Little Pretenders: Hoverflies

Hoverfly on red scabious
A marmalade hoverfly on red scabious. (The commonest hoverfly in the UK.)

This year I’d like to make my garden a bit more wildlife-friendly. (You can see my previous posts about gardening for bees – Bees’ Needs: Flowers! and Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees – by clicking on the links.)

Bees are not the only pollinators that I’d like to encourage in the garden. Hoverflies are important for pollination and their larvae have a valuable role as predators of aphids and other garden pests. (There are always plenty of greenfly around here, so there should be plenty to keep any hoverfly babies munching!)

It can be easy to confuse hoverflies with bees or wasps. (They don’t sting but they mimic stinging insects so that birds are less likely to try eating them.) If you look at the photo of the honeybee below, you can see that there are differences between the common ‘marmalade hoverfly’ and the bee.

Bee on tithonia 2587
Not a hoverfly! This one is a honeybee (on a tithonia flower).

The bee here is generally a bit more furry-looking. (You can just see that there is a hairy patch on the front of the bee’s head and that its thorax is also hairy. Compare that to the thorax of the hoverfly, which is shiny and looks almost metallic in the sun.) The hoverfly has much shorter antennae and has just two wings, whereas the bee has four wings. (It’s hard to see that in the photo. You might just about be able to spot the separation at the back edge of the two wings on the nearest side of the bee.)

However, there are many other types of hoverfly (over 270 in the UK) and some look much more like bees than these. There is a difference that will help you tell which is which. Hoverflies have large eyes which cover the front and side (i.e.most) of their faces. A bee has eyes on the side of its face and they are much smaller and an oval shape.

It’s likely that some of the different ‘bees’ I thought I’d spotted in the garden were really hoverflies. Maybe I’ll learn to identify some of them… if I can move quick enough to photograph them!

Hoverfly on giant scabious
Hoverfly on Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious).

It’s very worthwhile to grow flowers that will attract these useful little beasties. They have shorter tongues than bees, so aren’t attracted to some of the deeper, bell-shaped flowers (e.g. foxgloves and penstemons) that bees like. Instead they prefer more open flowers where the nectar and pollen is easy to get at. They really like the daisy types like the aster below and umbellifers such as the fennel and wild carrot that grow in the garden here. One of the flowers that I often find them on is the scabious – as you can see from the photos.

I like watching hoverflies dart around amongst the flowers. They are fast and very agile (even flying backwards) and they add to the feeling of life and energy in the garden. I hope to see lots more of them this year – and maybe a few new ones – even if they do fool me into thinking that they may be bees or wasps!

Hoverfly on aster 2468
Hoverflies like daisy flowers, like this aster.

16 thoughts on “Little Pretenders: Hoverflies

    1. Thank you! 🙂 I don’t usually move fast enough to be able to get a good photo – they do move so fast – but sometimes I sneak up on one that’s taking it easy!

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      1. I love hoverflies but am not always quick enough to get good shots of them although there’s always loads in my garden. Excellent pictures of them on your flowers, and the lovely bee picture too.

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      2. Thanks Jill! I must admit that I’m not usually fast enough to photograph the critters that come into the garden – but it helps if they’re busy feeding or having a wee rest! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I think hoverflies were the first pollinations I learned to identify after I realized everything out there wasn’t a bee! I can spot some differences among them now, but one of my goals for theyear is to get better at identifying them.

    Of course, once I figured out there are hoverflies, I was left to realize there are honeybees and native bees — of all sorts. Gracious.

    Your photos are lovely: so crisp and clear. I assume you were using a macro lens. I really need to work with mine, as I’m often too far away (or something) and end up having to crop to get a large enough image of the insect.

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    1. Actually, the lens was a Canon EF 24-70mm zoom. It gives about 3/4 life-size at the 70mm end and has image stabilization, so it works well for close-ups when I don’t want to use a tripod. For these pictures I did crop quite a lot off. I don’t think I’d manage to capture insects with a macro – they’d be gone before I got them in focus!

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  2. Love the hoverfly shots and info. Now I have to go back and see if I have hoverflies around here, or are they really bees. We seem to have really large black ones in the hot of the summer. Enjoyed the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Syd! There are lots of different kinds of hoverflies, so you’ll probably have some that we don’t. I think that the size of the eyes and their shape is probably the easiest way to tell the difference…have fun! 🙂

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  3. Your images are very special. We reduced the tree cover in our garden last year so hopefully this year will the first year for ages that I can attempt to grow a bigger variety of flowers to attract more bees and hoverflies, so many thanks for the added inspiration in terms of plant varieties.

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    1. Thank you Stephanie! I’m sorting out our garden after a few years of not having time for much of it…so now I get to replant areas for hungry critters. 🙂 I hope they approve, hehe!

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  4. I love these little bee mimics. We get a lot of them along our driveway gardens and one of their neat features is some prism effects when the light hits their wings just right. I can usually recognize them but it’s the bee-flies that confuse me. 🙂

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    1. I think I’ve seen bee-flies here – looking like dark-coloured bees but I’m not at all sure. This summer I’ll be looking at all the critters more carefully!

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