This is my daily ritual: around four almost every afternoon, I make myself a drink and a cup of mixed nuts. I take my drink and snacks, go out to sit in the patio, read the paper and gaze at the landscape.
I began my ritual when we lived in Los Angeles but have kept it up since we moved to Joshua Tree. In LA, it was usually a solo ceremony, but here I began to get company: antelope squirrels. But they weren’t interested in fellowship: they wanted nuts.
How they figured out I had treats and was an easy mark, I don’t know. But I’d toss a nut onto the patio and zip! a squirrel would grab it and zoom! go off to eat it or (less likely) share it with his family. There were occasional squirrel disputes over whose nut it was. Two squirrels would have a three-second stare-down, then one, I guess higher in the pecking order, would grab the nut, and the loser would come back to the table for a handout. Sometimes two squirrels would face off on their hind legs, take a few swings at one another, then one would run off, the winner getting the nut.
The antelope squirrels come in a gang, sometimes five or six at once. If I’m a little late getting out to the patio, I can see them through the glass door, waiting. They aren’t shy; a few are even a bit aggressive. The bold ones will climb half-way up the table leg near where I’m sitting, and even climb up my pants leg if I neglect them for too long. They even hop up on the table to help themselves.
After a while, cactus wrens, either alerted by the squirrels or figuring out the availability of nuts by themselves, joined my afternoon service. They’d land on the table one at a time, their heads darting from side to side, taking a step forward, then backing up (because you just never know), and wait for me to toss a nut their way. They’d occasionally race the squirrels for the nuts I tossed on the ground, but the squirrels usually scared them away, so they figured out the tabletop was a less competitive location.
At the same time, I was entertaining the squirrels and birds, I’d look down at my drink and see one, or two, or three little brownish-black winged insects, some smaller than a pinhead, floating in my glass. Some them had ended their tiny lives, drowning in alcohol, but, if I fished them out soon enough, they were still alive. They’d sit on the table for a bit, drying off, then wobble and eventually fly away. This made me curious, and I decided to do some research.
I am not a science guy. In high school Chemistry I got a D. I repeated it in summer school and got a D. To meet college requirements, I took classes that were basically science for dummies. Despite my shortcomings in the science area, I’m interested in the natural world that’s such a big part of our lives here in the desert.
Googling ‘fruit flies and alcohol’ turned up over ten million results. The scientific consensus is that not only do male fruit flies need a little liquid courage in order to mate, if they fail, they’ll seek out alcohol. If the guy flies don’t get laid, they get drunk, just like human guys.
In Los Angeles, we had plenty of fruit fly visitors to our bananas. But in all the afternoons in I spent in our LA back yard patio with my drink, I never saw a fruit fly kamikaze-dive into my booze. Maybe because LA is a large metropolitan area, with many more hook-up opportunities. In LA, boy fruit flies were getting some. Maybe Joshua Tree fruit fly population is like Alaska’s, with more males than females.
But there’s probably no ‘Involuntary Celibacy’ aka InCel fruit fly cults. They don’t post hateful things about female fruit flies on social media, bad-mouth the females that reject them (“she wasn’t that hot”) or sing along with Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
The scientific name for fruit flies is Drosophila. They exist everywhere in the world except Antarctica, where there’s not much fruit, and what there is, is frozen.
Six scientists have won Nobel Prizes for studying the fruit fly.
The fruit fly is a small organism that can reach 0.098 inches in length. Females are slightly larger than males.
Fruit flies feed on bacteria and sugar from decaying fruit, a fact which everyone who has bananas or a compost pile already knows. Rotting fruit, which has fermented, hits the fruit flies with the equivalent buzz of a few beers for a human. Fruit flies will congregate around a piece of decaying fruit and, once satiated (and inebriated), proceed to try and find a willing mate.
During the courtship, the male produces song by vibrating his wings. He touches the female with a foreleg and licks certain parts of her body before she becomes ready to mate. ( Fruit fly sex is pretty gross. I’m not going there. )
Because of the similarity between human and fruit fly genes, seventy-five percent of human diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, can be induced and studied in fruit flies. Scientists also employ fruit flies in research on aging, cancer and… here’s the kicker: alcoholism. Aha!
