Is it a Bee or a Fly?

This winged creature appreciated the sunflowers in the garden

In North America, the word “fly” might bring to mind the peskiness of the house fly, the impressive size of the horse fly, or the bite of the deer fly. And to many of us, the answer to the question: Can you distinguish between flies and bees? would be, of course.

But there is an entire family of flies, Syrphidae, who make it their business to mimic bees and wasps. And they are pretty darn good at it. In my early days of photographing insects (not that long ago) I often thought I was taking pictures of a very small bee or wasp. But when I got inside and took a look at the enlarged photos on my laptop, I realized here was something distinctly not a bee or wasp. With the help of bugguide.net, I’ve been making progress in learning about the flies I share my world with. They are a fascinating addition to my life: sometimes comical looking, often quite beautiful.  

Eristalis trasversa – the Transverse Flower Fly, another view

One characteristic of flies is that they have one pair of wings. Bees and wasps have 2 pairs. Also, although we call several insects by the name ‘fly,’ with real flies (Order Diptera), the word ‘fly’ is a separate word. Crane Flies and March Flies are flies, but butterflies and dragonflies are not. Not all flies are called flies – mosquitos and midges are flies, too.

I recently discovered a very good resource with a side-by-side comparison of flies and the bees and wasps they mimic: All About Hoverflies. I’m pretty sure that based on the information on this webpage, I can identify the fly in my photo as a male. Males have bigger eyes that come close together at the top of the head.

When I started taking photos of bugs and insects, I would not have guessed that flies would become a favorite, or that I’d get pretty geeked out about being able to tell the males from the females.

UPDATE: If you’re on your way to getting geeked out about bees, here’s a short lesson in how to spot imitators: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/14/science/is-it-a-bee-or-something-else.html

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