Bee-flies and false widow spiders top Museum enquiry

Apr 17, 2014 by Nicola Pearson
Bee-flies and false widow spiders top Museum enquiry
Large bee-fly, Bombylius major, is a parasite but doesn't bite, sting or spread disease.

Do bee mimics sting or arachnids bite are the most frequent questions put to our identification experts.

Pass by the offices of the Museum's Identification and Advisory Service (IAS) this month and you're quite likely to spot someone clutching a jar containing a bee-fly.

Even though the large bee-fly, Bombylius major, is fairly common in gardens and woodland in southern Britain, particularly during the spring, people are intrigued when they see what looks like a hairy bee with a high-pitch hum and frequently ask the Museum to identify them.

'People are spotting more of these flies that look like in their gardens, not because they're becoming more common,' said Museum fly expert Erica McAlister, 'but because the public are generally more aware of bees because we know there's a shortage of them.'

Large bee-flies fly from late March to the end of May and look like a cross between a bee and a giant mosquito. Even though they have a long thin tongue (proboscis) that looks like it could hurt, bee-flies do not sting nor spread disease and are harmless to humans.

The long proboscis is actually used for feeding on flower nectar. These bee mimics hum and hover in front of flowers like bees but, unlike bees, when they feed they perch on the flower with their long legs.

The other main difference between the two is that bee-flies have a single pair of wings, whereas bees have two.

'I have a large soft (and fluffy) spot for these flies,' Dr McAlister wrote in her blog last year. 'They have the most fascinating ecology. They're parasites of bees and wasps, they're some of the earliest flies to emerge in the season and, I think, some of the most attractive.

'They are often very hairy and fly low down to the ground. There have been sightings near the Museum and I can't wait to see one. But hurry as they are early season fliers and they like warm and sunny days.'

There are nine species of bee-fly in the UK. Bombylius major, the most common, has a strong dark mark across the front half of its wings. The rarer Bombylius discolor has a spotty wing edge.

The adults search for nests of , wasps and beetles and when they find one, hover near the nest entrance and dip their abdomen into the surface of the soil to lay their eggs. The hatched larvae then lives off (parasitises) the bee, wasp or beetle larvae.

During the autumn, false widow spiders replace the bee-fly as the most popular request by the public for identification from the IAS.

False widow spiders, of which seven species have been recorded in the UK, are among only a dozen or so of the UK's 650 species of spider that are capable of biting humans. But spider bites are extremely rare within the UK.

'Even in homes with several resident false widow spiders you are statistically far more likely to be stung by a wasp or bitten by a dog,' said Stuart Hine, Manager of the IAS.

Explore further: Jaws meets kangaroo? Rare, cute pocket shark found in deep

Related Stories

1st 'zombie' bees on East Coast found in Vt. (Update)

Jan 28, 2014

Vermont beekeepers say they face mite infestations, extreme temperature swings and the possibility of colony collapse. But a San Francisco State University professor says a new threat has arrived in Vermont: zombie bees.

Swarm-like behavior of red mason solitary bees

May 05, 2011

Have you seen what looks like a bee swarm in your garden recently? Well, if you think you have, it is more likely to be a gathering of harmless red mason bees than a swarm of aggressive bees.

Urban bees using plastic to build hives

Feb 11, 2014

Once the snow melts, Canada's bee population will be back in business—pollinating, making honey and keeping busy doing bee things. For at least two urban bee species, that means making nests out of plastic waste.

Recommended for you

Research shows impact of BMR on brain size in fish

15 hours ago

A commonly used term to describe nutritional needs and energy expenditure in humans – basal metabolic rate – could also be used to give insight into brain size of ocean fish, according to new research by Dr Teresa Iglesias ...

Why do animals fight members of other species?

Apr 23, 2015

Why do animals fight with members of other species? A nine-year study by UCLA biologists says the reason often has to do with "obtaining priority access to females" in the area.

Dolphins use extra energy to communicate in noisy waters

Apr 23, 2015

Dolphins that raise their voices to be heard in noisy environments expend extra energy in doing so, according to new research that for the first time measures the biological costs to marine mammals of trying ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.