As the Cluster Flies

As the Cluster Flies

By Stephen Morris

Do you remember the old Warner Brothers cartoon where Elmer Fudd gets so annoyed at a mosquito that he goes after it with a double-barreled shotgun? Before long, he has blasted away the entire house and the mosquito is still buzzing. Poor Elmer was driven to violence and self-destruction by a bug.

I feel this way about cluster flies. Lying quietly in bed, reading a book, minding my own business, suddenly my world is violated by a buzzing fly that lurches like a drunk into the bedside lamp, pinging randomly into the lampshade, and eventually landing on my head. After a few minutes of this routine I would happily employ any weapon of mass destruction against this nemesis.

Horror stories about cluster flies abound in the North Country. I have a neighbor who claims to remove them by the bushel basket from his summer camp. A carpenter friend reports finding walls in old house so packed with fly carcasses that they were actually providing pretty good insulation.

I’d rather freeze.

Pushed beyond my ethical boundary by this fulsome critter, I broke a long-standing personal rule and actually did some research for this article. The cluster fly is ¼ to 3/8 inch in length, somewhat larger and slower than a common housefly. It is distinguished by the presence of golden yellow hairs on the front and top of its thorax. Its wing tips overlap while resting.

That’s when you should smack it.

Female cluster flies lay their eggs in cracks in the soil. After three days the larvae emerge and seek out their food source, the earthworm. (I should stop right here.) The larvae burrow into the worms where they enjoy a lovely parasitic relationship. (I’ll wait until you get back from the bathroom.)

An effective way to combat cluster flies, therefore, is to remove the topsoil for a hundred yards in any direction from your house and replace it with a non-organic substance. Alternatively, you can create a moat, but that might result in a mosquito problem. Or, move to Nevada.

After feasting on worms the emerging flies seek a protected over-wintering site, which means your house. Any crack or crevice in your siding or foundation will be a welcome gate for cluster flies. From what I can tell, the only way to stop them from getting in is to wrap your house in a giant plastic bag. They get in through miniscule openings in window frames, door frames, soffits, and eaves, through pulley holes, under shingles. You can plug all the cracks, but you won’t stop them. You can spray with the most toxic insecticides known to mankind, BUT YOU CAN’T STOP THEM!

You can, however, kill them.

Once inside the house, the cluster fly does something that only a creature as dumb as a cluster fly would try to do—they try to get out. Specifically, they gather at the warmest, sunniest window and knock themselves silly banging against the glass. They often choose sunny, winter days when the radiant solar energy causes your heart to soar, until you hear the pinging drone of a thousand flies bopping against the windowpane. This disgusts normal people, especially visitors from the Flatlands, but not me.

I live for this.

My killing methods have evolved over the years. Cluster flies are slow enough and stupid enough that they do not offer much in the way of sport, except through their sheer numbers. Initially, I used a rolled up newspaper. That provided a rewarding visceral thud, but left you to deal with the little fly carcasses, which were often smeared on the wall. Also, ceiling kills were quite difficult.

The wire-shafted fly swatter came next. I became quite adept at this and was able to deliver a lethal blow from either hand, forehand, backhand, or my favorite, the overhead smash. I was the Andre Agassi of the fly swatter. There was still the carcass problem, as well as the revolting task of cleaning the swatter.

Photo by Harrison Haines on

I went through a vacuum cleaner phase, which was momentarily effective, but the vacuum cleaner is always on the other side of the house when you need it. Also, I couldn’t be sure that sucking up the flies into the dust bag actually killed them. Maybe they even enjoyed it! If they can penetrate the house, escaping from a vacuum cleaner might not present a problem.

Trying a different tact I ordered something called the “Cluster Buster 1000” which attaches to the window with suction cups, then traps the flies in finely powdered eggshells and suffocates them, insuring a slow, agonizing death. The theory sounds fine, and would be even better if you could hear the little critters screaming like so many doomed passengers on the Titanic. The reality was that I couldn’t get the “Cluster Buster 1000” to stick to the window. Instead of coming back to a container bursting with fly carcasses, I came back to a white mess on the floor and the gleeful buzz of window pelting.

Then I found my ultimate weapon. These should be standard issue for every Vermont home. I found mine in a mail order catalog, but, alas, the catalog no longer carries the item.

I call it The Wand. It’s a plastic tube, about the size of a paper towel tube, attached to a handle that contains a battery-powered fan. The tube has a removable cap that you lift off, aim, press the magic button, and watch with infinite pleasure as that cluster fly realizes that man really does have dominion.

You can suck up fifteen or twenty flies at a time. I used to have a concern about how to dispose of the captured flies. You don’t want to let them go outside, lest they live to buzz another day. I tried flushing them down the toilet, but a few inevitably escaped. But then I hit on the perfect solution.

I freeze them. Just put The Wand and its buzzing load of flies in the freezer. Within minutes they are either dead or dormant. In any case, if they wake up, it will be the septic tank from which they will need to escape.

While The Wand promises to contribute positively to collective mental health of Vermonters, I have recently discovered an even more sadistic weapon for torturing cluster flies … meet the Bugzooka. This device has the satisfying feel of a real gun. It cocks with a solid click when you compress the bellows on the butt end. (When you get good, you can even cock it Rambo-style on your hip. )

Then you stalk the fly. When you get at point blank range, you pull the trigger. There’s a soft but solid “pffft” as the bellows expands. Suddenly, the cluster fly …there it is… gone.

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