Arthropods 11
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Southern California Arthropods (Mostly) #11: Flies (Order Diptera)
© W.P. Armstrong Updated 24 July 2020
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Robber Flies (Order Diptera: Family Asilidae)
Powerful, Predacaeous Flies That Capture Bees

Two species of robber flies: The right fly is called the bumble bee robber fly.

Bumble bee robber fly clinging to a fence while it feeds on a honey bee.

Tachinid Flies (Order Diptera: Family Tachinidae)

Large, Hairy Flies That Visit Fall-Blooming Flowers

A large tachinid fly in Zion National Park (possibly Paradejeania rutiliodes). This species frequently visits rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus) during the fall months. Tachinid larvae commonly parasitize other insects. In fact, tachinids are second only to parasitic wasps in controlling insect populations.

A large tachinid fly in Zion National Park gently sitting on the author's index finger. This species frequently visits flowering rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus) during the fall months.

Another handsome species of tachinid fly (Adejeania ?).

A beneficial tachinid fly similar to the genus Archytas. The larvae feed on caterpillars, incl. destructive cutworms.

Bot Flies (Oestridae and Cuterebridae)

Bot flies are host-specific flies that infect rodents, rabbits, livestock, and humans. Adult bot flies of the genus Cuterebra are large and bee-like and do not feed or bite. Females deposit eggs around the openings of small mammal nests, burrows, and along runways. Host animals become infested as they pass through contaminated areas. The eggs hatch in response to the heat from a nearby host. The larva enters the host's body through the mouth or nostrils, or through mucous membranes. After penetration the larva migrates to various species-specific subcutaneous sites. The full-grown larva of wood rat and rabbit bot flies is a large, spiny grub called a "bot." The mature larva lies just beneath the skin, often at the neck or shoulder. It forms a swollen nodule (warble) with a hole (warble pore) in the center through which it breathes.

When the larva is ready to pupate, it emerges through the warble pore and drops to the ground where it forms a protective puparium (pupal case). The adult bot fly emerges from the puparium and superficially resembles a large, dark bee with a white, fuzzy underside. It lacks mouthparts and does not feed. Two species of Cuterebra in southern California include C. tenebrosa that parasitizes wood rats (Neotoma fuscipes) and C. lepivora that parasitizes cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus audubonii).

Brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani) with bot fly (Cuterebra) warble on its throat.

Adult bot fly (Cuterebra sp.) after emerging from its puparium. The end of the puparium (top center) was broken off as the larva pushed out.

Adult bot fly (Cuterebra sp.) after emerging from its puparium. The underside of adult fly is covered with fuzzy white hairs. It has no mouthparts and does not feed.

Close-up view of the face of an adult bot fly (Cuterebra sp.).

A Bot Fly That Emerged From A Human

Larva of a human bot fly that emerged from an opening in the skin.
[Photograph by Christopher S. Boykin. Adult fly courtesy of USDA.]

The human bot fly (Dermatobia hominis) belongs to the insect order Diptera, family Cuterebridae. The adult is a stout-bodied, hairy fly native to Central and South America. In fact, the above larval hitchhiker was "picked up" in Costa Rica. The egg-laden adult female fly temporarily captures a mosquito and attaches her eggs to its body. This encounter presumably occurs during the hours of dusk or later. When the mosquito lands on the warm body of a human for its blood meal, the bot fly eggs hatch and one or more pear-shaped larvae (maggots) fall to the skin surface. The larva bores into the skin and leaves a small "breathing pore."

When it has penetrated the epidermal and dermal layers of the skin, it is firmly held in place by anal hooks and rows of barbs on its body (see image to the left). It takes about five to ten weeks for the larva to complete its development. During this time it feeds on blood tissue within its subcutaneous burrow.
When mature, it emerges from the breathing pore and drops to the ground where it pupates and gradually transforms into a winged adult through metamorphosis. The adult has nonfunctional mouthparts and does not feed. Its primary purpose is to mate and perpetuate the species by capturing another mosquito. Insects truly have some of the most complex and remarkable life cycles of all the creatures on earth.

