Flower Flies: More Than They Appear to Bee

Photo credit: Dr. Andrew Young

A close-up of a striped flying insect.
Photo credit: Dr. Andrew Young

While butterflies and bees grab most of the headlines, there are several other impactful species responsible for pollinating plants. Some of these do a tremendous job of blending in with the more famous pollinators.

If a black and yellow flying insect has ever startled you in the garden, you may have been fooled by a fly. Many adults in the fly family Syrphidae, or flower flies, are bee and wasp mimics. They have evolved to look like bees to warn predators to leave them alone, despite being unable to sting or bite.

Spot an Imposter

One of the simplest ways to distinguish these impostors – if you can get them to sit still – is that adult flies only have two wings, while bees and wasps have four. Flower flies use these wings to hover in place, suspended in the air much like a hummingbird. This remarkable feat has led to them sometimes also being known as hoverflies.

Main Meals

Adult flower flies feed primarily on flower pollen and nectar. As they snack, their fuzzy bodies help pollinate the different flowers they visit. These pollination services are essential to supporting our native ecosystems and agricultural crops. 

Why Should we Protect Them

We can help protect the flower fly populations by providing habitat patches and connections with plenty of flowers throughout the seasons. Flowers will ensure these pollinators have a secure diet during the times of year they are active and a way to get from place to place.  

The larvae also provide valuable ecosystem services. Some species feed on decomposing material, helping to break things down to make nutrients more readily available to other organisms. Other species feed primarily on soft-bodied insects such as aphids, which are a major agricultural pest.

As insect biodiversity suffers losses globally, it’s important to acknowledge, honour and support species that are often overlooked. Just like butterflies and bees, flower flies are vital to our ecosystems throughout their different life stages, even if they’re typically unnoticed.

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