We all know that time flies, but have you ever stopped for a moment and watched how flies fly? I have and it turns out to be really interesting. We expect flying things to maintain a smooth trajectory through space and to accelerate and decelerate at constant rates. We believe we can predict where a bird will be, just by watching the path it has taken so far. That turns out not to be true for flies.
Flies sort of buzz about in random directions. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. They maintain a steady vector, flying at actually quite a slow rate, but at unpredictable moments, they suddenly change direction (but usually not altitude). Unexpectedly, they make the turn very rapidly then settle back to a steady, slower speed along a linear vector. The change of direction is usually accompanied by a sudden burst of speed. You can never tell which direction they will go next.
When two flies encounter each other, something else amazing happens. They loop the loop around each other, as if tying a knot in space, and then depart along different vectors from each other, usually at a different altitude. The actually loop is usually rapid too, employing that sudden acceleration that they usually reserve for just such occasions.
One can only speculate on why they might fly in this way. I have a theory. Perhaps the sudden changes in speed and direction make them harder for birds to catch. If you don’t know where the fly is going to be, in a second or two, you can’t fly to that point from where you are and expect to find a fly to catch. Their unpredictable flight paths make them harder to eat. It also means they don’t have to fly fast all the time, so they conserve energy.
When two flies occupy the same piece of air space, there is a greater risk that one or both of them will be caught. After all, you’ve just doubled the density of food in that particular piece of sky. A bird can just fly into that space and stand a one hundred percent improved chance of catching something to eat. The loop the loop manoeuvre avoids collision between the flies and relocates the flies in the air in a more sparse distribution, without the flies having to communicate or agree on their flight plans. If they both do a random, rapid loop around the other, they’re bound to miss each other and spend as little time as possible congregating. The greater the density of flies in the air, the more frenzied and random this looping behaviour becomes. It must be quite tiring.
I wonder if that tactic tells us anything about survival in a career as an artist. Can sudden and rapid changes in direction, interspersed with periods of constancy, inform our artistic decisions? When we meet other artists, should we do a mutual loop the loop to avoid both being caught out, while avoiding an artistic collision with each other? Is the independent path the one with the greatest chances of survival? If somebody cannot predict what you will do next, it’s harder to copy you or dismiss you. If you change direction too much, you just become a blur and you waste a lot of energy doing it. Maybe the way flies have evolved their way of flying can help us evolve a way to be an artist.
On the other hand, perhaps they’re just insects. Fascinating, though.