Question of the Week

From how far can flies smell food?

Thu, 21st Feb 2013

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Desiree asked:

Apparently flies can smell meat from 7 kms away. Is it true? And if so how? And I would appreciate knowing how it could be determined that flies could smell meat from specifically 7 kms away. Please help.

Thank you. Desiraee De Verneuil


Marcus - Hi. I'm Marcus Stensmyr from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany.

Yes, itís true. A fly could smell meat over that distance although only under very, very favourable conditions. Mark-release-recapture experiments performed with house flies caught at the poultry farm showed that flies could find their way back to the farm from a distance of up to 7 km.

To get this data, the scientists had to tag and release 160,000 flies which only Fly Eating0.05% were recaptured. So, flies can do it but far from all will manage this feat. 

7 km is not only a considerable distance to smell something. For a tiny fly, simply traveling 7 km is a major effort, taking several days. Even so, flies are able to detect a smell of rotting meat over long distances. The exact distance depends on many factors such wind conditions, size of the meat and landscape features.

For flies to smell something 7 km away, it nevertheless has to be a substantial piece of meat like a herd of dead elephants rotting away in the sun or an entire poultry farm.

How do flies manage this? Well, it involves no magic - simply, a very good sense of smell. Flies like all other insects detect odours with their antennae which are densely colour in hair-like structures containing olfactory sensory nerve cells. These nerve cells are extremely sensitive to volatile chemicals, odours that is. And in the case of flies that feed on the dead and decaying flesh, so-called Carrion flies, their olfactory cells are also optimised towards detecting cadaver odours.


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I'd like to know what residents said when someone showed up with a box full of 160000 house flies and let them go. I would not be happy. You'd know some of them would get inside your house! krool1969, Tue, 26th Feb 2013

I'm pretty certain they had permission from at least the farm, and likely chose a remote farm for such an experiment. Even then, I doubt they released all 160,000 flies at once as that'd make for a poor and inefficient experiment. KongLoveBanana, Thu, 30th Apr 2015

Question.. I'm in Ireland. I think it was either a blue/green bottle, or common house fly. The other night (november) in a small, but decently crowded, pub a fly landed on my friend's knuckle (he had a 1-3 day old wound there) and it was clearly feeding. So how did the fly navigate through of all the smells, visuals, motions, etc to pinpoint this small source of food? Question 2.. how long does it take for a fly to realize it's trapped in a building and does it have any kind of method for escape or does it just buzz around aimlessly, not knowing where it's been/going until it happens to find an exit.. ie will it go back to the point of entry to escape (the now closed door)? max, Mon, 9th Nov 2015

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