If you've ever wanted to learn how to tell the difference between a honey bee and a drone fly, head over to the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis, during the 102nd annual campuswide UC Davis Picnic Day on Saturday, April 16. The overall theme of Picnic Day is "Cultivating Your Authenticity." The Bohart Museum's theme: "Real Insects and Their Mimics."
The Bohart, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, is ready for your questions. They'll be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The drone fly (Eristalis tenax) or European hover fly, is about the same size as a honey bee (Apis mellifera) and has similar coloring. They both visit flowers and sip nectar. But the drone fly has what appears to be an "H" on its back. The "H" does not stand for honey bee--but don't tell the fly that!
What is a drone fly? In its immature (larva) stage, it's known as a rat-tailed maggot. It lives in drainage ditches, manure piles and puddled, polluted water. The honey bee larva does not live in drainage ditches, manure piles, and puddled, polluted water.
But what a great mimic the adult drone fly is--so great that's it's commonly mistaken for a honey bee. One of the most memorable cases of misidentification occurred on the cover of Bees of the World, by Christopher O'Toole and Anthony Raw. Someone--not them--selected a fly for the cover. Major metropolitan newspapers, nature magazines, stock photo agencies and bee fundraisers have all made the same mistake. Here's a honey bee. Nope, that would "bee" a fly.
A quick way to tell the difference between a honey bee and a drone fly:
Honey Bee: Four
Drone Fly: Two
Honey Bee: Elbowed antennae
Drone fly: Short, stubby antennae
Honey Bee: Moves pointedly to a flower; it does not hover
Drone Fly: Hovers and moves erratically
Honey Bee: Workers (and queens) can sting
Drone Fly: Does not sting. Does not bite.
Bottom line: Don't apply the "Duck Test" to honey bees and drones ("If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck").
"If it looks like a bee, buzzes like a bee, and visits flowers like a bee, well, you know, it may not be a bee; it may be a fly."
If there's one thing that entomologists hate, it's journalists who mistake a fly for a bee.
To entomologists, it's like mistaking a referee for a football player (well, they are on the same playing field) or a model airplane for a Lear jet (well, they do share the same sky) or a Volkswagen for a Ferrari (well, they do share the same road).
No. No. No.
Fact is, some journalists are so busy meeting deadlines that they don't stop and smell the flowers--or see what's foraging on them.
It's not just the news media. Lately we've been seeing dozens of drone flies (Eristalis tenax) masquerading as honey bees (Apis mellifera) in stock photo catalogs, on Facebook and Flickr pages, and on honey bee websites. Last week an environmental friendly organization attacked a pesticide company for killing bees but posted a photo of a fly instead of a bee on its website. Another faux pas: a fly showed up on the cover of the celebrated book, Bees of the World.
Gee, if it visits flowers, it must be a bee, right? Wrong. Not all floral visitors are bees.
If it's a pollinator, it must be a bee, right? Wrong. Flies can be pollinators, too.
If it visits flowers, pollinates flowers, and is about the size of a honey bee, it's a honey bee, right? Wrong. Those three descriptions fit drone flies, too.
Three of the easiest ways to differentiate a fly from a bee:
- A fly has one set of wings. A bee has two sets.
- A fly has short, stubby antennae. A honey bee doesn't.
- A fly has no corbicula or pollen basket. A honey bee (worker bee) does.
Bottom line: if you're not sure if it's a fly or a bee, contact an entomologist near you.
'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.
To bee or not to bee.
Not to bee.
The flying insect hovering over the
It's commonly known as a hover fly, drone fly, flower fly, syrphid fly or "syrphid," says Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis who researches native pollinators from his headquarters in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on
"These are good honey-bee mimics," he said, "but note the short stubby antennae and bulging face." Also note the large eyes! (Reminiscent of the eyes of the male honey bee, the drone).
The hover fly moves like a helicopter, holding perfectly still for a moment or two, and then darting upward, downward and backward in flight.
Unlike bees and wasps, syrphids have two wings, not four. Also a syrphid-notable: black and yellow stripes on their abdomen. The coloring helps fool would-be predators.
In their larval stages, syrphids dine on plant-sucking pests like tasty aphids, thrips, mealybugs and scales, or munch on decaying matter in the soil or in ponds and streams.
They're the good guys. And girls.
These beneficial insects are like the ladybird beetles (aka ladybugs) and lacewings of the garden. In their larval stages, they prey on pests, and in their adult stages, they pollinate flowers.
Prey 'n pollinate, that's what they do best.