Apocephalus

the ant-decapitating flies


Why is this important?

Work on phorid flies is a good example of basic research. Basic research is the underpinning of our knowledge about the world’s biodiversity; without some knowledge of species and their interactions, it is difficult to react intelligently to changes in the environment (such as global warming), invasive species, and other threats. Although basic research is not directed at any specific applied problem, it is available for use on occasions when such knowledge is necessary.

For Apocephalus, such an occasion recently occurred, when scientists at San Francisco State University found that honey bees were being parasitized by Apocephalus borealis. The pre-existing knowledge from our work on this species gave the SFSU team a head start in reacting to and documenting this phenomenon. Ultimately, it was published as a collaborative work (Core et al., 2012).

There is also the potential to use Apocephalus to biologically control or modify populations of invasive species of ants. These ants can cause tremendous economic and environmental damage if left unchecked. The usual response is to use toxic chemicals to try to control them, which has the unfortunate side effect of killing off or poisoning other more desirable species. Biological control can be environmentally dangerous as well, if the wrong control agent is introduced, but basic knowledge on phorid flies makes such mistakes much less likely.

Besides learning which flies attack which ants, this research also contributes to our knowledge of tropical diversity, species diversification, biogeography, and, through the use of fossils, paleontology.