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Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 11:03 UK

10 ways to swat a fly

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

They buzz irritably and contaminate food. So when Barack Obama slapped dead a fly during a news interview, some people would have been looking for tips. What's the most effective method?

Obama swats fly mid-interview

Attempts to swat flies usually end in fluster, breathlessness and frustration.

But for the man described as the most powerful in the world - yes, he can kill a fly with a single blow.

Halting his television interview momentarily as a fly landed on his left hand, President Obama hit it with his right. "I got the sucker," he declared, as the corpse fell to the White House carpet.

So what is the best way to swat a fly? Here are 10 suggestions.

1. Do it early in the day, says Max Barclay, an insect expert at the Natural History Museum. "Because they are cold-blooded, the reactions of insects depend on the temperature of the air. Early in the morning or in the evening they will be a bit dopey, but in the heat of the day they will be very quick." But expect failure. Barack Obama was probably quite lucky, unless he's been practising. "Nine times out of 10, a human will come off second best. Flies have a phenomenal barrage of senses, half of which we don't have."

2. Approach from behind, goes one theory, because flies take off backwards. Anecdotal evidence suggests some people find this a successful method. But the fact that flies have 360-degree vision and can jump in any direction makes it improbable.

Flies usually outwit humans

3. Aim ahead, rather than at, the fly say researchers in the US, who found that within milliseconds of sensing a threat, flies get their body ready to take off forward, backwards or sideways. "Given that they are going to be jumping away from the swat, it's best to aim slightly ahead of it," says Michael Dickinson, of the California Institute of Technology. Although how far ahead depends on the speed of the fly. He's been studying take-offs for five years, using video that provides 5,400 frames a second of a fly's precise motion when threatened with a swatting.

4. The old-fashioned slap, now known as The Barack. Stay still, keep focused, take aim and attack. Ideal for a fast hand and if the fly is stationary. And if the world's media is in attendance, YouTube fame beckons.

5. Implements with holes are more effective, says Dr Peter Barnard, director of science at the Royal Entomological Society. "It's the air pressure they detect and fly away from. It's not so much that they see something coming, but they feel the pressure wave in front of the object." This is due to their coating of microscopic hairs, highly sensitive to air movement. Practising what he preaches, Dr Barnard uses a plastic pistol that fires a holed circular device. A fly swat gun, if you will.

6. Use chopsticks, like the Karate Kid. Under guidance from his instructor Mr Miyagi, teenager Daniel LaRusso demonstrates his speed and hand-eye coordination, and learns an important life lesson at the same time. Mr Miyagi's advice - "Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything" - features on T-shirts in homage to the 1984 film.

7. Put hands either side of the fly, facing each other, so it doesn't know where the threat comes from, then clap the air a few inches above it. Wash hands immediately to remove the contents of the fly's stomach (don't ask).

8. Get a gadget. At the hi-tech end of the market there's an electric-powered mesh, a dome complete with pheromone and an insecticide aerosol. For those on a budget, there are decorative window stickers or pens to coat windows with transparent insecticide, and fly-swats cost as little as £2. Animal rights organisation PETA, which advocates compassion for flies, says there are humane bug-catching devices available too.

9. Improvise with a rolled-up newspaper (bear in mind point five, above), or a spray window-cleaner.

10. The humane approach - to capture but not kill. "I like to grab them in my hands," says Mr Barclay, who's had plenty of practice. "When you want them for a collection you don't want them damaged. Hit them with the palm of your hand and close your fingers over it." And if you're not an entomologist, release the fly outside. It will make you feel better.

Below is a selection of your comments.

