Bugs and maggots may crawl out of strawberries washed in salt water. Stay calm, experts say.

Joshua Bote, USA TODAY

The strawberries in your fridge may have some unfriendly pests in them.

A TikTok phenomenon has exposed a little-known fly known as the spotted wing drosophila. After it lays eggs inside strawberries, they hatch and crawl out of strawberries when washed in warm salt water for around a half-hour.

It’s a gross sight: a little white maggot writhing on an otherwise-pristine strawberry.

The creature is most attracted to sweet, fermenting fruit, such as strawberries and blueberries, explains Sriyanka Lahiri, an assistant professor and strawberry and small-crop entomologist at the University of Florida.

"They’re so sneaky that they’re the only pest that can be transported to the grocery store," she said.

Not every strawberry or blueberry you find at the supermarket will be affected by them — nor should you be too concerned about them.

What’s the spotted wing drosophila?

The spotted wing drosophila is an invasive fly that first arrived in the United States in 2008, Lahiri says, eventually making its way nationwide and reaching places as far-flung as her home state of Florida by the following year.

It’s part of the same family as the common fruit fly. Both lay eggs in fruit, and then maggots hatch inside the fruit.

But they differ in the types of fruit they choose. Their common companion tends to lay eggs in damaged or overripe fruit, Lahiri says.

"The female (spotted wing drosophila) lays eggs inside perfect, ripe, undamaged fruit and that’s where you see this problem," she said. 

They have a very powerful ovipositor, or an egg-laying organ, that is serrated like a knife.

"This species is able to make a very fine incision that can’t be seen with a naked eye and lays its eggs in there. When the picker gets the fruit, they can’t even see that there’s an egg because it’s deep in the fruit," she said. 

"That’s why it escapes detection, and it’s not possible to detect that a fruit has been infested."


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Why do they come out after a berry is washed in salt water?

Essentially, Lahiri explained, the SWDs -- and other bugs that may be found in fruit -- are drowning.

What's fascinating about these spotted wing drosophila flies is that they've been able to adapt to living so deep inside berries.

"When the egg gets laid, they have tiny breathing tubes that go out to the surface -- even though they live deep inside the fruit," Lahiri explained.

"They're at risk of getting dehydrated," she said, "so they start escaping."

Something similar may happen, she hypothesized, if a berry is immersed in normal tap water -- but that may not be the case.

How do you get rid of them?

Beyond soaking your fruit in a saline solution, there's not much that can be done to get rid of SWDs once their eggs have been laid in the fruit.

If nothing else, washing your fruit under tap water for around 10 minutes should get rid of pesticides, which she explains is the primary reason you should be washing fruit anyway. 

"The management of this fly is tricky because nothing can be done if the spotted wing drosophila has laid its eggs," she explained.

The best strategy is to ensure that they don't infest berry fields in the first place. Clean field management practices by growers, such as burying damaged fruits, picking fruits as they ripen, ensures that these flies never reach the field in the first place, Lahiri suggests.

Sometimes, farmers will set a monitoring device trap made with yeasted sugar water, which mimics "a fermenting fruity smell," explained Lahiri, so that they can detect the presence of SWDs and apply insecticides accordingly.

Do the bugs cause any harm if you eat them?

The short answer is no.

There are no studies that have found that spotted wing drosophilas -- or other bugs in fruit -- are harmful for human consumption.

As gross as it sounds, Lahiri acknowledges, she says that it's just part of eating fruits, vegetables and anything else that grows out in the field.

"The reality is that most fruits, stored grains, they have some level of insect infestation that is impossible to get rid of," she said.

Having a little bit of these pests is preferable to having a zero-tolerance policy, which forces growers to apply a ton of insecticides -- posing a larger problem for farmers.

Think of it this way: "It’s just having some extra animal protein in your diet."

Follow Joshua Bote on Twitter: @joshua_bote

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Spotted wing drosophila: Bugs in strawberries nothing to worry about