The Lazy Fly
The lazy fly, Musca ignavus, is one of the most annoying animals on the planet. And not as lazy as its name might indicate. Like all the members of the order Diptera, the lazy fly has only two wings. In most of the species of this order, the second pair of wings have been atrophied, and serve as gyroscopes to keep the flying of the insect as steady and precise as possible. This evolution alone is already an impressive feat of natural selection. But the lazy fly has taken things to another level.
Where most diptera use the rapid circular motions of their modified wings for flying, the lazy fly uses it to produce sound. It can emit frequencies between 160 and 230 Hertz. A common housefly, Musca domestica, has a wing-beat of 200 Hertz, but due to the doppler effect, the effective range of sound we perceive is the same as the one emitted by the lazy fly. Except that the lazy fly does not need to fly to produce sound. The modified wings allow it to project sound around itself in a four-meter radius, effectively tricking people into believing there is a fly buzzing around, when the culprit is sitting on your toast, sucking up the jam.
The lazy fly is a master at misdirection, tricking its enemies into searching for it where it is not, projecting sound into the distance to distract its predators while it is having lunch. However, the lazy fly cannot project this sound when it is actually flying, since it has to use its modified wings to stabilize itself. In those moments, the buzzing is twice as loud as that of a normal housefly, the sound coming from both actual and modified wings. This makes the lazy fly an easily identifiable target when in flight, and is presumed to be one of the reasons why it so seldom takes to the air. Which is how it got its name.
Despite the lazy aspect of the fly, which seems to sit around eating while it lets its sound do the actual flying, the production of said frequencies, as well as the precision with which they are projected around the room, require and immense amount of energy. More so than that used by common houseflies to fly around.
The sound-projection capabilities of the fly have recently been analyzed by a group of scientists at the University of Tandenburg. Their results suggest that the modified wings of the lazy fly are the most sophisticated sound-projection system to be found to date, and efforts are under way to analyze and imitate its mechanisms. But the uniqueness of this sound-producing insect has been harnessed since ages past.
It is believed that European tribes have been using the lazy fly as an instrument since as far back as 16'000 B.C. Illustrations found in the Lascaux-cave, in France, suggest that during certain rituals, scraps of food were put in a small indent in the wall with peculiar acoustics. Once the fly was inside, feasting on the food while emitting its confusing buzzing sound, the physical structure of the cave amplified the sound, and a clever arrangement of rocks and pieces of wood or animal skin were used to modify the pitch, thus creating one of the first musical instruments known to men. And powered by a fly.
Evidence of similar usage of the fly have been appearing around the world, from the Aboriginal fly-flute (a hollowed-out piece of wood with a number of holes that could be open or closed) to the African buzz-bass (an empty calabash with a number of holes on one end, which, again, could be opened or closed to modify pitch). More recently, the fly has become a symbol of music for some, most notorious among them the band "Red Hot Chilli Peppers", which featured a picture of the fly on their 2011 album "I'm With You".