April 27, 1990
This has been bothering me for years. How close to the ceiling does the housefly get before turning around to stand on it? Also, am I crazy to sit and ponder this?
— Georgia R., Elizabethtown, Kentucky
Maybe, but at least you’re not shooting up a post office. Besides, you’re in good company. Many great minds of science have ruminated on this vital issue. They were less concerned with how close, though, than with how period, since landing upside down is no mean feat.
The leading theory for years was that the flies did a half barrel roll sideways a la the Blue Angels just before landing. This idea was shot down in 1958 when Natural History magazine published photos showing that in fact flies do a sort of backward somersault.
On approaching the ceiling, and while still flying right side up, flies extend their forelegs over their heads till they can grab a landing spot with the suction cups in their feet. Their momentum then enables them to swing their hind legs up, like a gymnast on a trapeze. Result: inverted fly, home and dry. So the answer to your query is, they get real close. Hope that’ll do.
— Cecil Adams