A hand-pumped air pistol, without a BB or pellet, creates a high velocity wind sheer that will compromise the structural integrity of a fly, without splattering it. You can then pick it up with a Kleenex or toilet paper, and finish it off...
Tackdriver, Winsted CT, USA

Buy a border collie and train it.
Jack Sterling, London

If you've got five minutes spare, then don't let the fly land and rest. Eventually it will get exhausted and then you can easily go in for the kill.
Simon Hartley, Dukinfield

My car seems to do a pretty good job of it. Obviously this is whilst travelling at 60mph on an open road, not very practical indoors.
Geraint, Cardiff

Buy yourself some pitcher plants, sundews or fly traps. Great for the kids to learn about and a natural way of getting rid of the flies. Or, if you want to go the whole hog, buy yourself a Nephilia species spider (a large Orb-Web Spider) and allow it to set up a web in your room. Job done. Not sure many will opt for the latter though...
Johanna Turner, Redhill, Surrey

Wear flip-flops. A ready-made fly swat available at all times! My blue ones did a good job last week, although I had to wipe the window afterwards (ugh!).
Kate, Oxford, UK

Wait 'til the fly settles on a surface (usually a window). Approach it slowly with an upturned glass (it must be a glass as its transparent). The fly will not move. It is then trapped inside the glass. Slide something flat in between the surface and the rim of the glass and release the fly outside. Works every time.
Kevin Goult, Birmingham

The best swatter is a thin rubber band. Cut it so its not a loop, wait for the fly to settle, then ping it with the rubber band. It's like a whip.
Stuart Martin, Wolverhampton, UK

I always find a slow approach until you see the fly tense (it'll suddenly jerk its legs), I can usually get about 6-10 inches away, followed by a fast final slap works best.
Mark Hooton, Guernsey

My cat is awesome at catching flies. He will be laying down when an unsuspecting fly will buzzes past him, he simply plucks it out the air - admittedly when he lifts his paw up it flies away, but it's still impressive.
James Embleton, Peterborough

I find the easiest way for the lazy among us is to kill the fly while air freshening your house. It's not terribly humane but the chemicals within most household cleaners will quickly render any insect; flies, moths, etc unable to move or fly, then I just put it out of its misery. All that plus the room in which the killing took place smells much nicer too.
Paul Goldstraw, Canterbury

Visiting my brother in Australia, I noticed him using a device like a small toy gun which fired a circular plastic disc a couple of inches in diameter at the fly. You had to get up fairly close before firing but I guess the idea was that as you were firing a disc it didn't matter too much which direction the fly took off in. My brother was quite proficient at it.
Helen, Berkshire

Suck them up with a dust-buster and release out the window - everyone's a winner!
Richard Baker, Preston, England

I've always found that trying to grab them in mid air is a good method that usually works for me. But, if the fly is stationary, if you move your finger towards it in a large circular motion, getting smaller the closer to the fly you get, spiralling towards the little cretin, it doesn't seem to sense the pressure or be above to watch the movement, so once you are within striking distance you can pounce, and there is your trophy, albeit squished and on the end of your finger.
John Wilkes, Gateshead

You missed out the best option of all and it works! Flies see things through compound eyes and therefore see hundreds of slightly different images at the same time, a bit like holding a crystal up to your eye and seeing many images. They also see many more frames per second compared to us who see around 25 frames per second. Therefore they are extremely good at detecting rapid motion. But this strength is their weakness - they can not see things which move very slowly! Therefore all you do is stretch out one finger and very, very slowly move the finger towards the fly until you can gently place it on its back and press it against the surface. You can then slide a piece of paper under it and take it outside to fly away (albeit probably with a couple of broken legs). I have demonstrated this a number of times at the dinner table in Germany, where flies are attracted to the platters of cold meat and cheese which seem to accompany every meal.
Elliott Young, London

The flick of a tea towel works very well. The towel creates less air pressure moving towards the fly. The towel is faster than the movement of the human hand (which is incredibly slow from the fly's point of view). The towel has a wider surface area than most objects as it spreads while travelling through the air. And there isn't the messy impact referred to in the main article. For a smaller and slower moving fly (which is still fast for us humans) the two handed clap motion works best. Air pressure moves in two directions towards the fly, the shock wave created by the hand clap can stun or kill the fly (even if you slightly miss). As for the early morning insect, the finger flick is best as the finger moves very fast and you can approach quite close as they don't move in time.
Roger Bennett, Aberystwyth

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