A Very Tiny Visitor

It’s a wasp, it’s a bee, no, it’s a hoverfly!  At least that is my deduction at the moment; any entomologists reading this are welcome to correct or confirm my identification.

I was walking around the garden looking for anything on which to use the macro feature of my camera – this is how I procrastinate garden chores. The bright orange of the calendula petals seemed perfect.  It wasn’t until I squatted down that I noticed the tiny insect.  It was less than a centimeter long. My first thought was that it was a small bee, but I know that many flies mimic bees.  I suspected it was a fly, and later searched for its identity online.  I think it is a hoverfly.

Hoverfly on a calendula petal.

Hoverfly on a calendula petal.

Hoverflies do look like bees.  Albeit so small it seems they couldn’t possibly hurt a fly, and they don’t.  Aphids though are another story.  Hoverflies exhibit mimicry.  Mimicry is an adaptive mechanism in which an organism looks like or imitates some protective mechanism of another organism to escape danger, yet they do not actually have the protective mechanism.  Hoverflies look like bees, but have no stingers.

Mimicry occurs through the process of evolution.  Very simplistically, a mutation would cause a hoverfly to look more like a predacious wasp or bee (or whatever the mimic-model relationship).  If the mutation then allowed the organism to better escape predation, it would be considered more successful than its fellow species that have no mutation.  In ecology, successful means a higher chance of survival and production of offspring.  These offspring would have the same mutation.  This happens slowly over many generations (unless you have a very high generation rate like bacteria) and eventually the species changes. There are three main categories of mimicry: defensive, aggressive, and reproductive, and there are different types within each category. Hoverflies exhibit Batesian mimicry, which is in the defensive category.

Mimicry, as well as many other evolutionary processes, has always fascinated me.  But what fascinated me most when I looked at my picture were simply the details of this tiny body.  The rich brown eyes are beautifully paired with the buttery-yellow antenna (more properly described as the annatto-yellow of commercially processed butter).  Then there are its delicate yellow legs walking on the knife-edge of the flower petals, an expert tightrope walker with no need for a safety net.  Hoverflies, as their name implies, can hover.  Of course with six legs and wings for balance, it is probably never in danger of tipping and falling.  Hoverflies can also fly backwards.  This is apparently a skill unique to the Syrphidae, the taxonomic family to which this hoverfly belongs.

Hoverfly adults feed primarily on nectar and are considered an important species for cross-pollination.  Adults sometimes feed on the honeydew produced by aphids.  The larvae feed heavily on aphids and are therefore a welcome agricultural insect.  So, to many, the hoverfly is a ‘good guy’.  I’m far from perfect, but I try not to evaluate other organisms from my human perspective.  In other words, I don’t like to use the terms good or bad to describe an organism or to place organisms on a hierarchy.  I know I am guilty of this judgment when it comes to the invasive plants at Halcyon, but I am trying to develop a tolerance for them.  It is not easy!

I think it is natural though to like or to dislike certain organisms even when we understand that all life is tied together in intricate ways we may never fully know or appreciate.  I really like this little hoverfly.  I think he is exquisite – males have rounded abdomens and females have pointed abdomens.  I think he is so exquisite that I spent several hours trying to identify the species.  I quickly got bogged down in the anatomical vernacular that went way beyond my rudimentary knowledge of head, thorax, and abdomen, but I narrowed it down to three possibilities:  Toxomerus geminatus, Toxomerus marginatus, or Eupeodes corolla.

Finding and learning about this little hoverfly was a pleasant diversion from garden tasks in the heat.  I should get out there soon and get some weeding done before it rains, and leave my camera inside.  On second thought . . .

Calendula flower

Calendula flower

2 thoughts on “A Very Tiny Visitor

    • Yes, and a cute find at that! I just read tonight that they can be found in large numbers hovering together and definitely helping with pollination.

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