What is That … a Bee or a Fly?


When is a bee not a not a bee?  When it is a fly.  Thank goodness, we learned something new during this topsy turvy winter.  Learning keeps us young and on our toes.

Some of the buzzing insects visiting our flowers at the cottage and which we had assumed were bees are, in fact, flies.  Nature often plays tricks on us, designing one species to mimic the look or behaviour of another with the consequence that the mimic derives some of the benefits of the animal being mimicked.  In the case of bees and flies, as you no doubt know, bees sting; flies do not.

The first two of the following three photographs are of two different species of bee fly.  You can see that at rest their wings are spread horizontally whereas a true bee’s wings would lay over and closer to its back.  Also, the bee fly’s body lacks the pinched ‘waist’ of a bee and its general look is less fuzzy than the bumble or honey bee.  The similarities, though, are enough to sometimes fool insect-eating birds which do not want to be stung while eating their dinner.  Sometimes, they fool us too.

The third picture in the string below is of a syrphid or hoover fly which also mimics bees.  The syrphid fly’s body tends to be more slender but the colours of its abdomen are also yellow-black.  They visit flowers as do bees and are major pollinators of some flowering plants.

In September 2017, we got all excited because we finally saw and photographed our first honey bee at the cottage.  In fact at the time, we had doubts and thought it was a skinny bumble bee but our friends on the Facebook Insects and Arachnids of Ontario page were certain it was a honey bee.  Perhaps the wind blew it in to our little lakeside neighbourhood.  We subsequently learned that honey bees are not native to North America.  Early settlers imported them from Europe to provide a source of sugar.  The Ontario government refers to them as an agricultural import.

Of Ontario’s 16 species of native bumble bees, we know we have at least three at Three Mile Bay.  We saw and photographed two types of bumble bee over our first 10 years at the cottage, the tricolored bumble bee and the common eastern bumble bee.  We were thrilled to learn during the winter that one of our 2017 pictures was of a northern amber bumble bee … so now we have three.  Of the three following pictures, the first is of the tri-colored bumble bee; the second is the northern amber; and, the third is of the common eastern bumble bee.  But what is that yellow/orange patch on the last bee’s hind leg?  Some bumble bees have concave regions on their hind legs where they gather their collected pollen for transportation to their nest.  These patches are known as pollen baskets.  We cannot help but smile when we say that our common eastern bumble bee is carrying a basket of pollen.

Bumble bees range in size from 13 to 23 millimetres long, while the bee flies we have seen are much smaller with the largest we have seen being around 8 millimetres.

We also now know that while bee flies mimic bees, they are more closely related to the common house fly than to the bumble bees … so much to learn.

In preparing this article, we referred to: beespotter.org; Nancy Lawson’s The Humane Gardener; ontarioparks.com; and, Paul H. Williams’ Bumble Bees of North America.