This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
By J.W. SLATER.
The two-winged flies, in their behavior to man, stand in a marked contrast to all the other orders of insects. The Lepidoptera, the Coleoptera, the Neuroptera, the Hymenoptera no doubt occasion, in some of their forms at least, much damage to our crops. But none of them are parasitic in or upon our bodies; none of them persistently intrude into our dwellings, hover around us in our walks, and harass us with noise and constant attempts to bite, or at least to crawl upon us. Even the ants, except in a few tropical districts, rarely act upon the offensive. The Hemiptera contain one semi-parasitic species which has attained a "world-wide circulation," and one degraded, purely parasitic group. But the Diptera, among which the fleas are now generally included as a degenerated type, comprise more forms personally annoying to man than all the remaining insect orders put together. These hostile species are, further, incalculably numerous, and occur in every part of the globe. Mosquitoes swarm not merely in the swampy forests of the Orinoco or the Irrawaddy, but in the Tundras of Siberia, en the storm-beaten rocks of the Loffodens, and are even encountered by voyagers in quest of the North Pole. The common house fly was probably at one time peculiar to the Eastern Continent, but it followed the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers, and is now as great a nuisance in the United Slates and the Dominion as in any part of Europe. It is curious, but distressing, to note the tendency of evils to become international. We have communicated to America the house-fly and the Hessian fly, the "cabbage-white," the small pox, and the cholera. She, in return, has given us the Phylloxera, a few visitations of yellow fever, the Blatta gigantea, and, climate allowing, may perhaps throw in the Colorado beetle as a make-weight. In this department, at least, free trade reigns undisputed. It is a singular thing that no beautiful, useful, or even harmless species of bird or insect seems capable of acclimatizing itself as do those characterized by ugliness and noisomeness.
But, returning from this digression, we find in the Diptera the habit of obtrusion and intrusion, of coming in actual contact with our food and our persons, combined with another propensity--that of feeding upon carrion, excrement, blood, pus, and morbid matter of all kinds. This is a combination far more serious than is generally imagined. If the fly--which may at any moment settle upon our lips, our eyes, or upon an abraded part of our skin--were cleanly in its habits, we need feel little annoyance at its visits. Or if it were the most eager carrion devourer, but did not, after having dined, think it necessary to seek our company, we might hold it, as is done too hastily by some naturalists, a valuable scavenger. I fear, however, that I have already made too great a concession. So long as very many persons are suffering from disease--so long as many diseases are capable of being transmitted from the sick to the healthy--so long must any creature which is in the habit of flying about, and touching first one person and then another, be a possible medium of infection and death.
Let us take the following case, by no means imaginary, but a generalization from occurrences far too frequent: A healthy man, sitting in his house or walking in the fields, especially in countries where the insectivorous birds have been shot down, suddenly feels a sharp prick on his neck or his cheek. Putting his hand to the place he perhaps crushes, perhaps merely brushes away, a fly which has bitten him so as to draw blood. The man thinks little of so trifling a hurt, but the next morning he finds the puncture exceedingly painful. An inflamed pimple forms, which quickly gets worse, while constitutional symptoms of a feverish kind come on. In alarm he seeks medical advice. The doctor tells him that it is a malignant pustule, and takes at once the most active measures. In spite of all possible skill and care the patient too often succumbs to the bite of a mouche charbonneuse, or carbuncle-fly. But has any kind of fly the property of producing malignant pustule by some specific inherent power of its own? Surely not. The antecedent circumstances are these: A sheep or heifer is attacked with the disease known in France as charbon, in Germany as milz-brand, and in England as splenic fever. Its blood on examination would be found plentifully peopled with bacteria. If a lancet were plunged into the body of the animal, and were then used to slightly scratch or cut the skin of a man, he would be inoculated with "charbon." The bite of the fly is precisely similar in its action. Its rostrum has been smeared with the poisoned blood, an infinitesimal particle of which is sufficient to inclose several of the disease "germs," and these are then transferred to the blood of the next man or animal which the fly happens to bite. The disease is reproduced as simply and certainly as the spores of some species of fern give rise to their like if scattered upon soil suitable for their growth. But flies which do not bite may transfer infection. Every one must know that if blood be spilt upon the ground a crowd of flies will settle upon and eagerly absorb it. Animals suffering from splenic fever in the later stages of the disease sometimes emit bloody urine. Often they are shot or slaughtered by way of stamping out the plague, and their carcasses are buried deep in the ground. But some loss of blood is sure to happen, and this will mostly be left to soak into the ground. Here again the flies will come, and their feet and mouth will become charged with the contagion. Such a fly, settling upon another animal or a man, and selecting--as it will do by preference, if such exist--a wound, or a place where the skin is broken, will convey the disease.
Again, M. Pasteur has thoughtfully pointed out that if an animal has died of splenic fever, and has been carefully buried, the earth-worms may bring up portions of infectious matter to the surface, so that sheep grazing, or merely being folded over the spot in question, may take the plague and die. Hence be wisely counsels that the bodies of such animals should be buried in sandy or calcareous soils where earth-worms are not numerous. But it is perfectly legitimate to go a step farther. If such worm-borings retain the slightest savor of animal matter, flies will settle upon them and will convey the infectious dust to the most unexpected places, giving wings to the plague.