Everyone's talking about the drones.
You know, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Those flying robots cruising over our heads--some with cameras for journalistic and research purposes and others with "need-to-know" purposes.
But in the entomological world, the word "drone" usually means a male honey bee. Or a fly. A drone fly.
To the untrained eye, the common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) looks somewhat like a honey bee, and flies somewhat like a honey bee. It feeds off pollen and nectar.
But the larva is known as a rattailed maggot and feeds off bacteria in drainage ditches, manure or cess pools, sewers and the like.
Like a worker honey bee, the adult drone fly is a pollinator and is often mistaken for a honey bee. Unlike a honey bee, however, it has one set of wings, large eyes, stubby antennae, and a distinguishing "H" on its abdomen.
Coming soon to a field near you--a drone (flying robot) and a drone fly (flying fly). Neither causes diseases nor sucks blood.
The drone fly, aka European hover fly, aka syrphid fly, doesn't get as much press as the other drone, the unmanned aircraft.
But the drone fly (Eristalis tenax), about the size of a honey bee and often mistaken for a honey bee, makes for great in-flight photos. It's sort of the Fat Albert of the Blue Angels.
Last weekend we watched a drone fly (distinguished by the "H" on its abdomen), hovering over an Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule). The rain-battered poppy certainly wouldn't have won any gold awards in a county fair's garden show.
But to the drone fly, bent on foraging, this was gold. It emerged with "gold dust" (pollen) on its head.
Yes, its larva are known as rat-tailed maggots and yes, they frequent manure piles, sewage drainage ditches and other water-polluted areas.
But the adults are pollinators. Significant pollinators, at that.
'Cept when it's a fly.
Lately we've been seeing lots of images on social media (including Facebook and Twitter), news media websites, and stock photo sites of "honey bees."
But they're actually flies.
Will the real flies come forth?
Today we saw several drone flies, Eristalis tenax, sipping nectar from our Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, jokingly calls this drone fly "the H bee." Why? There's an "H" pattern on its abdomen.
The drone fly and honey bee are similar in size and both are floral visitors in their adult stages. However, the drone fly is quite distinguishable from a honey bee. The fly has large eyes, stubby antennae and one pair of wings.
The larvae of the drone fly is a rat-tailed maggot that lives in drainage ditches, pooled manure piles and other polluted water.
Unlike a honey bee, the drone fly "hovers" over a flower before landing. The fly belongs to the family Syrphidae (which includes insects commonly known as flower flies, hover flies and syrphids) and the order, Diptera. The honey bee is Apis mellifera, family Apidae, order Hymenoptera.
The case of mistaken identity can cause excruciating pain. A journalist will spend half a day interviewing bee experts about bee health--investigating colony collapse disorder, malnutrition and Varroa mites--only to have a copy editor illustrate the prized bee story with a fly. It's more horrific than Halloween.
Likewise, Facebook editors have been known to turn a fly into a bee faster than the beat of a wing. And photographers who know more about "F" stops than "H bees" post misindentified photos on Flickr or sell their mislabeled images to stock photo businesses.
The old saying, "If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck" doesn't ring true in "the drone bee vs. the honey bee" identity crisis.
If it looks like a bee, acts like a bee and buzzes like a bee, it may be...a drone fly.
Poet Gertrude Stein, who coined "A rose is a rose is a rose," probably would have liked it.
Julia Child, maybe not.
We purchased a "Sparkle and Shine" yellow rose, related to the Julia Child Rose, last May at the rose sale sponsored by the California Center for Urban Horticulture, University of California, Davis. It's drawing quite a bit of attention from insects in our yard.
And not just from honey bees, earwigs and spottted cucumber beetles.
We recently spotted this drone fly (Eristalis tenax) foraging among the blossoms. Startled by the camera movement, it kept flying off, only to return within seconds.
At first glance, non-entomologists would probably identify it as a honey bee. It's a floral visitor, right?
Right. But not all floral visitors are flies, and not all pollination involves bees.
Wikipedia says that in its natural habitat, the drone fly "is more of a curiosity than a problem, and the adults are benficial pollinators."
It's the larva, the red-tailed maggot, that makes some people shudder. The larvae, as Wikipedia says, live "in drainage ditches, pools around manure piles, sewage, and similar places containing water badly polluted with organic matter."
So from a pool around a manure pile to a beautiful Sparkle and Shine yellow rose. Who would have thought?
"If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck," or so the saying goes.
But if it looks like a honey bee, moves around on blossoms like a honey bee, and feeds on nectar and pollen like a honey bee, it may not be a honey bee.
It could be a flower fly or syrphid in the Syrphidae family.
The syrphids suffer from multiple cases of mistaken identity.
One of the syprhids commonly mistaken for a honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the drone fly (Eristalis tenax).
We spotted a drone fly--the first we've seen this year--on Feb. 5 in Tomales, Marin County. It was nectaring a pincushion flower (Seabiosa columbaria) at the Mostly Natives Nursery.
"There's a bee!" someone exclaimed.
It wasn't. It was a drone fly.
In its larval stage, it's known as a rat-tailed maggot. You'll see it in stagnant water, such as in ditches, ponds and drains. It feeds on stagnant rotting organic material.
In its adult stage, it moves from flower to flower, sipping nectar and pollinating flowers. Watch it hover and you know it's not a honey bee. Look at its two wings, and you know it's not a honey bee (the honey bee has four).
Lots of other differences, too.
It's a good pollinator, but a honey bee, it is not.