I had accidentally left out half a glass of red wine by the windowsill when I went to sleep. As anyone knows, if you do this with a window cracked you will get quite a few fruit flies near it in that time(region dependent obviously).

I noticed that many of them had simply fallen in as there was nearly nothing on the sides of the glass. What causes this behavior in a likely death scenario? Is it only exhibited during extreme hunger? Would this also not likely be an evolutionary cost or is that outweighed?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Fruit flies are attracted to the smell of alcohol (~rotten food). Large reservoirs of liquid alcohol in which they could drown seem rare in nature. There are some (selectable) reasons why flies are drawn to the smell of alcohol. Anecdotally, never seen a fruit fly drowned in liquid water suggesting that they cope fine with more frequently occurring liquids. $\endgroup$
    – tsttst
    Mar 16, 2019 at 20:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @tsttst Even just the time we've been industrialized would be reasonable to start to be negatively selected for in a species like this no? $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2019 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ Might as well ask why they like to land on solvent-borne paint... and permanently get stuck in it. I suppose they can fly off the surface of liquid... under normal circumstances. $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Mar 18, 2019 at 1:42

2 Answers 2


Although this is from a popsci article, a biologist says that fruit flies can normally land on liquids and take off from them thereafter:

However, simply leaving a shot glass full of fruit-vinegar will only serve to feed the flies. The surface tension of the liquid [Ed. note: You remember surface tension, right?] allows fruit flies to land on liquids but not drown.

To break the surface tension you’ll need a tiny bit of dish soap. Dish soaps contain surfactants, which are molecules with a head that likes water, and a tail that doesn’t. Because of this property, the surfactants tend to situate at the interface of air and water, forming molecular “cliques” that disrupt the surface tension of water.

By putting a tiny bit of dish soap on your finger, and touching it to the surface of the vinegar in the shot glass, you will add enough surfactant to break the surface tension. (Add too much and the molecules in the dish soap will alert the fruit flies to danger).

Now fruit flies will unknowingly attempt to land on the vinegar for a little sip, then, before they can react, will break through the surface tension and begin to drown.

So if this is true/confirmed, then they do have enough of an evolutionary adaptation to the [surface tension of the] usual liquids of their diet. Just not to [trace] dish-soap contaminated liquids.

And I can confirm from a peer-reviewed paper that dish soap is indeed used even in science trapping experiments:

The cup trap (figured by Beers et al. 2010) is a 946-ml clear plastic drinking cup with a clear plastic lid (Solo, Urbana, IL), with four 1-cm-diameter holes in the sides of the cup near the top. A drowning solution or drowning solution plus bait was placed within the cup. Forty grams of boric acid and 0.5-ml liquid dishwashing soap (Palmolive Pure and Clean Spring Fresh Dishwashing Soap; Colgate-Palmolive Company, New York, NY, USA) were added to a batch of 3.8 l of water or aqueous bait to make a drowning solution used in all traps. Boric acid served to inhibit microbial activity of baits and captured insects, and soap reduced surface tension to promote capture and submersion of trapped insects. For both types of traps and all treatments in all experiments, each trap contained either 300 ml of drowning solution or 300 ml of bait in drowning solution

0.5ml of soap to 3.8l of water is very little, but that's all it takes to drown the little flies. It seems entirely plausible to me to have this level of trace contamination on glasses that have been dishwashed.

And as a complementary survival mechanism, fruit flies can apparently survive 12 hours of drowning at room temperature (or more in lower temperature):

Flies submerged at 23°C did not survive after a submersion time of 12 h whereas flies submerged at 3°C survived up to 72 h of submersion.

@Frieke may be on to something, namely that ethanol lowers the surface tension of the solution (with water) by itself, significantly. At 20-25 degrees C, pure water has a tension of about 72 mN/m. Adding 10-15% ethanol lowers that to about 47-42 mN/m. Also, the trapping science paper does mention that

Very few flies were captured in traps baited with 10% ethanol in water. Traps baited with a combination of acetic acid and ethanol in water captured more SWD flies than traps baited with acetic acid or ethanol solutions alone. These results indicate a synergy of the two materials, and of the two chemicals, as lures for SWD.

Interestingly wine has substantially higher attractive effect than an equivalent ethanol solution though:

enter image description here

enter image description here

Wine is about half as effective a vinegar and about a quarter as effective as a combination of wine and vinegar. On the other hand, a 10% ethanol solution was 20-50 times less effective than alcohol 10% plus acetic acid 2%. So there's more to wine than ethanol that attracts the flies.

So the flies probably do avoid the higher alcohol concentrations... unless there's also vinegar.

Another paper finds that wine's surface tension is mostly determined by its alcohol content.

enter image description here

So it does look like:

  1. Fruit flies are fairly strongly attracted to wine (on the same order of magnitude as to vinegar).
  2. The surface tension of wine is substantially lower than that of water.

I'm still not sure what the surface tension of (2%) vinegar might be, in comparison. Pure acetic acid has substantially lower surface tension compared to water, about 27 mN/m at room temperature. And if Wikipedia is correct, 10% acetic acid solution has about 55mN/m around temperature. So acetic acid lower the surface tension less than ethanol, but not by much less. On the other hand, fruit flies are much more attracted to acetic acid than to ethanol (alone). So perhaps that's enough to explain why they drown easier in wine.