Flesh Flies (Order Diptera: Family Sarcophagidae)

A flesh fly (possibly the genus Sarcophaga). Note the broad pads on the feet and red-tipped abdomen. The larvae of this species live inside carcasses and other decomposing organic matter, such as discarded meat and fish. They commonly land on sweaty arms and legs while you are hiking. The adults are attracted to the stinch of dead animals, such as this fly attracted to a dead mouse in my garage.

Blow Flies (Order Diptera: Family Calliphoridae)

With the odor of fresh dog feces, the lantern stinkhorn (Lysurus mokusin) attracts green bottle flies (Phaenicia sericata) to disperse its spores. The decaying "lantern tip" also shows an Argentine ant (Iridomyrmex humilis = Linepithema humile).

Common blow fly (probably Calliphora lilaea syn. Eucalliphora lilaea). The adults are often found in garages and houses when they emerge from carcasses of poisoned or trap-killed mice and rats. The upper bristles along the mouthpart cavity are more dense and stout compared with the fewer and finer upper bristles of the similar European blue bottle fly (C. vicina).

Fruit Flies (Order Diptera: Family Tephritidae)
Mediterranean Fruit Fly or Medfly (Ceratitis capitata)

There are several species of destructive fruit flies introduced into southern California, including the oriental fruit fly (Dacas dorsalis), Mexican fruit fly (Anastrepha ludens), walnut husk fly (Rhagoletis completa), cherry fruit fly (Rhagoletis indifferens), and the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae). Certainly one of the most notorious species is the Mediterranean fruit fly or medfly (Ceratitis capitata). The medfly is apparently native to the the sub-Saharan region of Africa; however, it has spread throughout the Mediterranean region. The larvae feed on more than 250 species of vegetables and fruits, including avocado, citrus, apples, peppers and guavas. The adult fly is 3 to 6 mm in length with a colorful, distinctly marked body and wings. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the California State Department of Agriculture waged a major campaign against the medfly, including the spraying of infested areas with malathion droplets from helicopters. This resulted in a public uproar because of the toxic rain falling on neighborhoods and the impact of this spraying on the environment. An environmentally safer method of biological control included the radiation and sterilization of millions of male flies that were introduced into infested areas. This increased the odds that females would encounter sterile males and would not be fertilized. Sterile males have fluorescent dye markings and can be readily identified under UV light.

A Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata) photographed in Escondido, California. This is probably a male because large numbers of sterile males have been introduced into this area for biological control of this serious crop pest. The fly in above image is 6 mm in length.

Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata) & U.S. penny (one cent) photographed with Nikon D-90 and 60mm Micro Nikkor AF-S F/2.8G ED Macro Lens & Phoenix ring flash. Right: Medfly (6 mm long) and penny (19 mm in diameter)

  See Size Of Penny Used In Wayne's Word Articles  

Olive Fruit Fly (Order Diptera: Family Tephritidae)
Olive Fruit Fly (Bactrocera oleae)

3 Damaged olive fruits where female olive fruit fly has oviposited. Olive fly larvae hatch from the eggs and feed inside olive fruit. They later metamorphose into pupae that give rise to more of these destructive flies. One pupa is shown at top of image.

Two western cherry fruit flies (Rhagoletis indifferens) caught on a sticky trap hanging from branch of a wild bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata). This fly also attacks fruit of the cultivated sweet cherry.

  Fruit Flies and Wild Cherries In Northern Montana  

Fruit Flies (Order Diptera: Family Drosophilidae)
The Laboratory Fruit Fly (Drosophila melanogaster)

Mendel's classic 1865 paper on the principles (Laws) of genetics was rediscovered in the early 1900s. Within a fews years after this important scientific discovery, the common fruit fly or vinegar fly became a favorite "model" organism for research in the field of genetics. In fact, much of our knowledge in the fields of heredity, physiology, evolution and microbial pathogenesis has come from this minute fly. Although it is called a fruit fly, it belongs to a different family from the agricultural pest fruit flies of the family Tephritidae. Drosophila is commonly found around rotting fruit in markets, homes, and certain salad bars that I have visited. Like other species of insects, Drosophila melanogaster has an enormous reproductive potential in a relatively short period of time. Starting with 2 fruit flies, assume that each female lays 100 eggs every two weeks (25 generations per year). Applying a simple geometric progression to fruit flies, how many flies will the 25th generation have at the end of a year?

