What insect is this?
If you said a European honey bee, you are wrong. But you wouldn’t be alone in your mistake. It is, in fact, a drone fly (Eristalis tenax) from the Diptera family Syrphidae (the hoverflies). That’s right, a fly. Not even related to the honey bee.
Eristalis tenax is quite easily mistaken for a honey bee, which is the evolutionary goal of its confusing looks. This is an example of Batesian mimicry. The drone fly doesn’t sting, but it mimics the feisty European honey bee’s appearance so it has a better chance of tricking predators into avoiding it.
And it has done a pretty good job of fooling humans too. Drone flies are also important pollinators, which is why there are so many lovely photos around of them reclining on flowers, just waiting to be mistaken for bees. These pictures are too often found in headline images on ‘save the bees’ stories, campaigns and teaching resources. Is this a problem?
It depends how you look at it. Of course, fact-checking before spreading information will save your reputation! But is it simply a matter of ‘taxonomy fail’? What broader effect does a mistake like this have?
If you bait-click the imposter image because you care about honey bees, you probably won’t care so much that the picture is not really a bee. But think about it from the opposite angle. Honey bees are not the only pollinators, they are not even the most efficient pollinators in some contexts. So using a picture of a drone fly to promote the honey bee, is kind of like using an understudy to advertise the famous lead actor…without acknowledging the understudy, or the tireless work they’ve been doing behind the scenes.
Don’t get me wrong, I love honey bees as much as you do. But there are thousands of other insect pollinators that are overlooked every day in ‘Save the Bees’ campaigns. Honey bees are just one of over 20,000 bee species in the world. Not to mention the hundreds of wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, sawflies and thrips humming about in the chorus line. We need ALL these pollinators, not just honey bees, to keep ecosystems, farms and gardens producing flowers and food. Some of these other pollinators, especially the hoverflies, have one up on the honey bees – not only are adults important pollinators, the larvae are voracious little predators of insect pests.
So, apart from a bit of embarrassment, there may not be any terrible consequence from using a picture of a hoverfly to campaign for the honey bees. But the other side of the coin is far better for everyone. Give Eristalis its name back, and campaign to ‘save the pollinators’ and all their ecological interactions, not just the honey bees. As an added bonus, our broader knowledge of taxonomy, ecology and conservation issues will benefit.
© Manu Saunders 2015