Yesterday evening I went down to the laying hens to help Harry bring up the eggs he gathered. As I was putting the cases of eggs into the truck, I heard this sharp snap, snap, snap behind me. I turned to find a group of hens in a feeding frenzy on a patch of bare ground. On closer inspection, I saw that they were eating tiny white larvae. And the larvae weren’t just scrunching or wriggling along the ground like normal maggots, grubs, or caterpillars; these things were launching themselves two feet into the air. They were less than a half inch long with no external parts visible to my eye. They move themselves by snapping their bodies with an audible click, and arcing up into the air. It didn’t seem to me that they were projecting their motion in any particular direction, rather they seemed to be just popcorning all over the place, probably just opportunistically hoping to find a good place to escape the hens.
It turns out that these little guys are the larval stage of the cheese skipper fly (aka ham skipper). In reading up on them, I learned that people dealt with this fly frequently in pre-refrigeration times when they discovered that it liked to lay its eggs in cheeses and meat, and then a couple weeks later the piece of (now rotten) food would have little white things blasting out of it in all directions. After reading about them, I’m surprised I haven’t encountered them before. It seems like I ought to have seen them in dead animals I’ve found in the woods, but maybe I just haven’t been paying enough attention to decomposing things.
So what were the larvae feeding on? Chicken feed. Two weeks ago we had a problem with one of the chicken feeders. The lip was too low and it spilled about 100 lbs of feed. I tried to clean it up, but there was still a lot of feed left in the grass. Then it rained for a few days, caking it all into a nice mess that apparently was an ideal habitat for cheese skippers. I inadvertently created a two-stage feeding system for chickens, feeding chicken feed to skippers and then feeding the skippers to the chickens. That’s terribly inefficient from the entropic standpoint, but I don’t think the chickens mind. They prefer live bugs over peas, sunflower seeds, and corn any chance they can get them.
Once the chickens figured out what was going on, they began tearing through the capped layer of spoiled feed to get at the larvae, which were all in a concentrated layer about one inch below the surface. Feathers flew. Larvae leaped. Chickens chortled.