1.19 x 1041

To appreciate the number of flies in the 25th generation, assume that the flies are packed together 1000 to a cubic inch. This number of flies would fill a ball 96 million miles in diameter, greater than the distance between the earth and the sun! Of course this is only theoretical. The natural control forces of nature will prevent this staggering fruit fly explosion from ever happening. In fact, there is a rule of nature that states "survival rate is inversely proportional to fecundity." In other words, animals with a high production of offspring (high fecundity) have a low survival rate among their offspring. In worms, insects and fish that lay thousands of eggs, only a few of their eggs will ever reach maturity.

  See Wayne's Word Principles of Population growth  

An adult female fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) next to the "eye" of an ordinary sewing needle. Red eyes are a dominant trait and white eyes are recessive. The left front leg is extended in this image. Photographed with Nikon D-90 and 60mm Micro Nikkor AF-S F/2.8G ED Macro Lens & Phoenix ring flash.

Size of Pin Head & Sewing Needle Used in Wayne's Word Images

Diploid somatic cells of Drosophila melanogaster contain three pairs of autosomes plus an X/Y pair, a total of eight chromosomes (2n = 8). The sequenced genome of 165 million base pairs contains about 14,000 protein-coding genes which comprise about 20 percent of the total genome. About 75 percent of known human disease genes have a recognized match in the genetic code of fruit flies, and 50 percent of fly protein sequences have mammalian analogues. Drosophila is being used as a genetic model for several human diseases including the neurodegenerative disorders Parkinson's, Huntington's, spinocerebeller ataxia, and Alzheimer's disease. This fly is also being used to study mechanisms underlying aging and oxidative stress, immunity, diabetes, and cancer. Research on Drosophila is also providing answers to the cause of autism.

Sarah Palin's Uninformed Comment About Fruit Fly Research

On October 24, 2009, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave a speech where she ridiculed government earmark spending. "And sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like ..." she grinned, shaking her head side to side, her voice rising to a facetious pitch "... fruit fly research in Paris, France." Feeling in tune with her audience, she added, "I kid you not." Considering that this same woman said "dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time," contradicting 200 years of paleontological research, you can easily see that she is unaware of, or has no understanding of the facts. Even though the actual research in Paris, France involved the related olive fruit fly of the family Tephritidae, her statement is just as ignorant. The olive fruit fly causes countless millions of dollars in crop damages. This is valuable agricultural research, not to mention that some of the findings may be translated into Drosophila genetics.

An adult female fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) and Lincoln Memorial on back (tails) of a U.S. penny (one cent). Photographed with Nikon D-90 and 60mm Micro Nikkor AF-S F/2.8G ED Macro Lens & Phoenix ring flash. Drosophila is 3 mm long and penny is 19 mm in diameter.

  Randomized Penny Flipper: 50-50 Ratio  

Moth Flies (Order Diptera: Family Psychodidae)

Drain or Bathroom Fly (Clogmia albipunctata): A Tiny Fly In Your Shower

The moth fly family (Psychodidae) includes some minute species of flies. They are called moth flies because of the conspicuous hairs on their wings that are easily shed like the scales of moth wings. In addition, their bristly, many-segmented antennae superficially resemble a moth. One species called the drain fly or bathroom fly (Clogmia albipunctata) has a wingspan of only 3.0 mm (1/8 of an inch), about the size of a tiny gnat. It is also known in the literature as Telmetoscopus albipunctatus). Although seldom seen by the casual observer, this fly is a common synanthropic (living with humans) species with a widespread distribution throughout tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Indoors it is often found on the walls of bathrooms, showers and washrooms. According to Dr. Charles L. Hogue (1993), the brown, worm-like larva develops in organic muck that accumulates outdoors in shallow pools and tree holes. It also develops indoors in sink traps, drains and dead-flow areas of the household plumbing. This interesting species has also been found in sewers and wastewater treatment plants.

