Drosophila are small flies, typically pale yellow to reddish brown to black, with red eyes. Many species, including the noted Hawaiian picture-wings, have distinct black patterns on the wings. The plumose (feathery) arista, bristling of the head and thorax, and wing venation are characters used to diagnose the family. Most are small, about 2-4 millimetres long, but some, especially many of the Hawaiian species, are larger than a house fly.

Drosophila are found all around the world, with more species in the tropical regions. They can be found in deserts, tropical rainforest, cities, swamps, and alpine zones. Some northern species hibernate. Most species breed in various kinds of decaying plant and fungal material, including fruit, bark, slime fluxes, flowers, and mushrooms. The larvae of at least one species, D. suzukii, can also feed in fresh fruit and can sometimes be a pest.[2] A few species have switched to being parasites or predators. Many species can be attracted to baits of fermented bananas or mushrooms, but others are not attracted to any kind of baits. Males may congregate at patches of suitable breeding substrate to compete for the females, or form leks, conducting courtship in an area separate from breeding sites.

Several Drosophila species are closely associated with humans, and are often referred to as domestic species. These and other species have been accidentally introduced around the world by human activities such as fruit transports.