Wednesday, October 20

Sussex Wildlife Trust

- April 3, 2012

The Fly Whisperer

Authors Mike Russell and Graeme Lyons

Some people have an ability to communicate with all sorts of animals like cats and dogs while there are now even celebrity horse whisperers, but for me, it seems like I have an affinity with flies! While enjoying a short break in the Woods Mill garden this morning I noticed this lovely insect on the bench next to me so I coaxed it onto my finger where it sat for ten minutes.

It looks just like a bee but is in fact a fly and therefore to simplify things it is commonly known as a bee-fly. Scientifically it is called Bombilyus major; what an absolutely brilliant name!

This is one of the first insects you see when the weather starts warming up in the spring, so the unseasonally warm weather we are experiencing at the moment has brought it out even earlier. The characteristic pear-shape and the long proboscis makes it fairly easy to identify but you usually notice it hovering a few metres above the ground or extracting pollen from a nearby flower, so to see one sitting quietly on a bench is fairly unusual.

The benign appearance of this insect belies a rather gruesome lifestyle. Females have this fantastic ability to flick their eggs while hovering into the tunnels of other ground breeding species such as solitary bees. On hatching the worm-like maggot will then wait and tell the host eggs pupate and the bee-fly larvae will then attach itself to the host and then suck out the body fluids, a process known as hypermetamorphosis.

Despite this unpleasant process, it still felt a privilege to have this species resting unconcerned on my finger; although I did check for any signs of eggs once it flew away!

Graeme Lyons adds
After taking the photo of Mike’s bee-fly Bombylius major, I headed out onto Woods Mill to look for invertebrates. I barely got 200 metres from my office when I saw a bee-fly nectaring on red dead-nettle. I noticed it had a dark bum and this triggered a memory of seeing dotted bee-flies Bombylius discolor, last year in April on some chalk downland near Kingston. I netted it and confirmed it was discolor, a nationally scarce species being a little larger with distinct ‘dots’ on its wings. I showed it to a few people in the office, including Jane Willmott. I continued my walk and met Jane coming the other way where she had spotted another one! After three bungled attempts I netted the very fast fly and confirmed its identity. No records for Woods Mill and then two within an hour!

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