By Adam Jewiss-Gaines, a research assistant at Brock University.
When people ask me what the heck a calliphorid is (often after I have mentioned the family name and am being gawked at as if I’m crazy), I usually remark « You know those shiny flies you often see flying around in the spring and summer? » This isn’t technically 100% accurate since the genus Pollenia, one of the most commonly encountered genera of the family, is in fact non-reflective and grey. Upon closer inspection, a keen eye can also observe varying amounts of wrinkled, yellow hairs on the thorax. These two qualities distinguish Pollenia from other blow flies throughout North America. Despite being a little dull when compared to their more eye-catching iridescent relatives, Pollenia are ecologically important insects as they aid in plant pollination and the processing of various biomaterials.
Pollenia often become particularly active during the spring and summer months once the temperature warms up, although they can occasionally be spotted indoors in the wintertime on a warmer day. With a sudden onslaught of large, grey insects flying around when the snow begins to melt, it comes as no surprise that people tend to get irritated with them and consider them pests. Oftentimes they are mistaken as houseflies (Family Muscidae) causing Pollenia species to be labeled as potential food contaminators, but this is not the case. These insects are also particularly well-known for their clustering behaviour on walls, earning them their common name: cluster flies.
Even though Pollenia are extremely common, their general biology is largely unknown with a few exceptional details. It is known that larval Pollenia are parasites on various other organisms, such as maggots and worms. For example, Rognes (1991) noted that Pollenia pediculata, one of the most common species found throughout the continent, is a parasite of the earthworm species Eisenia rosea. Aside from this little tidbit however, specific information regarding the life cycles of Pollenia species is relatively scarce and further studies in this particular field would greatly improve our knowledge of the genus.
Until very recently it has been thought that all Pollenia found in North America were the same species (Pollenia rudis), but after examining various collections throughout the world, Knut Rognes found that six members of the genus occur throughout the region. Terry Whitworth adapted much of Rognes’ work shortly thereafter into a nice, clean, simple identification key for North America. With accurate images and photography, however, characters could be even easier to distinguish and observe when one is able to compare a photograph to the creature they have under their microscope.
Therefore, to further expand on Terry’s key and clarify important visual characters, I collaborated with him and Dr. Steve Marshall to create a fully-illustrated digital key for distinguishing the six North American Pollenia species from one another. Now published in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, Cluster Flies of North America couples high-resolution images of important traits with a clean and simple interface to create a handy tool to be used by entomologists and non-entomologists alike. If you are relying on this key for identification, it is recommended to use physical specimens of Pollenia rather than images or photos, since even the best of hand-photographs have difficulty capturing key features. In addition, distribution maps are provided for each species, constructed from locality data of specimens from the University of Guelph Insect Collection and Terry Whitworth’s personal collection of Pollenia.
Creating this key has been a great opportunity, and I hope the entomological community is able to make good use of it. My sincere thanks go out to Steve Marshall, Terry Whitworth, the editors, and my labmates and friends for all of their support.
Jewiss-Gaines, A., Marshall, S.A. & Whitworth, T.L. (2012). Cluster flies (Calliphoridae: Polleniinae: Pollenia) of North America, Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, 19 DOI: 10.3752/cjai.2012.19
Rognes, K. 1991. Blowflies (Diptera, Calliphoridae) of Fennoscandia and Denmark. Fauna Entomologica Scandinavica Vol. 24.