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Eristalis tenax, the most photographed “bee” in America

As you might imagine, I read bee-related articles constantly. I find them in magazines, newspapers, journals, websites, presentations, and everywhere else you can image. Usually, these articles include photos, and this is where the common drone fly, Eristalis tenax, has made its mark.

On countless occasions I have written to a publisher and said, “Nice article, but that’s not a bee.” And do they care? No. Do they even believe me? Of course not.

Seriously, they are perfectly happy to show a photo of a fly and call it a bee. Whatever. It seems the readers don’t care, so why should they?

The cause of the problem

Years ago I was mystified by this and I couldn’t understand where all the confusion was coming from. But now it’s crystal clear.

Services that supply photos to writers and webmasters get their images from random photographers. The photographers who take the pictures add tags so people can do a simple search to find the ones they need.

The photographer either doesn’t know what it is—or thinks he does know—and tags the photo incorrectly. So a drone fly that looks more or less like a bee gets its portrait taken and submitted.

If you go to these services and read the tags, a drone fly might have labels like “bee, honey, honeybee, pollinator, beekeeping, beehive, sting, beeswax, buzz” or others. So the editor or blogger who needs a photo searches for the proper tag and picks out his favorite. More often than you can imagine, he searches for “bee” and is rewarded with a handsome shot of a fly.

Drone flies are patient

Now, from years of photographing bees, I can tell you they don’t hold still for the camera. Bees are notoriously hard to photograph, especially the small native varieties. But drone flies? They cooperate fully. They are narcissistic to a fault and will pose for as many angles as you care to shoot. If they do fly away for a moment, they come right back to show off their best side. Easy peasy.

The result is that photographers have zillions of photos of these things. Shot from every angle and on all sorts of flowers, there is a perfect photo for everyone. Only one problem.

Mistaken identity

I was inspired to write this post when, just last week, I saw one of these remarkable photos on a beekeeping website. It was a close-up shot labeled, “Honey bee on dandelion.” To me, this is seriously bad, even though it was actually a dandelion.

Even if the beekeeper didn’t know it was a fly, he should have known it wasn’t a honey bee. I can’t imagine a person giving beekeeping advice who cannot recognize that some random insect is not a honey bee. Does that make any sense?

Meant to be mistaken

Drone flies are honey bee mimics. They have evolved to look and sound like bees, a deceit that gives them some protection from predators. But a fly looks nothing like a bee, especially when it’s motionless on your monitor.

There are many clues, but the dead giveaway is the antennae. Bees have long and graceful antennae, whereas flies have short little stubs. If you learn nothing else from my rant, learn that.

If you see them in person, flies do that hand-washing thing. When they alight, they rub their forelegs together in a way that looks like they’re washing under a faucet. There are other differences as well, but these are the easiest to see.

One for the books

My favorite fly portrait—a cover girl like no other—is on a book published by Facts on File in 2004. The fly is front and center on the cover, right where everyone can get a good look, and its stubby little antennae are in full view. Most unfortunately, the title of the book is Bees of the World.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A drone, Eristalis tenax, fly on forget-me-nots.
A drone fly on forget-me-nots. Pixabay photo.
A fly in the center of a red flower, "washing" its hands.
A fly in the center of a flower. Note the “hand washing.” Pixabay photo.
A drone fly, Eristalis tenax, on green flowers.
A drone fly, Eristalis tenax, on green flowers. Pixabay photo.
A drone fly, Eristalis tenax, on an orange flower.
A drone fly, Eristalis tenax, on a composite flower. Notice the short antennae. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Peter Borst
Reply

Hi all
A friend of mine used to call them “good news bees.” When I asked why, he said “the good news is — they don’t sting.” Apparently, there’s more to it than that: “In the southern United States, sometimes called the news bee or good news bee for its habit of hovering in front of a person and ‘giving them the news.'”

Pete
🐝

Rusty
Reply

Pete,

I’ve also heard the southerners call them “steady bees.”

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Rusty,
Locally (here in Kentucky) it’s Hover flies that are called “steady bees”
They’re smaller and have a flatter abdomens than drone flies.
It is frustrating when misinformation finds its way to a book cover. You may prompt them to print a correction, but by then the mistake is “halfway around the world,” as Twain said about lies.
Happy New Year!
Nan
Corinth, Kentucky.

Ken
Reply

Bees are somewhat round. That fly looks somewhat flat.

Ken Matley
Reply

A local (Portland) periodical did a cover story on honey bees for Earth Day last year. Sure enough the cover photo was a drone fly.

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

That’s so funny, but I’m not surprised.

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

Yup. There’s always someone ready to take all the credit!

Ray
Reply

We call them hover flies in the UK, easily identified by the way they, you guessed it, hover!

Adrienne Welch
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Yep, there seem to be posers everywhere these days….

Years ago I too was momentarily fooled by a drone fly, thinking I had just seen a “bee” foraging in my garden. But then I looked at it, really looked at it and noticed it had only one pair of wings, not two as do honey bees.

For me, that was the easiest identifier that I was looking at a fly, not a bee.

Rusty
Reply

Adrienne,

For me, it’s harder to see the wing count, especially when they’re folded over the abdomen. But flies tend to hold their wings out to the side more frequently than bees, except for leafcutters.

Debby Williams
Reply

The wings are very different! First thing that caught my eye.

Cyrus Farivar
Reply

The Drone fly in the forget-me-nots has a companion which is more obviously a fly but none the less available to see the similarity.

Mike Serio
Reply

To bee, or not to bee!

ah that is the question?
Reply

It is sooooo good to get the press! and then there are soooo many things that are misinformation in our communication rich world. Pity those who don’t do the research!! Mind sometimes I listen to stuff and my tongue is tied by my training to “doubt” everything, and what is the evidence? Ah such lovely philosophical stuff arises in this bee world.
Thanks all!

MarianA
Reply

Is the top lateral stripe on the abdomen always partial? That could be an easy visual cue.

Rusty
Reply

Marian,

I believe it is. I’ve never seen an example of a drone fly where stripe that goes all the way across. That said, some bees have stripes that don’t go all the way across, like the European wool carder that is widespread in North America.

MarianA
Reply

It’s not just bees.

We’re birdwatchers who use their ears a lot.

On most commercials when a Bald Eagle is shown, they play the call of a Red-tailed Hawk. (I guess nobody believes that the national bird has a whistle-y, strident call.) When we had people in a wilderness park, a high-soaring Red-tail let out a yell. Someone on the walk looked up and said “There’s a Bald Eagle up there.” We had to burst their bubble….

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Hey Rusty
I was scrolling to find another of your posts and I somehow am seeing this one for the first time.

We made a poster of fly photos if you want to post the poster or the link. The diversity of flies that mimic bees is astounding. The photos were all shot in Thurston County, WA.

By the way, when I tell folk to count the number of bees in the poster — and the caption makes it pretty clear that all are flies — I get almost every number from zero (the correct answer) to 16.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_EX2PkudcjGMjl3UzNZZUQ2c3c/view?usp=sharing

Glen, with thanks

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

That’s so funny. After all, the poster clearly states they are flies. It’a great poster and clearly shows what great mimics flies can be.

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