Not everything that buzzes is a bee. Even some of the buzzers that look like bees may just be faking it. I didn't realize how many insects pretended to be bees until recently, but there are a lot of them. There are flies, beetles and moths that pretend to be bees.
I discovered my first "bee fakers" earlier this year while taking a family stroll. We were walking past some older trees when my wife pointed to huge numbers of bumblebees flying around the trunk of one of the trees. That made me curious, since bumblebees nest underground and I had never seen them flying around a tree like that. These "bees" were crawling into crevices in the bark and roosting together, something a bumblebee doesn't do.
I grabbed my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects when I got home and quickly discovered that I had found a type of flower fly, probably a Mallota species. The larva of these insects has been found in the rotten wood in tree holes. We must have stumbled on them just as the larva were transforming into adults.
Photo by by Dave Cooney
A bumblebee on knapweed.
My searches through the Internet and my nature library didn't turn up any more information than that. With insects, it's possible that not much more is known. There are more than 8,000 insects that can be found in New York and 422 of those are bees. There is no definite count for bee mimics in the area.
Pretending to be something you are not is fairly common in nature. Animals often want to appear bigger and tougher than they really are. This is true of everything from bugs to birds and snakes to sixth-graders.
Naturalists call animals that are pretending to be something else "mimicry." Mimicry is the art of pretending to be something that you are not. Nature is full of examples. There is a hover fly that looks like a honeybee. There are beetles that look like wasps and moths that look like hummingbirds.
The big question is, "How do you know if it's real or fake?" The easy way to tell is to pick the insect up and see if it stings. Of course, many bees have to be really provoked to make them sting. The harder way is to catch it and look very closely at it with the aid of a magnifying glass and get a very detailed field guide.
Flies only have one pair of wings. Bees have two pair of wings. These may be next to impossible to see while the insect is moving, but you may get a glance at this if the insect is still. Some bees have very tiny hind wings, which may be difficult to see.
In general, bees won't sting unless you give them a reason, like picking them up to see if they are really a bee. Unless you step on them or get too near their home, they will leave you alone.
Nowadays, no bee article is complete without a discussion of the decline of honeybees. Whole honeybee hives suddenly disappeared a couple of years ago and yearly losses of hives has ranged from 31 to 35 percent since, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. So far, this has not been enough to affect food production.
Many people don't realize that honeybees moved here in colonial times. They were brought over from Europe and have been competing with native bees ever since. Karen Goodell, a researcher at Rutgers University, has found that honeybees can cause a decline in native bee species. They do this in part by being such efficient pollen collectors that there is less food to go around. With less food, native bees have fewer young. Honeybees are also notorious for the large number of parasites they get. When there are honeybees in an area, these parasites may also affect native bees. More research is being done on the dynamics between native and non-native bees. There are currently 22 species of bees that have been introduced to North America.
Bees come in all sizes, shapes and colors, from the tiny sweat bee to metallic green bees to bees that are black. Every year brings more of them to my attention and I discover, over and over, that there is more to nature than any one person can ever learn. The world is full of infinite variety and every day can be full of discovery and wonder.
Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, located at 1600 Riverside Road. Visit www.jamestownaudubon.org or call 569-2345 for more information.