Fascinatingly Gross Botfly Facts

The life cycle is incomplete unless the larvae find a mammalian host

Close up of a botfly
London Scientific Films / Getty Images

The botfly is a type of parasitic fly, best known for disturbing images of its larval stage buried in skin and from horror stories of infested people. The botfly is any fly from the family Oestridae. The flies are obligate internal mammalian parasites, which means they can't complete their life cycle unless the larvae have a suitable host. The only species of botfly that parasitizes humans is Dermatobia hominis. Like many species of botfly, Dermatobia grows within the skin. However, other species grow within the host's gut.

Fast Facts: Botfly

  • Common Name: Botfly
  • Scientific Name: Family Oestridae
  • Also Known As: Warble flies, gadflies, heel flies
  • Distinguishing Features: Hairy fly with a metallic "bot" appearance. Infestation is characterized by an irritated bump with a hole in the center for the larval breathing tube. Movement may sometimes be felt within the lump.
  • Size: 12 to 19 mm (Dermatobia hominis)
  • Diet: Larvae require mammalian flesh. Adults do not eat.
  • Lifespan: 20 to 60 days after hatching (Dermatobia hominis)
  • Habitat: The human botfly lives primarily in Central and South America. Other botfly species are found worldwide.
  • Conservation Status: Not evaluated
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Diptera
  • Family: Oestroidae
  • Fun Fact: Botfly larvae are edible and are said to taste like milk.

Distinguishing Features

With its hairy, striped body, you could say a botfly looks like a cross between a bumblebee and a house fly. Others liken a botfly to a living "bot," or miniature flying robot because the reflective hairs give the fly a metallic appearance. The human botfly, Dermatobia, has yellow and black bands, but other species have different coloration. The human botfly is 12 to 19 mm in length, with hair and spines on its body. The adult lacks biting mouthparts and does not feed.

In some species, botfly eggs are easily identified. For example, equine botflies lay eggs that resemble tiny drops of yellow paint on the horse's coat.

The fly is best known for its larval stage or maggot. Larvae that infest skin grow under the surface but leave a small opening through which the maggot breathes. The larvae irritate the skin, producing a swelling, or "warble." Dermatobia larvae have spines, which worsen the irritation.

Habitat

The human botfly lives in Mexico, Central America, and South America. People who live in other areas generally get infected while traveling. Other species of botfly are found across the globe, primarily but not exclusively in warm tropical and subtropical regions. These species infest pets, livestock, and wild animals.

Life Cycle

Cuterebra sp. botfly larva
Katja Schulz / Flickr / CC by 2.0

The botfly life cycle always involves a mammalian host. Adult flies mate and then the female deposits up to 300 eggs. She might lay eggs directly on the host, but some animals are wary of botflies, so the flies have evolved to use intermediate vectors, including mosquitoes, houseflies, and ticks. If an intermediate is used, the female grasps it, rotates it, and attaches her eggs (under the wings, for flies and mosquitoes).

When the botfly or its vector lands on a warm-blooded host, the increased temperature stimulates the eggs to drop onto the skin and burrow into it. The eggs hatch into larvae, which extend a breathing tube up through the skin to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. The larvae (instars) grow and molt, finally dropping from the host into the soil to form pupae and molt into adult flies.

Some species do not develop in the skin but are ingested and burrow into the host's intestine. This happens in animals that lick themselves or rub their noses on body parts. After several months to a year, the larvae pass through the feces to complete the maturation process.

In most cases, botflies do not kill their host. However, sometimes the irritation caused by the larvae leads to skin ulceration, which can result in infection and death.

Removal

Botfly larvae in deer skin
Botfly larvae grow under the skin. Avalon_Studio / Getty Images

Infestation with larval flies is termed myiasis. While it is a characteristic of the botfly life cycle, it occurs with other types of flies, too. Several methods are used to remove fly larvae. The preferred method is to apply a topical anesthetic, slightly enlarge the opening for the mouthparts, and use forceps to remove the larvae.

Other methods include:

  • Using a venom extractor syringe from a first aid kit to suck the larvae from the skin.
  • Oral dosing with the antiparasitic avermectin, which leads to the spontaneous emergence of the larvae.
  • Flooding the opening with iodine, which causes the fly to poke out of the hole, facilitating its removal.
  • Applying the sap of the matatorsalo tree (found in Costa Rica), which kills the larvae but does not remove it.
  • Sealing the breathing hole with petroleum jelly, white glue mixed with insecticide, or nail polish, which suffocates the larvae. The hole is enlarged and the carcass is removed with forceps or tweezers.
  • Applying adhesive tape to the breathing hole, which sticks to the mouthparts and pulls out the larvae when the tape is removed.
  • Forcefully squeezing the warble from the base to push the larvae through the opening.

Killing the larvae before removal, squeezing them out, or pulling them out with tape is not recommended because rupturing the larvae body can cause anaphylactic shock, make removal of the entire body more difficult, and increase the chance of infection.

Avoiding Infestation

The easiest way to avoid getting infested with botflies is to avoid where they live. Since that isn't always practical, the next best tactic is to apply insect repellent to deter flies as well as mosquitoes, wasps, and ticks that can carry fly eggs. Wearing a hat and clothing with long sleeves and pants helps to minimize exposed skin.

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