Census population size, sex-ratio and female reproductive success were monitored in 10 laboratory populations of Drosophila melanogaster selected for different ages of reproduction. With this demographic information, we estimated eigenvalue, variance and probability of allele loss effective population sizes. We conclude that estimates of effective size based on genefrequency change at a few loci are biased downwards. We analysed the relative roles of selection and genetic drift in maintaining genetic variation in laboratory populations of Drosophila. We suggest that rare, favourable genetic variants in our laboratory populations have a high chance of being lost if their fitness effect is weak, e.g. 1% or less. However, if the fitness effect of this variation is 10% or greater, these rare variants are likely to increase to high frequency. The demographic information developed in this study suggests that some of our laboratory populations harbour more genetic variation than expected. One explanation for this finding is that part of the genetic variation in these outbred laboratory Drosophila populations may be maintained by some form of balancing selection. We suggest that, unlike bacteria, medium-term adaptation of laboratory populations of fruit flies is not primarily driven by new mutations, but rather by changes in the frequency of preexisting alleles.