Wild in the city: Bee flies are fluffy, but not so cute

Isabel Hardman
·2-min read
 (Isabel Hardman)
(Isabel Hardman)

From a distance Bombylius major looks just like a bee, all fluffy and brown. But closer up, you’ll spot that this bee appears to have a ludicrously long tongue: one that’s as long as its own body. Its wings don’t look quite right for a bee, either. So what is it?

Handout
Handout

Bee flies aren’t anywhere near as well-known as the bees they resemble. The dark-edged bee fly, B. major, is the most widespread, with the other species rather unlikely to pop up in London. This bee fly has a light brown body and wings with chocolate-coloured edges. Its legs are longer and more noticeable than the little stumpy ones you’ll see on bees, but the most obvious difference is that long tongue, or proboscis, which makes it look like a carnival mask of a bee.

This long tongue allows the bee fly to slurp up nectar from deep within flowers like violets and primroses when it first emerges in the spring.

We might not be very familiar with bee flies, but we are also astonishingly ignorant of our real bee species. Many of us do not know, for instance, that honeybees aren’t always native or that keeping them isn’t always very good for the genuinely wild populations of bees in a local area — or indeed that they are only one of around 270 different bees in the UK. Most of these species aren’t honeybees at all, but solitary bees. Bumblebees, which the bee fly closely resembles, aren’t the only fluffy types either: the hairy-footed flower bee has a lovely amount of bristle to its body too.

Bee flies are some of the earliest flies to appear, and as well as mimicking bumblebees, they also rely on bees for part of their lifecycle. Their young parasitise solitary and ground-nesting bees. The females lay their eggs close to the entrances to these bee nests, and flick them further towards the entrance hole so that the larvae can hatch and feast on the young bee grubs. This is the rather less cute and fluffy side of the bee fly, which seems so innocent on first glance, with that cheeky long tongue stuck out at you as you try to work out what on earth it is.

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service

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