Friendly Flies at Mono Lake

When approaching Mono Lake in the summer months, you can hear a persistent and steady buzzing. As you get closer to the lake, you notice the black sands are all vibrating. These aren’t sands, but flies! And these flies seem to avoid your every step, as you aren’t on their menu, but it’s often the other way around.

This creature is the Alkali fly. They feed on algae that grows in, and around the edge of, Mono Lake. In order to feed, the flies will even dive below the surface of the water. A bubble of air is brought with them due to the small hairs surrounding their body, allowing them to breathe. Their diet of algae gives them plenty of fat and protein for predators to love them. Mainly: birds.

A gull catching flies as it runs down the shore
A gull catching flies as it runs down the shore

Migrating birds stop at Mono Lake for the plentiful nutrients found in the flies. Some can be seen running along the shores, beaks open wide to catch their prey. Other birds create whirlpools with their beaks to draw the flies out of the water. And while the birds are creative, they are not the only creatures preying on the insects.

A gull stalking out flies underwater
A gull stalking out flies underwater

Also collecting the flies for food were the Kucadikadi people (Kucadikadi means “fly eaters”). During the summer months, the Kucadikadi would wade through the water to collect flies. The method of cooking these flies was described in the journal of American botanist William H. Brewer:

The Indians come far and near to gather them. The worms are dried in the sun, the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernel remains, like a small yellow grain of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and not unpleasant to the taste, and under the name of koo-chah-bee forms a very important article of food. The Indians gave me some; it does not taste bad, and if one were ignorant of its origin, it would make fine soup. Gulls, ducks, snipe, frogs, and Indians fatten on it.

Lake Mono.
July 11, 1863.

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