Catching Flies

“You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” We’ve all heard this proverb, which has been around in English since at least 1744, when Benjamin Franklin put it in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. But is it true?

I always assumed it was, since I would much rather eat honey than vinegar. But my son pointed out that I am not a fly, and flies are known to like things that we find quite disgusting. So I did an experiment to find out the truth.

mint plant with bowls

mint plant with test bowls

Fortunately (or not), I have a test plot: a “chocolate peppermint” plant that I brought indoors last fall. It is nothing like the lush, overflowing plant I rescued from winter; probably it wants more sunshine.( I do too. Right now, the middle of January, it doesn’t even start to get light until 8:30 in the morning, and is fully dark again by 6 pm.)

But the peppermint plant was perfect for my experiment, because it is literally crawling with tiny flies. They don’t eat the leaves, so must find whatever they do eat in the soil, which is where they seem to live when they are not flying around the rest of my house.

To conduct the experiment, I took three identical little bowls, and put one substance in each of them:

  • honey (actually corn syrup with a little water to keep it from getting hard)
  • vinegar
  • water to act as a control (that is, to make sure the flies aren’t just falling into the bowls by accident).
bolws of honey, vinegar, and water, with flies

bowls with captured flies

Then I waited. A week later, I took out the bowls and counted the flies. The results?

  • Water: 3 flies
  • “Honey”: 16 flies
  • Vinegar: 19 flies

So the proverb is not true! You catch more flies with vinegar than with honey (or corn syrup).

So what implication does this have for our daily lives? I interpret the proverb to mean that if you are nice to people, they are more likely to do what you want than if you are not nice to them. But given the experimental evidence, am I now supposed to snarl at my husband so he will talk to me? Or stomp on people’s toes in the checkout line to make them let me in? That’s just silly!

Fortunately, this result is already known to lots of people who deal with fruit flies. It seems that the little devils think vinegar smells like fruit, and it confuses them. You can make nifty traps for them with vinegar (apple cider vinegar recommended, but my plain vinegar worked fine too) mixed with dish soap. The dish soap gets rid of the surface tension on the water so they fall into the water and can’t get out. Or put a paper funnel into the jar with the vinegar so they can’t crawl out. Or put plastic wrap over top and punch holes in. Other people recommend mixing honey or a piece of ripe banana with the vinegar to make it smell even more attractive.

In any case, I now feel better about my moral dilemma. Not one of the people I know confuses fruit and vinegar. As my son said when all this started, we are not flies. So I can keep treating people nicely and just accept that folk wisdom need not be scientifically accurate to be useful.

Well, better go. I want to try out some of those other vinegar-based traps and see if I can get rid of my little pests. If not, I may have to send the peppermint plant outside and buy a new one in the spring. (I can’t do it right now anyway, because we just had a blizzard and the back door won’t open until we shovel it out.)

I hope I get to keep my plant. But if I can’t, I’m pretty sure that what’s waiting for the little varmints outside will be even more effective than vinegar.

winter snow

Outside my front door in January

PostScript: Fruit flies may like cider vinegar, but whatever little critters I have (fungus gnats?) don’t. After 3 days, I didn’t catch one fly, even after I took out the paper funnel to make it easier to access. So the plant is outside in the snow.


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