There was much more information than I wanted to know about fruit flies, sex and alcohol, but nothing about their beverages of choice. Sure, sexually frustrated male fruit flies like to get drunk, but do they have preferences? Is one kind of booze better than another? I decided to run an experiment which no scientist would call scientific ( No fruit flies were harmed in this experiment, although some of them killed themselves. But that’s on them.).
For eight days, Friday to Friday, I put out five small glass bowls, each holding either one-quarter inch of Knob Creek bourbon, Skyy vodka, Tanqueray gin, The Belvenie single-malt scotch, and Icardi Barbera d’Asti (2016 vintage) wine on our patio table. Based on a suggestion by biologist Stefanie Ritter, I also put out a small-necked glass bottle with a squishy and rotting banana in it. I suppose a real scientist would call this a control.
I soon ran into problems in the testing. Alcohol evaporates pretty quickly, and I’d come out to check and discover the bowls were empty. I was conflicted: I wanted to be thorough, but I was unwilling to let fruit flies enjoy expensive booze, so I wasn’t as rigorous as I might have been.
By Sunday night, there were 3 in the bourbon, 2 each in the gin, scotch and wine, and 3 in the control banana. None in the vodka. What’s up with that? It ain’t cheap vodka.
On Wednesday, three-quarters of the way through my experiment, 20 flies had ended their tiny lives, in every drink except the vodka. I did fish out a few swimming survivors. Maybe they swore they’d learned their lesson; they sobered up, promised never to do that again. But we know how long those kinds of promises last. I bet that the next day, those same guys would try again to get lucky, fail, and dive back into the booze to drown their sorrows.
On Friday, I ended the experiment. The results:
- Vodka: 0 fruit flies
- Gin: 4 fruit flies
- Scotch: 11
- Wine: 11
- Bourbon was the most popular fruit fly beverage, with 15 fruit fly boozers
I think the fruit flies were not, like Japanese samurai, committing seppuku, or ritual suicide. They just wanted to party and were ignorant of the consequences of their diving into my drink.
The Knob Creek, with 50% alcohol, was the favorite, but the wine (13%) tied with the scotch (40%) for second place, so alcohol content didn’t appear to be a factor. The popularity results might have been random. Testing one kind of alcohol at a time (with a control squishy banana) would be more accurate.
As soon as I cleared away the liquor, my control bottle of rotting banana got filled with more than 20 fruit flies. Booze is best, fermented banana is OK if the bar is closed.
Boris Dunkov, Professor of Biology at Copper Mountain College, Joshua Tree, California
Stefanie Ritter, biologist and program supervisor at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum, Yucca Valley, California
Carolina Drosophila Manual, the Carolina Biological Supply Company, www.carolina.com
Ed Yong, “Rejected flies turn to booze,” https://www.nature.com/news/rejected-flies-turn-to-booze-1.10227
_________, Soft Schools, http://www.softschools.com/facts/animals/fruit_fly_facts/690/
Benedict Carey, “Learning From the Spurned and Tipsy Fruit Fly,” https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/health/male-fruit-flies-spurned-by-females-turn-to-alcohol.html
University of California – Merced, “The social life of the humble fruit fly revolves around alcohol,” https://phys.org/news/2018-03-social-life-humble-fruit-revolves.html
Andrew Masterson, “Sexually frustrated fruit flies turn to alcohol,” https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/sexually-frustrated-fruit-flies-turn-to-alcohol
Mike Mcrae, “Even Fruit Flies Love Ejaculating, And Turn to Alcohol if They Can’t Get Laid,” https://www.sciencealert.com/alcohol-addiction-and-reward-pathways-in-drosophila-engineered-to-ejaculate-under-red-light
“Why Fly?” https://droso4schools.wordpress.com/why-fly/
**No fruit flies were harmed in this experiment, although some of them killed themselves. But that’s on them.