A Bubble-Blowing, Rotten Plant-Eating, Gas Mask-Faced Picture-Winged Fly

Please join me for a moment to appreciate a fly that eats rotting vegetation and looks like it is wearing a gas mask while doing it.  Oh, it also has gorgeous decorative wings and likes to blow bubbles.  Yep, you read that correctly.

Delphinia pictaon a sunflower at Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

Delphinia picta, a picture-winged fly, comes across as eccentric, to say the least.  Its appearance, alone, is remarkable.  The wings are distinctively shaped and patterned, and its long face really does look like it’s wearing a gas mask.  Though small (about 7mm in length), it’s a species that will catch your eye if you glance its way.

Both the adults and larvae of D. picta feed on rotting vegetation.  Mama flies lay their eggs in rotting vegetation, the larvae hatch out and feed on the same rotting vegetation, and after they pupate and become adults, they keep feeding on that same rotting vegetation – or a suitable subsitute.  It must taste good.  Oh, adults have also been documented eating the fermenting poop left behind by tree-boring long-horned beetles.  You know, for a change of pace.  

Delphinia picta can be distinguished from other similar species by the pattern on its wings, the dark-colored top of its abdomen, and its long gas-mask-looking face.  

The aforementioned bubble blowing behavior appears to be a result of the fly regurgitating a little of its most recent meal (likely rotting vegetation) and holding it as a bubble protruding from its mouth.  This might be used as part of a mating ritual (hubba hubba) or as a way to evaporate some of the liquid from its food for easier digestion.  Or maybe both.  

I looked all over online for a common name for this terrific species, but I couldn’t find anything besides Latin.  That seems unconscionable to me.  If there ever was a fly that deserved a nickname, this is it.  Let’s see if we can come up with one, shall we? 

Since picta means painted, that seems like an obvious component of any name we choose.  Since it prefers (did I mention this already?) to eat rotting vegetation, we could potentially call it the “Painted Compost Fly”, but I don’t love that.

Any fly with a face like this deserves a good nickname.

I guess we could just go with “painted fly”, but that’s too plain for such an interesting species.  I think we’ve got to include something about its diet.  I have a suggestion, but I don’t know if it’ll catch on.  I looked up synonyms for rotting and decaying and one of the more fun options is putrefying.  That’s a word we can work with.  See what you think of this option:

The Painted Putrefly.  

Yes?  No?  Can you do better?

This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

21 thoughts on “A Bubble-Blowing, Rotten Plant-Eating, Gas Mask-Faced Picture-Winged Fly

  1. Thank you for this informative entry!
    I’ve always wanted to know more about this kind of insect but didn’t/couldn’t find any info- especially since I didn’t know it’s name.
    I called it a Paddle-wing fly since its wings looked like boat paddles.
    I think they’re one of the cutest insects in my garden. :-)
    Thanks, again, for the terrific info!

  2. *Ahem* May I politely propose, and please, pardon the pun, that it presently be pronounced “The Painted Pustule-Popper”?

  3. While I really like the alliteration and sentiment of “Painted Putstule-Popper”, the “painted” part doesn’t stand out for me and pustule-popper seems misleading and possibly a bit scary for some. This little fella looks to be several shades of brown which doesn’t say, “painted” to me. How about the glass-winged putrefly or maybe spitting putrefly?

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  6. Unfortunately I don’t think “putrefly” works in this case. It may be just me, but my impression about “putrefy” is that it is most often associated with flesh, whereas one of the many attributes that distinguishes this bewitching fly is that it does not eat rotten meat. Too bad, because it’s a great word and I have none other to offer. However I notice that because you are such an elegant and precise writer, even you avoided connecting “putrefy” with vegetation in your completely delightful and captivating text.

  7. I’ve been seeing these all over my yard in MI and wondered what they are. So glad I found this resource. I think for the name perhaps something like “painted paddle-wing fly”? I think the ends of their wings look like they fan out into a paddle.


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