I might have spoken too soon about the advent of spring - some of us (myself included) got a sizeable dump of fresh snow over the weekend! 

I am cautiously hopeful, however, that the tentative sunbeams breaking through this week will melt away the remaining patches and herald Spring’s comeback, so I can crack on with my gardening (boy, is there plenty of that to do!) and enjoy the emerging wildlife. 

One critter to watch out for at this time of year is the bee-fly, which can start appearing on sunny March days in search of spring flowers.

Bombylius major. (Photo: Will George)

Their Latin family name, Bombylius, hints at their bee-like appearance – all fuzzy and buzzy – but although they also feed on pollen and nectar, these are in fact flies, not bees.

We have four species of bee-fly in the UK, all having a long, straight proboscis, dark fly-like eyes and legs, and bee-like fuzz across their body. If they get cold, they’ll rest vertically, head upwards - sometimes for days on end until, prompted by warmth, they take to the air in search of flowers. Our two most common species are both on the wing in March and April - see if you can spot one!

Dark-edged bee-fly, Bombylius major, has black-edged wings (Photo: Will George)

The UK’s most common bee-fly is Bombylius major, the dark-edged bee-fly, which seeks out sunlit patches to bask in. It often turns up in gardens and hedgerows, from the Channel coast to Southern Scotland. This plump, furry bumblebee impersonator has rust-coloured hair, and a high-pitched buzz. Can be distinguished by the black markings along its upper wing edges. 

Dotted bee-fly, Bombylius discolor, has spotted wings (Photo: Andreas Eichler)

Also on the wing in spring is the dotted bee-fly (Bombylius discolor) which as the name suggests can be distinguished by the pretty black polka-dots across its wings - if it keeps still long enough! The females are also adorned with a line of white spots, resembling a pearl necklace, along the abdomen.  Generally found south of Warwickshire. 

THE DARK SIDE

We all love pollinators, right? But bee-flies have a dark side, too. They don’t just mimic bees, they also parasitise them. Although adult bee-flies feed on (and spread) nectar or pollen, their carefully camouflaged eggs are flicked or dropped into the nests of solitary bees, where they hatch and devour the bee larvae. The survival of the bee fly is thus tied to the success of our bees. 

 

NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH

Bee-flies are not the only pollen-loving bee impersonators. Also emerging are…

Hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii)

More wasp-like, with defined, gleaming yellow and black markings and pointy rear end, but given away by its big, red-tinged fly eyes. Hoverflies have a distinctive helicopter-like flight pattern, quite unlike the looping bee flight. Commonly found in a wide variety of habitats from March through till November. 

Narcissus fly (Merodon equestris

Another furry, bee-impersonating, nectar-feeding fly, but this is more closely related to the hoverfly. These ones are furry with black eyes and are named for their association with members of the daffodil family - females lay their eggs on dying leaves and the larvae burrow into the bulb underground, which can kill the plant. 

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So there you go… I am clearly not the expert in declaring the winter weather to be over, so I shall leave it to our fascinating minibeasts to do that for me. See if you can spot a bee-fly browsing your spring blooms - and if you get a decent photo, do send it in

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