Bee flies

Posted: Friday 21 March 2014
by Kate Bradbury

I saw my first bee-fly this week. It looks a little like a bee, but it hovers and hums like a fly, and has one pair of wings rather than two.

Bee flies

I saw my first bee-fly on Monday. I was at RHS Garden Wisley for a wildlife gardening conference, and popped out at lunch to do a bit of bee spotting. A bee-fly – marvellous.

Ginger and hairy, at first the large or dark-edged bee-fly, Bombilius major, looks a little like a bee. But it hovers and hums like a fly, and has one pair of wings rather than two (bees always have two pairs). The most striking thing about it, however, is its long, rigid proboscis, which it uses to probe flowers for nectar.

I spotted my bee-fly on lungwort, but you may also see them visiting other low-growing flowers such as primrose, violet and bugle. It’s by far the most common of the nine bee-fly species in Britain, and is easily identified by the dark edges to its wings. I’m told they can be quite variable in size – this one was tiny compared to others I have seen before.

Like several species of fly, bee-flies lay eggs in the nests of solitary bees and wasps, particularly ground-nesting species such as the tawny mining bee, Andrena fulva. When a female bee-fly finds such a nest, she hovers near the entrance and then dips her abdomen into the surface of the soil and lays her eggs (some species have been observed flicking their eggs into the nest with their back legs). The eggs then hatch into larvae, which eat the bee or wasp larvae within.

So far this year I have seen three species of bumblebee (buff-tailed, red-tailed and early), two species of butterfly (red admiral and small tortoiseshell) and the hairy footed flower bee. I can now add bee-fly to my geeky list of spring-flying insects. I wonder what I’ll see next?

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patzz 29/03/2014 at 08:07

Hi Kate, I love your blogs. We have the bee fly here too. They fascinate me, busily probing the trumpets of lungwort. Opening the new Spring season for the show to begin.

fidgetbones 29/03/2014 at 10:42

I think bee fly look like the golden snitch out of Harry Potter quiditch. Its the way it darts about.

oldchippy 05/04/2014 at 21:33

While deadheading my daffodils this morning I watched a bee fly at work on my Exochorda The Bride pushing it's long proboscis into the open flowers,this year I have seen more insects must be the warm weather.

Kate Bradbury 09/04/2014 at 09:31

Thanks @patzz!

@fidgetbones Gosh you're right... I'll never look at a bee-fly without thinking of dementors again...

@oldchippy I've seen a lot of insects this spring too. I think last year's warm weather ensured that there were a good number going into hibernation in autumn. And it seems the wet weather since then hasn't impacted much on numbers (that would be my guess). Bumblebee queens everywhere. Is lovely to see.


Dovefromabove 09/04/2014 at 09:59

Huge queen wasp sitting on my car in the sunshine yesterday morning, quite groggy.  I did wait a while but she didn't want to move on and the car was due at the garage in 15 mins, so I encouraged her to climb onto my car key and transferred her onto a dandelion in a sunny patch of lawn - she seemed happy enough