Blood-sucking sand flies of the subfamily Phlebotominae are one of the unpleasant "No-See-Ums" that attack humans on beautiful beaches of Florida and Caribbean islands. They are primarily active in the early morning and late afternoon when the beach sands have cooled. Some species are vectors of tropical diseases.

Adult drain or bathroom Fly (Clogmia albipunctata) at Palomar College next to the head of an ordinary straight pin.

A drain fly (Clogmia albipunctata). The wing span is only 3.0 mm (1/8 in.)

The transparenent, membranous wing of a drain fly (Clogmia albipunctata) is covered with hairs. The hairs are attached to veins and are easily detached.

The following two references describe cases of myiasis (infestation by fly maggots) in humans caused by the larvae of Clogmia albipunctata:

 Mohammed, N., and K.G.V. Smith. 1976. "Nasopharyngeal Myiasis Caused by the Larvae of Clogmia (= Telmetoscopus) albipunctatus Williston (Psychodidae, Diptera)." Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Vol. 70 (1): 91.

 Smith, K.G.V. 1979. "Intestinal Myiasis in Man Caused by the Larvae of Clogmia (= Telmetoscopus) albipunctatus Williston (Psychodidae, Diptera)." Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Vol. 73 (3): 349-350.

Compost Moth Fly (Psychoda sp.): A Tiny Fly In Your Composter

This minute fly with a hairy body & wings was tentatively identified as the genus Psychoda of the moth fly family Psychodidae. The body (thorax + abdomen) is approximately 2.0 mm long. Including the wings, it is roughly the size of a drain fly (Clogmia).

This compost moth fly was parasitized by a minute mite with a body roughly the size of an ordinary grain of table salt (NaCl).

Humpbacked Fly (Order Diptera: Family Phoridae)

Horse Flies (Order Diptera: Family Tabanidae)

Horse fly (Tabanus punctifer), a large biting fly in the family Tabanidae.

Crane Flies (Order Diptera: Family Tipulidae)

The Most Misidentified Flies In Southern California

Crane flies are often mistaken for giant mosquitoes. Although crane flies and mosquitoes both belong to the insect order Diptera (true flies), they actually belong to entirely different families. They are often called "mosquito hawks," although they do not prey on mosquitoes. The soft, fragile mouthparts of crane flies make them incapable of biting. In addition, their long, clumsy legs are very fragile and break off easily. Crane flies are attracted to lights and often sit on windowsills, walls and doorways. They commonly enter houses during the evening as you walk through your doorway.

The common crane fly (Tipula sp.) compared with a U.S. penny.

Crane flies develop from large, worm-like larvae called "leather jackets" because of the brown color of their skin. The larvae of terrestrial species live in moist soil or leaf mold where they feed on decaying wood and vegetation, fungi, mosses, and the roots of herbaceous plants. In some species the larvae are completely aquatic and live in ponds and streams. When fully grown the larvae metamorphose into pupae. They are very abundant in weedy fields in spring, especially during years with high rainfall and bountiful annual grasses and herbs. Often swarms of adults appear after mowing. Like many other insects, the adults are relatively short-lived and their main purpose is to mate and perpetuate the species.

The brown larva of a crane fly.

Size relationships used in Wayne's Word articles.

Beware Of False Pennies Used In Size Relationships

Wayne's Trivia Note #576 (23 April 2019)

It's crane fly (Tipula sp.) season in San Diego County. Erroneously called "mosquito hawks," these harmless, long-legged flies don't kill anything. In fact, they typically don't even feed as adults. They only live for a week or two, and their main purpose as adults is to find a mate and pass on their genes (DNA)! They spend the majority of their lives as larvae in grassy fields. There are literally thousands of species. For more information, go to Iowa State University, Dept. of Entomology.

Mosquito (Order Diptera: Family Culicidae)

Well-Known Flies In Southern California

The mosquito family is readily identified, particularly if a female mosquito is sucking blood out of your arm through her long proboscis. Only the female "bites" (sucks blood), the male feeds on nectar and fruit juices or not at all. She needs the proteins from her blood meal to develop eggs. She pierces the skin with her long proboscis, tipped with minute cutting organs. An anticoagulant is secreted into the wound to keep the blood flowing. Depending on the species, mosquitoes also bite other infected host animals, such as birds horses and rodents, and are the vector of a number of dreaded diseases, including malaria, encephalitis, denge fever, yellow fever and West Nile virus.

