I've been composting this year, in a nice blue barrel my dad rigged up for me. This year, with a kid to inspire, we're eating a more varied and healthy diet. So the barrel contains more than just coffee grinds and garlic skins, compared to my pathetic pile of yesteryear. My compost doesn't smell too badly, either, unless you stick your face right in the barrel door, which you wouldn't, because the contents within the barrel are attended by a zillion gnats and fruit flies and other flying insects, which are annoying to us, but are good for the compost. I hope. And because of the stray cats, and my dog, we usually have some shit here and there, around the yard, and occasionally, I'm sorry to report, underfoot, which attracts more flies. Yay.
This is my compost barrel and a pile of stray cats and kittens, who enjoy hanging out in my backyard, despite Steve's constant attention. If you're looking for a cat, let me know. This batch is extremely fluffy, and extremely cute.
It's not all bad news. There are a several beneficial insects and natural controls to handle the bugs that bother plants, but flies are another story. Birds are good, and so are bats, though there is a fungus that seems to be killing off bats in record numbers this year (which is, well, bad news for bats, and even for us). So, you can never really have enough fly-eating agents, in my personal opinion. Luckily, there are other forces at work, quietly and stealthily. I noticed some fly carcasses on my flowers last year, which prompted some reading on the dead bastards and mysterious white dust around them. The dead flies are back this year, too, so it is time to showcase my new, disturbingly favorite pest annihilators, Entomophthora muscae.
Entomophthora muscae is a friendly fungus from the genus whose apt name means "insect destroyer." As much as I'd prefer to view my flowers without fly corpses, there is some satisfaction knowing that there is something in our world hellbent on offing the flies, so I don't have to. I hate flies, but prefer not to kill anything myself. Yeah, I'm one of THOSE people, though I make an exception for anything that eats my blood, or the blood of anyone else I know.
Oh, the circle of life takes some weird and disgusting (yet compelling) little spirals, if you care enough to look closely. The relationship between E muscae and some species of fly is definitely one of those awesomely sickening spirals. And it goes a little something like this:
Fungal spores invade fly. Hungry fungal spores gobble up fly's guts, but not enough to kill it, only enough to give fly's abdomen a striped appearance. Fungus makes its way to the fly's little bundle of nerves that serve as fly's brain, and fungus commands fly to climb as high as it can: to the top of your window screen, to the middle of your pretty purple coneflower, etc. This is a sad moment for the fly, but if it's lucky, at least the view will be pretty. From this apex, the fly ceases to be a fly, and becomes a mere brittle shell for some bustling E muscae. In short order, the fly's exoskeleton bursts, and our little fungal friends are off in search of another fly host, in what is called a "conidial shower." This may be too much information, but I did not lose my appetite until I stumbled upon that term.
This is a dead fly, stopped dead in its tracks courtesy of Entomophthora muscae, which is getting ready to burst. I snagged this picture from the interwebs
This is a dead fly on my monarda (bee balm); a rain shower came down simultaneously with the conidial shower. Repulsive.
This is the plot of nearly every horror movie, and it's happening right in your backyard, for free! Now we know where the horror writers get their ideas.
I'm not a huge fan of chemical controls. It's too much power for me, and I don't want it. Even though I have thought about buying ladybugs to unleash on my aphids, I haven't yet, though it's mostly because I always forget until it's too late. I do worry I may tip the scales too far; I wonder if I have the right to meddle. Despite these nagging concerns, I poked around to see if E muscae is available for purchase. It isn't. Even though it has the incredible ability to penetrate the exoskeleton of a fly, despite its teeny powdery form, and basically become the fly's brain, it is simply too delicate to cultivate for sale. For shame.
Some more good news today: E muscae seems to prefer cooler temperatures, which we've had for the last few weeks. That should put a hurtin' on the fly population, so perhaps the flies won't be so bad in the warmer weeks of summer. Of course, we'll have to look at grisly fly cadavers. But that's better than having them alive and all over our summertime chicken and cake, right?
Further reading (if you want):
Entomorphthora muscae: http://www.hort.wisc.edu/mastergardener/features/insects/entomophthora/entomophora.htm
Bat's white nose fungus: http://www.njherald.com/story/news/17BATFUNGUS-web