• Christopher Stephens, MSc

Hoverflies: Our Phony Wasps

Harmless Impostor Insects Sport Venomous Look

Wasp Impostor: A Hoverfly turns the Tables by Scaring Away Predators

Nature is famous for its many examples of camouflage. From tigers to sole, from songbirds to frogs, the ways that animals blend in and avoid becoming a meal are diverse and often remarkably ingenious. Pigmentation, shape and behavior are utilized in the bid to blend in.

Hoverflies are incredible little insects found on all continents save for Antarctica. They trick predators into giving up what would be a good meal, thanks to a real life superpower called Batesian mimicry. Named in honor of Henry Walter Bates, an English naturalist who studied butterflies in Brazilian rainforest habitats, Batesian mimicry involves a harmless species developing the appearance of a venomous or otherwise harmful species to deter predators that would otherwise target them.

Wasps and bees are venomous insects and boast black and yellow patterning to warn predators not to try to make a meal out of them. This reality has allowed unrelated, non-venomous species to gain protection by developing imitation warning colors.

This week, the author was fooled by Batesian mimicry when a wasp came through the window during a drive on Vancouver Island. A black and yellow flash through the open window was promptly brushed aside, apparently a wasp killed upon impact with the car. It landed on the seat, but closer examination once stopped revealed a very different reality. A trick of nature had been masterfully played.

The dead insect, presumably armed with a stinger, was actually a brilliantly disguised fly, lacking any venom or real defenses but patterned to look exactly like a wasp. Black and yellow, with clear wings. Saving the specimen in a drink cup allowed it to be placed on a paper backdrop and photographed back in the WildestFacts research lab.

Predators such as birds or even larger insects have great color vision. Seeing the wasp or bee patterning would cause the hoverfly to be classified as a venomous hazard instead of an easy meal. Beneath the black and yellow warning colors and superficially wasp or bee shaped body of a typical hoverfly is a tasty treat, but the predators have no clue what they are missing thanks to the hoverfly's ruse.

Hoverflies have attracted the attention of gardeners and farmers, who encourage them due to their predation upon pests such as aphids. Additionally, the fascinating adaptations of hoverflies have given them some incredibly dedicated human fans. One researcher, Swedish author Fredrik Sjöberg who wrote The Fly Trap collected 202 species of hoverflies, 180 of them coming from his garden alone! The next time you are in a forest, field or garden, check to see which wasps and bees are the bogus ones - hoverflies. And do not get stung by the real bees and vespids!


 © 2020 by Christopher M. Stephens Consulting & Writing

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