Tag Archives: hoverflies

Is it a bee or a hoverfly?

From top left clockwise (if you are looking at the images in landscape – 3 pics over 3 pics) : Batman hoverfly (Myathropa florea); Marmalade fly (Episyrphus balteatus) ; the footballer (Helophilus pendulus); Hornet mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria); common drone fly (Eristalis tenax); common-banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii). Photo Credit: Penny Metal

All these insects are harmless hoverflies mimicing a stinging insect to protect themselves. This characteristic is called Batesian mimicry after the British naturalist, Henry Bates, who wrote about this concept in 1861 while exploring the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately this can make it difficult to tell bees and hoverflies apart.

Here are some simple rules to help us sort the hoverflies from the bees:

  1. Hoverflies hover near to flowers, unlike most bees which fly between the flowers (although in spring, the Hairy-footed flower bee displays a darting, hovering motion).
  2. Hoverflies have one pair of wings, and bees have two. However, it can be quite tricky to see the bees two pairs. When it comes to wings, I find that hoverflies usually rest on a flower or leaf with their wings out at 45 degrees, (like the Marmalade fly above), whereas bees have their wings tucked in nearer to their body.
  3. Hoverflies tend to stay still for much longer than a bee, so are easier to photograph.
  4. These common hoverflies range in size from the 9mm slim Marmalade fly to the more stocky 10-14mm Common-banded, Batman, Footballer and Common drone fly (which mimics a drone honeybee), and the large 20mm Volucella zonaria which, as its English name tells us, is a hornet mimic hoverfly.
  5. They are generally less fluffy and cute than bees. (Though there are some hairy hoverflies, called Narcissus flies, that fly from May to August and are excellent bumblebee mimics. They lay their eggs on narcissus plants (daffodils).
  6. They have much bigger eyes than bees.
  7. They are very common on ivy; so if it’s not an ivy bee, a honeybee, or a buff-tailed bumblebee, it will be one of these common hoverflies.
  8. These common hoverflies are still flying in November when most bee species aren’t.
  9. The hornet mimics fly between September and November.
  10. None of these hoverflies sting, even the hornet mimics.

The more you look, the easier it will become to distinguish hoverflies from bees. There are around 300 different species of hoverfly in the UK, but the ones above are those you may be confusing with bees because they are so widespread and easy to spot.

Their English names are derived from their markings:

  • The Batman hoverfly has a distinctive black Batman markings on its thorax.
  • The Marmalade fly has orange markings with thick and thin black bands across it.
  • The Footballer has vertical stripes on its thorax like some football club strips. But its Latin name Helophilus pendulus is much more interesting. It means ‘dangling marsh lover’ and it can be found in ponds, puddles and wet ditches as well as sunny areas of a garden.
  • The Hornet mimic hoverfly is a big, scary looking insect. As its name suggest its appearance is hornet-like. Although it’s harmless, if in doubt stay away.
  • The Common drone fly is stocky and brown like a male honeybee. However, it flies from March to November, whereas male honeybees are only around from May to September and are rarely seen on flowers. So if you think it’s a male honeybee, chances are it’s actually this hoverfly.
  • The Common banded hoverfly has a black body covered in yellow bands and is one of our most common species of hoverfly.

Are hoverflies important? Yes, they are important pollinators and their larvae eat lots and lots of aphids.