OPEN A BEER, FLIES APPEAR
University of Nevada, Reno researcher explores the science behind this buggy mystery.
WRITTEN BY KURT BICKEL
PHOTO BY FLORIS VAN BREUGEL
Floris van Breugel examines a tethered fruit fly.
We have all experienced it. Looking down into your drink and seeing that small black speck doing the individual medley in your wine or beer. The internal dialogue about the disinfectant qualities of alcohol. Chasing the fleeing suspect with your index finger. You have met the enemy, and it is Drosophila, aka the dreaded fruit fly.
To quote singer-songwriter Alanis Morrissette:
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay…
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
The irony for Floris van Breugel, associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, was that fruit flies should’ve been avoiding alcohol, not just because it affected their flying skills, but also, according to what science previously told us, fruit flies hated CO2, the primary gas given off by fermented beverages, or rotting fruit. It was as if the name “fruit fly” were some oxymoron, such as “jumbo shrimp.”
Like any scientist, van Breugel wanted answers. He wanted the truth. Today, 182,500 flies and a custom-built miniature wind tunnel later, he has answers. I sat down at a local coffeehouse to interview van Breugel about his findings:
What were the conclusions of the study?
Fruit flies like CO2. They like beer. They like wine. The other studies didn’t use moving air, which creates an odor plume that the flies follow. We recreated more natural conditions in our wind tunnel, and we had flies follow the CO2 to its source.
So, no fly problems if it’s not windy?
Well, our wind tunnel was less than a mile an hour …
Because I really hate finding those things in my drinks. So how do I avoid that? Which is less likely to attract flies, beer or wine?
Microbrews or domestic?
Probably domestic. It’s a bit hard to say, though. They’d probably be more attracted to less-filtered, more hoppy, bigger-headed brew, so …
I’d guess being so small they’d go for the microbrew. So you found more beret-wearing fruit flies than trucker-hat-wearing flies?
Actually they don’t wear …
Say I’m at a winery that doesn’t sell beer. Better to go with a red or white?
White. They’d be more attracted to the tannins in red wine.
Hard to say but …
Do flies develop drinking problems? Can we use this against them?
Well, they can drown in a drink. That’s a problem. For both of us. We also found that if male flies get rejected after their mating dance, they are much more attracted to CO2.
So male flies go to tiny discos to meet female flies, and when they get the brush-off, they hit the bar with the other male flies. Typical.
Well that’s not exactly …
So what did you do with all those dead flies?
Oh, sorry, time’s up and I need to get back.
But I have more questions …
Thanks to Floris van Breugel for his time. To read more about his study (the science is fascinating), visit Labmanager.com/news/2018/11/cracking-open-a-cold-one-with-the-flies#.xnhg96r7m01.
Kurt Bickel is considered by some to be one of the finest essayists in his home office. His Hollywood screenplay credits include reading "A Few Good Men", "Terms of Endearment", and "Citizen Kane". He resides in Reno with his wife and two Chesapeake Bay retrievers.