Female house mosquito (probably the genus Culex). Males have a bushy antenna.

Close-up view of head of female mosquito.

Fungus Gnats (Order Diptera: Family Mycetophilidae)

Fungus gnat (cf. family Mycetophilidae)

Bee Flies (Order Diptera: Family Bombyliidae)

This little hump-backed bee fly belongs to genus Geron. It is roughly the size of a mosquito with a long, rigid proboscis and pair of short antennae typical of bee flies (Bombyliidae). Its flight is erratic with short up and down movements. It was identified by Dr. Neal Evenhuis of the Bishop Museum, Hawaii.

A species of bee fly in the very large family Bombyliidae. It belongs to the genus Villa. This interesting fly is about the size of a honey bee with a fuzzy body similar to many bees.
Bee flies have a long, rigid proboscis for sipping nectar from flowers. On warm, sunny days bee flies are often seen hovering over flowers or resting on the ground. While hovering, they probe flowers for nectar with their long proboscis, like miniature hummingbirds. They are fast-moving flyers and probably evade predators lurking in the flowers (ambush bugs and crab spiders) by not actually landing on the flower. In the following image, pupal cases can be seen in or around small holes in the ground dug by solitary bees (family Andrenidae). The larvae of bee flies are parasitic on the larvae of solitary bees within their burrows. The bee fly in the following images was identified as Bombylius montanus by Dr. Neal Evenhuis of the Bishop Museum, Hawaii. They are typically parasitic on bees of the genus Anthophora (Apidae). According to Dr. Evenhuis, this is a relatively rare species also known from Walker Pass in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Bee fly pupal cases within or near the burrows of solitary bees.

This furry fly has a long, rigid proboscis that it uses for sipping nectar from flowers.

  See Bee Flies & Their Host--A Solitary Burrowing Bee  

Syrphid Flies (Order Diptera: Family Syrphidae)

Alpine daisy and syrphid fly photographed on Logan Pass, Glacier National Park.

Cactus Fly (Copestylum mexicana). The larva feeds on rotting cacti.

The following link shows a syrphid fly hovering in midair. It was taken through LCD
screen at arm's length on a hand-held Sony T-9 at a distance of 4 inches (10 cm).
This fast-moving fly is difficult to get close to while it is in flight. Very difficult photo.
     Syrphid Fly Hovering in Midair  

Wayne's "Remember When" #65 (23 July 2020)

I identified this beneficial metallic green fly with red eyes at my home in Twin Oaks Valley. I incorrectly thought it was the species I remembered from the 1950s in Arcadia, CA; however, The Wing Movement Of My Green Long-Legged Fly Did Not Match The Arcadia Fly From My Childhood! CORRECTION: Update 27 July 2020. The wings of Arcadia fly moved like oars in a rowboat: The fly in Arcadia was not a green long-legged fly. It was a "Boatman Fly" (Pogonortalis doclea) introduced from Australia. See following youTube video: Boatman Fly

Boatman Fly
(Pogonortalis doclea)
Family: Platystomatidae
By Graham Wise
from Brisbane, Australia
CC BY 2.0,

Class Insecta: Order Phthiraptera

Biting & Sucking Lice: Small, Flightless, Parasitic Flies

Biting Lice: Suborder (Order) Mallophaga

True lice are very specialized, wingless insects that live as ectoparasites on their host. They have clawilike legs that enable them to cling tenaciously to feathers and hair in spite of their host's preening and scratching. They include two very different suborders, the Mallophaga and Anoplura.

Broad-headed bird louse (Menacanthus sp.).

Chewing lice belong to the insect suborder Mallophaga. The louse shown above lives on the skin of domestic fowl and game birds. Chewing lice typically gnaw on fragments of feathers, hair and skin with a pair of mandibles. Each leg is tipped with a sharp claw which can be very irritating to the host animal. The head is much broader than human lice, and they are often called broad-headed bird lice. Sucking lice (suborder Anoplura) have a set of long hypodermic-like stylets to pierce the skin and withdraw blood of mammals. They include the head lice, body lice and crab lice of humans.

