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What do you really see?
When I first started serious birding, it didn't take long to learn how essential careful and repeated observations are to identifying bird families and species. Learning the ins and outs of bird identification, the challenges that varying light conditions, plumage, individuals, etc. present, you soon realize that unless you're an expert birder, you sometimes won't be able to identify what you are seeing. Which is fine. Humility comes in handy, especially when you discover that you have to admit your identification was wrong.
Now I am observing insects. It is a far more challenging task to identify insects than it is birds. Distinguishing one Order from another is in itself a challenge. And when it comes to species, often you can't do it without magnification and/or a knife. A simple example are the Odanates. The checklist for Dragonflies and Damselflies of New Hampshire includes the following key (you would never find this on a checklist for birds!):
V = visual identification sufficient C = capture and in-hand verification required P = diagnostic photography required S = specimen required
Observer be warned, if you say you have seen a Northern Spreadwing without collecting it as a specimen, then you can't say you saw one.
All this is to set the stage for a discussion about the following photograph:
I was with a group of kids in our learning garden this spring. A little girl looked at a flower and in shock exclaimed, "Oh look a spider is killing a bee!" I took a picture and so did a few parents and we all remarked how sad it was for the little bee. Back home, I downloaded the photo and leapt immediately into identifying the spider. What awful kind of spider would kill a bee? I found an ID for the spider, and sent the image to a few colleagues labeled 'Candy-stripe Spider with a bee'. And then forgot about it. Until a few days ago when I returned to the photograph. I had just been reading more about bee mimic insects. I first learned of their existence last summer when I photographed hover flies (members of the Syrphid family, order Diptera). There must be hundreds of bee mimic species. And not all of them are flies (Diptera) some are beetles (Coleoptera) and I imagine other orders have bee/wasp mimic species as well. The really tricky ones, though, are some of the larger Syrphid flies which at first glance look exactly like bees. You must learn key features in order to more easily tell the flies from the bees. One of these key features are the antennae. Flies have short, stubby antennae. Bees and wasps have longer, elbowed antennae--note the words longer and elbowed. Now, you look closely at the insect in the photograph above. Look at the antennae. Bee or fly? A fly of course--just look at those stubby things!
The flower flies I saw last year were much smaller and looked a lot less like bees than the one with the spider. If you want to compare these mimic flies to bees and look closely at bee antennae, you can start with my album of bee photos. And for a fun challenge, search Google images for bees and see if you find any mimics in the midst. Chances are you will. Better yet, take a long walk in a sunny garden filled with flowers.
This non-biting horsefly is also a bee-mimic. Photographed this summer in New Hampshire.
Keywords: bee mimics, flies, spiders
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