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Wednesday, 13 May 2009 16:32

The Naturalist's Corner

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What’s that buzzin?

“Daddy, daddy, there’s a yellowjacket in the bedroom!” cried Izzy.

And somehow, the dusty old synapses fired and I replied, “It’s not a yellow jacket, it’s a fly.”

Now, I guess I could have been premature — it wouldn’t have been impossible for it to be a yellowjacket — but the odds were against it. In early May there are few yellowjackets around. All but fertilized queens die in late fall and early winter. These fertilized queens generally overwinter under bark, in stumps and logs and under leaf litter. Some occasionally find refuge in man-made structures, usually barns or other out buildings.

When they do emerge, and it can be as early as early May, these queens immediately get busy building nests and laying eggs that will eventually become those huge picnic spoiling colonies of late fall.

However, now that spring has arrived the odds of a fly slipping in one of the seemingly always-opened front or back doors that serve, like Alice’s rabbit hole, as portals to wonderland for my two little girls, are much greater. But a fly that looks like a yellowjacket? Yep, enter the yellowjacket hover fly.

Hover flies or flower flies are true flies in the family Syrphidae. These flies are noted Batesian mimics. Named from British naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, these mimics, usually insects, closely resemble unpalatable or harmful species and are therefore avoided by predators, 7-year-old little girls and probably a majority of humanoids who, upon hearing a buzz and seeing a bright yellow and black “bee” quickly begin swatting and retreating.

The retreating is not so bad. The hover fly is unscathed and the humanoid gets to breathlessly recount being “that close to being stung by a yellowjacket.” The swatting, spraying, mashing, bludgeoning or other dispatching of the offending “bee” is, however, a sadder affair.

Flower or hover flies are actually quite beneficial insects. Flower flies are major pollinators. In agri-ecosystems like orchards, flower flies out-perform all other native pollinators. The only more productive pollinator would be the honeybee. But honeybees only pollinate. Flower flies are also beneficial as predators. The larvae wreak havoc on aphids, caterpillars, thrips and other harmful insects.

If you can still yourself till the “fight or flight” response passes, it’s fairly easy to distinguish between the yellowjacket hover fly and the yellowjacket. The fly has only two wings. The yellowjacket (and all wasps and bees) has four. Yellowjackets have long antennae. The hover fly’s antennae are shorter than its head. Hover flies actually hover, yellowjackets don’t.

The hover fly’s mimicry doesn’t stop with appearance. Once your logic has overcome your flight or fight response and you have captured the hover fly in your hands, it will press its abdomen to your palm and don’t be surprised if you react by waving your hand and dancing a jig while squealing like a 13-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. That flight or fight response is not called “hard-wired” for nothing.

After two or three captures you will regain your swagger and be one of the first to say, “here, let me take care of that for you.” But as you reach for the culprit you will be going through a mental checklist: two wings, long antennae, it was hovering, right?

This little buzzer is also known as a “buzz bee.” It has the habit of getting in your face and buzzing loudly. In parts of Appalachia it is known as the “good news” bee. The folklore goes: if one buzzes in your ear you will soon experience good news.

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