The bee-fly

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Wildlife writer Jane Adams is looking forward to her own personal sign of spring – the Mary Quant of the insect world

The dark-edged bee-fly, with a fluffy round body, ridiculously long legs and a protruding tongue
All images Jane Adams

What marks spring’s arrival for you? For some, it’s golden daffodils swaying in the breeze or the haunting call of a cuckoo newly arrived from Africa.
For me, it’s a weird but wonderful insect: the bee-fly.
I never go looking for this little creature, it just seems to magically appear.
On a sunny March day, when
warm sunshine entices me into the garden, I’ll be kneeling, cutting back dead plant stems,
and one will suddenly just be there, buzzing frantically.
There are ten species of bee-fly in the UK, but the one you’re most likely to see in March is
the dark-edged bee-fly. With a fluffy round body, ridiculously long legs and a protruding
tongue, it’s admittedly quite weird-looking. Occasionally, one might land on a dead leaf or
patch of bare earth to sunbathe. That’s when you might spot the dark, jagged pattern on the edge of its wings that gives it its name.
And although this fly might look similar to a bumblebee, it has no sting, it’s harmless – to humans, at least.
It’s also very refined – you won’t find these dainty insects bumping into flowers, like a clumsy bumble. They’re the Chanel catwalk model of the fly world, oozing precision and poise, especially when feeding. With their long delicate tongues, bee-flies delve into the deepest spring flowers for nectar and pollen. All while still hovering. I’ve seen them feeding on primroses, green alkanet, cowslip and dandelions, but you’re likely to find them on other flowers.

The dark-edged bee-fly enjoys sunbathing

The dark side
However, this seemingly benign fly has a dark side. In common with at least 40 percent of
the world’s insect species, bee-flies are parasites. Instead of making their own nests and
laying eggs, females flick their eggs towards the entrance hole of ground-nesting solitary bees. Once hatched, these larvae trundle into the bee nest, eat the food supplies left for the
bee’s young and then consume the bee grubs. But don’t worry. It doesn’t harm bee populations
and has been happening for millions of years. It’s all part of a healthy ecosystem.

The dotted bee-fly

There is another species of bee-fly you might spot in your garden in late March, and that’s the dotted bee-fly (image above).
Not as common as the dark-edged Chanel-look-alike, the dotted bee-fly, with its flamboyant spotted wings, is a raving Mary Quant.

• Jane Adams has a book out this month: Nature’s Wonders: Moments that mark the seasons, published in conjunction with National Trust. You can see our review of it in Book Corner

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