  Using Lice DNA To Date The First Clothing Worn By People  

Sucking Lice: Suborder (Order) Anoplura

Sucking lice belong to the suborder Anoplura. Human sucking lice include body lice, crab lice and head lice (Pediculus humanus). [The plant genus Pedicularis is called "lousewort" and is derived from the old belief that these plants, when ingested, were responsible for lice infestations in livestock.] Anoplurans use a set of long hypodermic-like stylets to pierce the skin and withdraw blood. After ingesting blood their body becomes swollen and shows a dark clot of blood in their abdomen. There are two forms of human sucking lice, the head louse (P. humanus capitis) and the body louse (P. humanus humanus). The head louse infests the hair of the scalp and the body louse lives in clothing near the body surface. Human lice are also known as "cooties" and their eggs attached to hairs are called "nits." Human lice cause local itching, but the discomfort is minor compared with the misery of the bacterium they can transmit called Rickettsia prowazeki. This minute bacterium causes "Epidemic Typhus," a serious disease that has devastated populations in medieval Europe. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is caused by Rickettsia rickettsii and is transmitted to humans by various species of ticks, most commonly the dog tick and wood ticks.

Human head louse compared in size with the "eye" of an ordinary sewing needle. Photo taken with a hand held Nikon D-90 and Phoenix RF46N Ring Flash using a 60mm Micro Nikkor AF-S F/2.8G ED Macro Lens.

Human head louse compared in size with cubical grains of ordinary table salt (NaCl). An average grain is about 0.3 mm on a side. Photo taken with a hand held Nikon D-90 and Phoenix RF46N Ring Flash using a 60mm Micro Nikkor AF-S F/2.8G ED Macro Lens.

Human head louse compared in size with the "eye" of an ordinary sewing needle. Photo taken with a taken with a Sony W-300 digital camera mounted on a Bausch & Lomb stereo dissecting microscope. Magnification 20x

Magnified view of a human head louse Photo taken with a taken with a Sony W-300 digital camera mounted on an Olympus compound laboratory grade microscope. Magnification 40x.

Using Lice DNA To Date The First Clothing Worn By People

One of the most novel uses for DNA sequencing is the determination of when humans first began wearing clothing. According to Mark Stoneking and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institiute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, we started wearing clothing about 70,000 years ago. This date is based on genes of human sucking lice. It correlates with the approximate time when the body louse evolved from the human head louse and corresponds to the time when the body louse's habitat (clothing) became widespread. This is also the time when Homo sapiens sapiens began moving out of Africa into cooler regions of Europe.

Stoneking and his colleagues Ralf Kittler and Manfred Kayser compared mitochondrial DNA sequences from head and body lice. The greater the difference in sequences between the two forms of lice, the older their evolutionary split. Human lice from Africa are more genetically diverse than lice from other parts of the world, indicating that the species originated in Africa. Head lice are more diverse than body lice, showing that they are the older group. By comparing the mitochondrial DNA of body lice to chimpanzee lice, Stoneking's team was able to approximate the origin of body lice to around 70,000 years ago. This date correlates well with the growing evidence that modern humans evolved in Africa and migrated northward around 100,000 years ago.

Stoneking is also studying human crab lice (Pthirus pubus) which typically inhabit pubic hair. Human pubic lice are more closely related to gorilla lice than to head lice. Since this sucking louse only inhabits hairy places on the body, it might shed some light on when humans lost their heavy body hair. Crab lice are typically transferred from person to person through sexual intercourse, although they may also be picked up from infested linen, clothing and other sources.

For More Information About The Origin Of Body Lice:

  • Kittler, R., M. Kayser and M. Stoneking. 2003. "Molecular Evolution of Pediculus humanus and the Origin of Clothing." Current Biology 13: 1414 - 1417.


  1. Evans, A.V. 2007. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York, New York.

  2. Hogue, C.L. 1993. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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