Hoverfly – The Bee that Isn’t


Hoverflies are important pollinators that mimic bees and wasps. Although they look like bees, they are actually flies. Photo credit: Kara Jones

When is a bee not a bee? When it is a hoverfly! Hoverflies are flies that look like bees or wasps. Their disguise is very good and casual observers often mistake them for small bees or wasps. Hoverflies, also known as Syrphid flies or flower flies, are found on every continent except Antarctica. They belong to the family Syriphidae and there are approximately 6,000 species of hoverflies. Several species are native to Kentucky.

Like their look-a-likes, hoverflies are important pollinators. However, unlike their look-a-likes, they rarely get the recognition they deserve. The adult hoverflies feed on nectar and pollen. They can often be found hovering above or perched on a flower. It is thought their hovering behavior might help them avoid the many predators like spiders and assassin bugs that hide among the flowers waiting for unsuspecting prey.

hoverfly vs bee

How to tell the difference between a hoverfly (top picture, photo credit: Aiwok) and a bee (bottom picture, photo credit: Gary Craig).

The hoverfly larva or maggots are aphid predators. The adult female hoverfly will lay her eggs on a plant with aphids. After a few days the egg hatches and a larva emerges. One researcher reported that a single hoverfly larva could eat over 30 aphids in a single day! Because hoverfly larva can eat so many aphids, some places are starting to use hoverflies for biological controls in the same way that ladybugs are sometimes used to control aphids.

So how can you tell whether the “bee” you see on the flower next to you or hovering over your arm is really a bee or just a hoverfly? Perhaps the easiest way is to look at its face. Hoverflies have giant “fly eyes” that cover most of their face. Bees have much smaller eyes in proportion to their heads. Hoverflies also have one set of wings, while bees have two sets of wings. Being able to quickly tell how many wings the insect in question has comes with practice. However, once you “get it,” it becomes a very reliable and quick method of distinguishing between flies and bees at a distance. Another method is to look at the antennae – bees also have longer antennae than hoverflies.

So next time you see a bee at your flowers, take a second look. Is it a bee or is it a hoverfly? Both are important Kentucky pollinators.

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2 thoughts on “Hoverfly – The Bee that Isn’t

  • Karyn Johnson

    Hi Shannon. I’m an instructor at UNR Cooperative Extension. I’d like permission to use your comparison image (bee vs. hoverfly) for my pollinator presentation For the Nevada Naturalist program next week. We won’t sell or give away the image, but we like the way that you have illustrated the similarities and differences between the two species. If you don’t want us to use it, please let me know and I’ll respect your wishes. Thanks a bunch from all of us! Karyn Johnson