insect pictures
insect pictures

Will water bags at this restaurant in San Miguel, Mexico really protect guests? See insect pictures.

Photo courtesy of John Wood

Can a bag of water keep flies away?

Perhaps you've visited a restaurant and seen clear, water-filled bags hanging on the doors or cinched up in the outdoor dining area. You might ask, "What's all this about? Some crazy new way to control temperature? A scheme to save money on water pitchers?"

While any effect on temperature is purely accidental, these hanging bags are all about driving pests away. People hang these bags outside their homes, businesses and even in their barns to drive flies away.

Various takes on the water-bag practice exist. Some advocates insist the bag must have flakes of floating tin foil; others say a single penny. A couple of industrious Web sites even offer commercial takes on the concept, selling specially designed water bags to be used as repellents.

­Flies spend much of their time buzzing around such germ havens as dumpsters, carcasses and animal droppings. Then, loaded down with germs, these flies swarm around your chicken sandwich -- it's only natural that you'd want to keep them away. After all, flies aren't just annoying, they carry diseases.

But how can a bag of water help? Does it even work? Experts and amateurs alike are split on the question. On the next two pages, we'll examine both sides of the issue.

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The common housefly boasts an incredible array of eyes which allow it to see in almost every direction.

©iStockphoto.com/Tomasz Pietryszek

Why Flies and Water Bags Just Can't Get Along

The water bag method of fly repellant has many supporters, from restaurant owners to backyard grill-masters. Many success stories ranging from the mild to the miraculous litter the Internet.

So how does the method drive flies away? Some insist the flies perceive the clear liquid as the surface of a body of water. Others claim the insect flies away at the sight of its own magnified reflection. But the most popular reasoning that pops up among entomologists and patent-filing entrepreneurs is simple light refraction.

Refraction takes place when a clear or opaque object, such as a piece of glass or a bag of water, alters the course and velocity of light. The rays of light, which normally travel in a straight line, bend. This effect is responsible for a number of optical illusions, such as mirages, that occasionally baffle humans as well. For more information on refraction, read How Light Works.

In theory, refraction can be just as confusing for some species of insect, especially the housefly. It boasts a highly sensitive array of eyes which allow it to see in multiple directions at once.

The insect's head mostly consists of a pair of large complex eyes, each of which is composed of 3,000 to 6,000 simple eyes. These eyes can't move or focus on objects like human eyes, but they provide the fly with a mosaic view of the world around them. Each simple eye provides one small piece of the puzzle, much like the way a screen's pixel delivers one detail of the larger picture.

A housefly bases its sense of direction on the direction sunlight comes from. Some entomologists believe that when these complex, sensitive eyes experience refracted light, the insect becomes confused and flies away.

While some supporters claim water bags keep all kinds of flying insects away, most report success with complex-eyed insects, like houseflies.

Not convinced? You're not alone. Read the next page to explore some of the doubts about optical fly repellent.

Why would a bag of water deter a housefly from landing on this tasty slab of meat?

James Cotier/Stone/Getty Images

Debunking the Water Bag Myth

There are plenty of people who don't think water bags can repel flies. Critics often classify this theory in the realm of old wives' tales and modern superstition. They chalk success stories up to confusion between correlation and causation.

Imagine a traveling salesman offers you an irresistible bargain: For only $19.95, he'll give you a belt buckle that can prevent shark attacks. You wear it for a week and, sure enough, no shark bites. Does this mean the magic belt buckle works? Is there an actual correlation between wearing the belt buckle and avoiding sharks? Is one the cause of the other? To properly measure this, you'd have to consider how often sharks attacked you prior to wearing the buckle, and the various other reasons sharks may be leaving you alone.

If all the factors are not taken into account, hanging water bags used to repel flies may seem to work due to the placebo effect. In medical terms, this is when people who think they're being treated for a condition feel better, even if that treatment treats nothing at all. The same effect could occur for people who think they are treating a pest problem.

But what if the situation is even worse? What if the placebo actually increases the problem being treated? When Mike Stringham, professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, investigated the use of clear plastic water bags as a fly deterrent, he encountered just such a situation.

Stringham conducted a 13-week field trial by installing commercial, water-based optical fly repellants on two egg farms. Stringham measured the fly activity based on the spots of regurgitated material the flies left after feeding. He concluded that areas equipped with water bags actually experienced higher levels of housefly activity.

However, the study was not conducted under natural lighting conditions. Its purpose was to determine whether the water bags could be used to decrease fly populations on egg farms. The study didn't explore the possibility that direct sunlight increased the water bags' efficiency.

So do bags of water lower the number of houseflies around homes and restaurants? There are reasonable explanations that argue yes and significant evidence that proves no. Regardless, you can still find water bags hanging near restaurant patios and backyard porches across the globe.

For more great information about flies and pest control, browse the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Alward, Joseph F. "Refraction of Light." University of the Pacific Department of Physics. (April 17, 2008) http://sol.sci.uop.edu/~jfalward/refraction/refraction.html
  • Fagerlund, Richard. "Odd method persuades flies to fly away." The San Francisco Chronicle. July 12, 2003. (April 18, 2008) http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/ 2003/07/12/HO256701.DTL
  • Fagerlund, Richard. "Repelling Flies." Home and Garden Television. (April 18, 2008) http://www.hgtv.com/hgtv/gl_diseases_pests_insects/article/0,,hgtv_ 3580_1381705,00.html
  • Fischer-Nagel, Heiderose and Andreas Fisher-Nagel. "The Housefly." Carolrhoda Books, Inc. 1990.
  • Lethen, Jan. "Correlation and Causation." Texas A&M Department of Statistics. Nov. 13, 1996. (April 17, 2008) http://www.stat.tamu.edu/stat30x/notes/node42.html
  • Perez, Robert. "Does theory for avoiding flies at outside meals hold water?" The Orlando Sentinel. Aug. 25, 2006.
  • Shuttlesworth, Dorothy E. "The Story of Flies." Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1970.
  • Stringham, S.M., et al. "Suppression of house flies (Musca Domestica) in egg handling rooms of broiler breeder farms using Fly Fright bags as an optical repellent." Proceedings of 48th Annual Livestock Insect Workers' Conference. June 30, 2004.
  • Stringham, Mike. "Water Bags: Optical Fly Repellent?" 2007 North Carolina Mosquito & Vector Control Annual Meeting. 2007. (April 17, 2008) http://www.ncmvca.org/Annual_Meetings/Water_Bags_Optical_Fly_ Repellent.pdf