Is a mosquito an animal anyway

Dung bees and skulls

From the life of our hover flies

Hoverflies are the most elegant flight artists among the insects. With up to 300 wing beats per second, they can stand in the air like a hummingbird. You maneuver in a flash, are just as fast in forward and reverse gear.


  • Hover fly on chicory - photo. Helge May

  • Late cerebral hover fly on chicory - Photo: Helge May

  • Wasp hover fly on hawthorn - Photo: Helge May

  • Club-grass hover fly - Photo: Helge May

  • Hornet hover fly (= large forest hover fly) on girl's eye - Photo: Helge May

  • The bee hover fly (= large mulm hover fly) is one of the particularly early species. - Photo: Helge May

  • Copulation of bumblebee softwood hoverflies (Temnostoma bombylans) - Photo: Helge May

  • Egg-filled hoverfly female - Photo: Helge May

  • Hoverfly larva and pumpkin spider - Photo: Helge May

  • Hoverfly doll - Photo: Helge May

In the height of summer, the meadows have long been mowed, and the roadsides are also militarily short. There is little to be had there for flower visitors. All the more traffic there is now on the weeds of the hedges and on fallow land. Knapweeds and mallow bloom, St. John's wort, tansy and wild carrots. Beetles cavort here, butterflies flutter and bumblebees land.

The flight artists among the insects, however, are the elegant hover flies. With up to 300 wing beats per second, they can stand in the air like a hummingbird. You maneuver in a flash, are just as quick in forward and reverse gear. If you want to take a closer look at hoverflies, you have to approach carefully or hope that the disturbed insect only hits a few hooks and returns to the food source after a few seconds.


Important pollinators

Male skull hover fly - Photo: Helge May

Adult hoverflies feed exclusively on nectar and pollen; they are our most important pollinators alongside bees. Hoverfly larvae are completely different, here the spectrum ranges from herbivores and garbage eaters to predators and parasites. The larvae of some species live in wooden mulms, mine in leaves or eat their way like those of the daffodil hover fly in flower bulbs. Others nest in bumblebee or ant burrows.

The quite common skull hover fly, on the other hand, lays its eggs in dung heaps. Its name comes from the type of drawing on the chest which, with a lot of imagination, is reminiscent of a skull, but could just as easily be interpreted as a Batman silhouette. But “bat hover fly” has obviously not caught on.


Over the Alps

Grove hover flies on tansy - Photo: Helge May

The wedge-spotted hoverflies also like it dingy. The popular name “dung bees” reveals the direction: their so-called rat-tail larvae, with their several centimeters long breathing tubes, are at home in heavily polluted puddles and cesspools - a biotope that hardly any other living beings can challenge them.

From a human point of view, the predatory hoverfly larvae are much more sympathetic because they are more useful. Around a hundred native species have specialized in the extermination of aphids, including the larvae of the hover fly, aka winter hover fly. Although only a few milligrams light, the winter hover fly, like the swamp hover fly and the cerebral hover fly, migrates south in autumn and returns in spring; it even crosses the Alps. However, some females overwinter in mild locations, so that you can find them even on sunny winter days.


Biological pest control

Hoverfly larva - Photo: Helge May

The grove or winter hover fly lays its several hundred eggs directly on aphid colonies so that the maggot-like larvae find a richly laid table. The larva goes through two moults and develops a greater appetite from time to time. By the time it finally pupates, the hoverfly larva will eat several hundred aphids in just ten days. The finished hover fly hatches from the pupa after a week.

Hoverfly larvae are now also used for biological pest control. The mail order business offers units of 500 eggs each - with corn aphids as travel provisions, in case larvae should hatch en route. Hoverfly larvae have so far been used almost exclusively in commercial horticulture, but could of course also do their job in private gardens. The only downer: The legless hoverfly larvae on very hairy plants such as tomatoes or cucumbers are overwhelmed because they constantly get stuck. Ladybug larvae or lacewing larvae are better used here.


Looked closely

Do they sting? No, they don't sting, they just pretend. Hoverflies have neither a sting like bees and wasps, nor a prick or saw nose like bed bugs or mosquitoes. And hoverflies don't bite either, because their mouthparts are like small swabs with which they lick up and suck in pollen and nectar.


  • Common snout hover fly - Photo: Helge May

  • Shiny Wedge-Spotted Hover-Fly (Eristalis rupium) - Photo: Helge May

  • Large swamp hover fly - Photo: Helge May

In order to scare off birds and other predators, hoverflies with their often black and yellow abdomen markings make themselves more dangerous than they are. When they sit still, you can see that hover flies only have one pair of wings - like all flies. The second pair of wings is stunted to tiny stumps, the so-called swinging bulbs. Wasps and most other insects, on the other hand, have four wings. The hoverflies also lack the proverbial wasp waist between chest and abdomen. Their three-part antennae are also significantly shorter than those of bees and wasps. But many birds don't look that closely either and leave the hoverflies alone.

Long-bellied hover fly on bedstraw - Photo: Helge May

In Germany alone there are around 450 species of hoverflies, some only five millimeters in size, others up to two centimeters. Some are slim, others plump, some are thickly haired, others shiny and smooth. Not all of them are drawn according to the wasp species, some look more like honeybees or bumblebees and ore hoverflies are largely black.

Except for a few typical species, it is quite difficult to tell apart hoverflies safely. In flight anyway, but even good photographs are not always enough because, for example, the species only differ in terms of the sexual organs hidden inside the body. Men and women are usually drawn differently. If not, the sexes can be determined based on the eyes, because the distance between the eyes is always narrower in the males, and they often collide completely.

Helge May


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