other pollinators

Good-news bees: more than a colorful buzz in the blooms

Good-news bees are yellow hover flies in disguise.

Have you heard about good-news bees? American folklore says they bring us good news. Trouble is, they’re not actually bees. Instead, they are charismatic hover flies.

Inside: Good-news bees are actually flashy pollinating hover flies that mimic southern yellowjacket queens.

Common names for insects are disappearing

I love folk names for insects, much to the irritation of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), which is trying to eradicate them.

Common names get handed down from generation to generation as a type of folklore. Yes, those names are often inaccurate, but they add depth and richness to our heritage that an “approved” common name can not replace. Once the colloquial name is gone, it will be gone forever.

The good-news bee’s true identity

The name “good news bee” or sometimes just “news bee” comes from the behavior of this audacious hover fly. It already has an official scientific name, Milesia virginiensis, and now it has an official common name, Virginia giant hover fly. But how memorable are those names compared to “good-news bee”? Well, not very. Like white noise, those names just disappear into the background.

Being hover flies, these insects can hover in the air like a helicopter. This rather large species (16-24 mm long) has a habit of flying right up to a human, hovering face-to-face, and seeming to make eye contact. The flies have a stout buzz, making them sound like a very large bee. The experience of facing one is a cross between creepy and scary — memorable if nothing else.

So what’s the news?

In the American Southeast, legend tells us that having one of these creatures stare you down means good news is coming your way. Rumor says they stare at you because they have something to say. Hence the name.

But the best news is these hover flies are great pollinators that don’t sting or bite. The hovering/staring behavior appears to be a defensive mechanism, startling predators into having second thoughts about attacking. Certainly, it works for humans who sometimes scream and run for cover.

Good-news bees have other common names, too. Since they are dead ringers for some yellowjackets, they are sometimes called the yellowjacket hover fly or the black-and-yellow hover fly. Other people call them the Virginia flower fly.

Widespread but not common

Along the east coast, these hover flies range from southern Canada to southern Florida, and inland they show up as far west as New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Despite the wide range, they are uncommon and dispersed.

Good-news bees are hilltoppers. Hilltopping is a behavior that helps the males find mates. Since the populations are dispersed over a wide area, the males go to the nearest hilltop and wait for females to join them. For you beekeepers, this is much like a drone congregation area where the drones go to wait for virgin queens.

If you’re looking for these flies, remember that hilltops don’t have to be very high, just higher than the surrounding territory. Hilltopping occurs in the early hours of the day only.

Don’t miss: What’s that springtime red pollen on my honey bees’ legs?

Foraging and nesting habits of good-news bees

Good-news bees are active from April until October, depending on local conditions. While they forage, they especially like sunny patches along deciduous forest edges. If they are around, you can often hear them at a distance because they are large and loud.

They collect both nectar and pollen from large flowers like Hydrangea, Cornus, Ilex, Rosa, Solidago, Sambucus, and Verbascum. But this is just a sample; they enjoy many species of flowers.

The females like to nest in the rotting heartwood of deciduous trees, which is why you can often find the adults at forest edges. 

A good day indeed

If you are lucky enough to be stalked by a good-news bee, take note! It may be your lucky day. And even if nothing else happens, you’ll know exactly who’s been eyeing you.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

The good-news bee gets confused with yellowjackets and bees.
The good-news bee, a hover fly, gets confused with yellowjackets and bees.

Bee with me . . .

Are you being harassed by a single, ruthless bee? See what this might mean and what you can do about it. Are you harassed by a single, ruthless bee?


About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

8 Comments

  • It’s right and proper that the scientific community assign scientific names, so everyone knows whether we’re talking about the same organisms. They are insane if they think they can assign common names. Common names happen because people call something a name and other people start using the name. It might be common in one region while a different name is common in another. That’s why we need scientific names.

    Trying to stamp out all the various common names sounds officious. And tyrannical. And control-freaky.

    And impossible.

  • We LOVE hover flies! The first time I ever “met” one was when my husband Bob and I were camping, and one appeared near a pine tree stump at our campsite. It was fascinating to watch! I quickly learned it was harmless, and often rather comical as it would approach us and watch us. It became a fellow camper to us that week: “Oh there’s Buzz…….Hi Buzz!….Have you seen Buzz yet today?…..Buzz is back….What’s up Buzz?”

  • I love the lore around the “good news bee”! So what does it mean when a male carpenter bee gets in your face?

  • I encountered one this am. I was taking care of my plants on the porch and heard the buzzing. I just turned to look to see if it was a bee, and when he landed on one of the plants, I knew he wasn’t the common bee. I called my husband out to look at him, and he said his father called them news bees. So doing a search on this, I ran across this article. Very interesting as this is the first time I have seen one.

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