How do you describe a dark-edged bee-fly (Bombylius major)? I asked a colleague whether I could get away with “flying mole”. She suggested “flying teddy bear” instead. And then there is the unmistakable similarity to a hummingbird. Go into a garden, or anywhere flowery, during a sunny interlude, and you can decide for yourself.
Here in our village, bee-flies are easy to see in numerous sheltered spots at the moment, to-ing and fro-ing between the ranks of grape hyacinths and primroses. They are diminutive bee mimics, with rotund bodies covered in fuzz, making them look like effervescent fluffy balls of nervous energy.
Each bee-fly uses the delicate hovering skills that you expect from the famous glinting birds, and carefully slots its long proboscis into the tubular flowers, one by one, drinking nectar or extracting pollen. The wings are smart black in front, with transparent trailing edges, and are held open at 45 degrees when their owners finally come to rest in the sun. They are little characters with great charisma, and if a PR company were hired to make much-maligned flies (Diptera) acceptable to the general public, they would come up with Bombylius and make cuddly toys out of them.
There would have to be a general hush about their lifestyles, though. Attractive though bee-flies are, they all have something of a past. Every individual comes into this world at the expense of a brood of solitary bees.
You can occasionally see adult female bee-flies furtively hovering near the small entrance holes made by the burrowing bees, and if very fortunate you might notice an odd flicking action of the abdomen as they do so. Amazingly, the bee-flies are literally hurling their eggs, which they have covered with sand granules to avoid desiccation, towards the hole. The lucky ones hatch adjacent to the entrance and the larvae then enter and feed on the pollen provided by the solitary bee for its grubs. After this act of food vandalism (kleptoparasitism), the bee-fly larva metamorphoses and turns its voracious appetite to the sweet flesh of the grubs themselves, causing parasitoid carnage.
It’s the stuff of horror that is routine in the insect world. But it still feels detached from the sheer charm of the hovering beauties at the spring blooms.
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