Actually it look like Wikipedia is wrong here. From an authoritative source, acetic acid has nearly the same effect as wine on surface tension; at 11.4% it has 43.5 mN/m; just 3.2% is enough to lower the tension to 55.6mN/m; at 1.6% it's 61.7mN/m.

enter image description here

So probably just the fact that acetic acid is much more attractive to flies than ethanol is the only factor (other surfactants excluded). Perhaps they "confuse" a higher concentration of ethanol to a lower concentration of acetic acid, which they would be able to handle as far as surface tension goes.

Yet another source (actually quoted in the previous one, on the next page) gives even lower values for ethanol surface tension.

enter image description here

Apparently determining surface tension is a hard problem, both experimentally and theoretically. So I'm not sure we can properly compare figures reported in different sources. Alas no single experimenter has done both ethanol and acetic acid in the same paper/setup. But what was observed about their relative attractiveness to flies is probably sufficient...

And for ballpark comparisons, a similarly or lower surface tension as that of 10% ethanol (or acetic acid) i.e around 30-40mN/m can be obtained by a adding a few ppm (parts per million) of a surfactant, such as LAS or AE.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And as related fun fact, it's sex-starved males who prefer alcohol, in fruit flies too! nature.com/news/rejected-flies-turn-to-booze-1.10227 $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Mar 18, 2019 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate this answer but it doesn't really address why something like this hasn't been and isn't being negatively selected for. For example, one could easily imagine adaptations by which melanogaster evolve aversion to certain liquid smells of those in which the suface tension cannot support. This could even occur via simple reinforcement. Wrt the work on psuedo suspended animation in fruit flies this makes sense as a general survival mechanism but I wonder why a more nuanced model has yet to be selected for. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2019 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ @hisairnessag3: not enough evolutionary pressure for that until now, apparently, at least at the trap concentration. See biology.stackexchange.com/questions/35532/… The first quote does mention that they can detect the detergent at higher concentrations. Perhaps some lab experiment will [try to] evolve a line of flies in that direction. $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Mar 18, 2019 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ 0.5ml in 3.8l is a 0.013% solution of soap. In half a glass of wine of, let's say, 1/8l=125ml, that would account for about 16microliters of soap. I have not tried this, but I would guess you would taste that if there is that much soap left on your glasses after washing. Therefore it does not seem plausible to me that soap contamination levels would be high enough for drowning the flies. Do you have any idea about surface tension of alcoholic solutions compared to water? $\endgroup$
    – Frieke
    Mar 18, 2019 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Frieke: apparently alcohol has lower surface tension than water: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tears_of_wine That might also explain it, since the science paper also mentions that high alcohol concentrations don't attract flies much. Small amounts of alcohol mixed with vinegar have a better attraction effect. And since alcohol also seems to affect the nervous system of the flies (see 1st comment), it's possible they also get "drunk" which might contribute to them getting drowned easier in the presence of alcohol. $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Mar 18, 2019 at 12:36

As indicated by their name, fruit flies can be found on fruits, where they prefer to lay their eggs. Since the larvae feed not on the fruit itself but on microorganisms found on rotting material, they will especially target overripe fruits. Therefore fruit flies have evolved to identify and respond to odors emitted from ripe fruits. Red wine similarly emits odors that are attractive for fruit flies. Since fermentation is a form of controlled rotting (in both cases material is decomposed by microorganisms), the resulting compounds can be similar, which includes ethanol and 2-phenylethanol.

So, fruit flies are attracted to the smell of wine, that's why they approach the glass. Due to their small size and the surface tension, they should be able to land on water without drowning. But wine isn't water. With an ethanol concentration of 12% we see a reduction in surface tension from ~72mN/m to ~45mN/m, which is comparable to adding some detergents.

surface tension measurements

This explains, why the flies are not able to escape and drown after landing. I would nevertheless argue, that the selection pressure isn't strong enough for an evolutionary adaptation. In their natural environment, they usually would not encounter large bodies of liquid which they are attracted to and which are not able to hold their weight.

In evolution and behavior we have to consider the entire species. While a few unlucky animals will die in wine glasses, most other flies will not. For them being attracted to the smell of overripe fruit and ethanol is an advantage. It's a cost and benefit calculation. For the species, the costs of a few individuals dying is outweighed by the enormous benefit of finding a good place to raise their offspring (laying eggs into rotting fruits). Therefore, the attraction to these smells and approach are positively selected for, even though this results in death in wine for some members of the species.

Watching fruit flies at a trap, you see that mostly flies land on the container rather than on the liquid, indicating that they already avoid touching down on liquid. On the other hand, fruit flies don't seem to be very acrobatic, with a part of their landings being "crash landings". Hence, some of these flies might just accidentally end up in the liquid or by walking down to the edge of the liquid and being caught up by it when touching it. Even though I couldn't find hard data on this, "landing on liquid reservoirs" doesn't seem to be necessarily a strong behavior in fruit flies, that evolution could negatively select for.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.