Eristalis tenax, the most photographed “bee” in America
As you might imagine, I read bee-related articles constantly. I find them in magazines, newspapers, journals, websites, presentations, and everywhere else you can image. Usually, these articles include photos, and this is where the common drone fly, Eristalis tenax, has made its mark.
On countless occasions I have written to a publisher and said, “Nice article, but that’s not a bee.” And do they care? No. Do they even believe me? Of course not.
Seriously, they are perfectly happy to show a photo of a fly and call it a bee. Whatever. It seems the readers don’t care, so why should they?
The cause of the problem
Years ago I was mystified by this and I couldn’t understand where all the confusion was coming from. But now it’s crystal clear.
Services that supply photos to writers and webmasters get their images from random photographers. The photographers who take the pictures add tags so people can do a simple search to find the ones they need.
The photographer either doesn’t know what it is—or thinks he does know—and tags the photo incorrectly. So a drone fly that looks more or less like a bee gets its portrait taken and submitted.
If you go to these services and read the tags, a drone fly might have labels like “bee, honey, honeybee, pollinator, beekeeping, beehive, sting, beeswax, buzz” or others. So the editor or blogger who needs a photo searches for the proper tag and picks out his favorite. More often than you can imagine, he searches for “bee” and is rewarded with a handsome shot of a fly.
Drone flies are patient
Now, from years of photographing bees, I can tell you they don’t hold still for the camera. Bees are notoriously hard to photograph, especially the small native varieties. But drone flies? They cooperate fully. They are narcissistic to a fault and will pose for as many angles as you care to shoot. If they do fly away for a moment, they come right back to show off their best side. Easy peasy.
The result is that photographers have zillions of photos of these things. Shot from every angle and on all sorts of flowers, there is a perfect photo for everyone. Only one problem.
I was inspired to write this post when, just last week, I saw one of these remarkable photos on a beekeeping website. It was a close-up shot labeled, “Honey bee on dandelion.” To me, this is seriously bad, even though it was actually a dandelion.
Even if the beekeeper didn’t know it was a fly, he should have known it wasn’t a honey bee. I can’t imagine a person giving beekeeping advice who cannot recognize that some random insect is not a honey bee. Does that make any sense?
Meant to be mistaken
Drone flies are honey bee mimics. They have evolved to look and sound like bees, a deceit that gives them some protection from predators. But a fly looks nothing like a bee, especially when it’s motionless on your monitor.
There are many clues, but the dead giveaway is the antennae. Bees have long and graceful antennae, whereas flies have short little stubs. If you learn nothing else from my rant, learn that.
If you see them in person, flies do that hand-washing thing. When they alight, they rub their forelegs together in a way that looks like they’re washing under a faucet. There are other differences as well, but these are the easiest to see.
One for the books
My favorite fly portrait—a cover girl like no other—is on a book published by Facts on File in 2004. The fly is front and center on the cover, right where everyone can get a good look, and its stubby little antennae are in full view. Most unfortunately, the title of the book is Bees of the World.
Honey Bee Suite