren’t just a nuisance at picnics (“Shoo, fly, don’t bother me…”).  As prey and as pollinators and in many other ways, they support most of the rest of life, including us.

I have an ulterior motive for devising a scene containing the only starry insect.  Several days ago, I read an article entitled “Warning of Ecological Armageddon after Dramatic Plunge in Insect Numbers.”

I sent this letter to the paper the same day:

“The 76% decline in flying insects since 1989, proved for Germany and probably valid for the world (Guardian, October 18), should be the world’s front page news.  Not just birds, but humans, depend on insects.


“There is no solution but to reduce the land area used for farming, while also feeding the still increasing human population.  The way to do this has been pointed out: vertical farming.

“Raising crops on roofs or in structures thirty storeys high, for instance on the numerous waste lots in cities, can be done hydroponically, 24 hours in all seasons, with recycling of wastes and water.  It would eliminate transportation costs by making food available close to the people who need it, particularly in poor inner cities.  It would let us let most of the landscape revert to nature.”

The letters editor thought it more important to print letters (mostly longer) about three-legged stools, nicknames for flu epidemics, and whether men should wear suits to the opera.  So I thought I’d at least make my letter available to you.

As to vertical farming, I first read about it in an article of 2009, of which I’ve kept the text here.  But you can easily google “vertical farming” to find out more about its many advantages.  I think it does give hope for a future Earth in which much of the land surface now covered by monoculture is returned to its natural state.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s 1954 novel, is about how spme boys marooned on an island descend into self-destructive behavior.  The title must refer to Beelzebub, Hebrew ba`al zebûb, “lord of flies,” the Philistine god or demon mentioned in the Bible; in the novel, the flies are the boys and the lord is the level-headed one who tries and fails to keep them behaving sanely.  So there’s no real relevance to the precipitous decline of the planet’s insects, caused by loss of habitat.  Or perhaps there is.


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