Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Great Impersonators, flower flies

Eristalis tenax, the drone fly, a honey bee mimic
© Beatriz Moisset

Why would one insect want to look like another? There must be some advantage in doing so. When it comes to flower flies the answer becomes apparent after a little observation.

These flies are found visiting flowers rather than garbage or dead meat like some of the flies you are most familiar with. They are rather pretty, with patterns of brown and yellow or black and yellow which easily remind you of bees. I have seen many a photographer deceived to the point of posting a picture of a flower fly claiming that it is a bee.

The goal of this remarkable imitation is not to fool photographers, of course, but rather hungry predators. Flower flies are delicious morsels of food that any bird would readily accept, but the fear of being stung by this bee mimic may lead him to think twice and skip this prey.

Some flower flies are about the size of a honey bee. The mimicry is so convincing that one of them is called the drone fly. Others are smaller and they may be imitating some of the lesser known and very abundant solitary bees. A few are long and thin and look like wasps, rather than bees.

Mallota bautias, a bumble bee mimic
© 2005 Beatriz Moisset
They can be distinguished from bees or wasps by the number of wings. Bees and wasps have four; flies have only two. The back wings have been reduced to little knobs, called halteres, used for balance. The halteres and the number of wings are hard to see when the insect is flitting about. Even when it rests on a flower, you continue to have trouble because a bee's front and back wings hook up appearing like a single unit.

Flower fly (left), bee (right)
Compare the size of the eyes
and the size and placement of the antennae
© Beatriz Moisset
Other differences are more obvious if you train your eye to see them. Flower flies have enormous eyes and tiny antennae that emerge from the front of the head, rather than higher up as in bees. Also flies are almost hairless and their legs are skinny when compared with those of bees. I hope all this helps you and saves you from embarrassing mistakes. I have seen business cards, article illustrations and even a book cover with a fly passing for a bee. So, if you still don't get them right, at least remember that you are in good company.

Toxomerus, mimics of small native bees
© Beatriz Moisset
In England, flower flies are called hover flies, an excellent description of their behavior. Some people in the US are adopting this name, so you may find either term in the growing literature on these interesting and useful insects.

A colorful flower fly
Helophilus, the sun lover
© Beatriz Moisset
These flies feed on nectar; sometimes they also eat pollen, especially the females who need this protein-rich food to produce eggs. This is why they spend so much time visiting flowers. Because of this habit they often end up carrying pollen from one blossom to another. They may not be as good pollinators as bees, but their role is not insignificant and deserves recognition. For instance, the so called drone fly is used to pollinate greenhouse sweet peppers.

Spilomyia sayi, a wasp mimic
© Beatriz Moisset
Let us applaud the bee impostors, flower flies or hover flies, for their role as pollinators.

For more on pollinators and other flower visitors read the e-book:
Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors

© Beatriz Moisset. 2014

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